How to Create an Orton Effect in Photoshop (Step-By-Step Guide)

How to create an Orton Effect in Photoshop

Even if you’ve never heard of the Orton Effect, I can guarantee you’ve seen the technique used at some point. The Orton Effect was developed in the darkroom, but it successfully made its way into the brave new world of digital image processing – and now, decades later, it’s regularly used by photographers to give their images a subtle glow.

Creating an Orton Effect in Photoshop is a fairly simple process, and once you understand the basics, you’ll have no problem adding it to your editing workflow. Below, I explain my simple, step-by-step process for adding a customizable Orton Effect to an image, and I also offer a few tips for implementing the Orton glow along the way.

Let’s dive right in!

What is the Orton Effect?

The Orton Effect is essentially a method for producing soft, pictorial-style images – but it goes so much farther than a simple soft-focus look.

(Where did the effect get its name? The inventor, who came up with the approach in the 1980s, was named Michael Orton!)

The original method involved capturing at least two frames (and often more) of transparency film. You would photograph your subject in focus – and then you would take a second frame, still of the same subject, but this time the subject would be deliberately out of focus and the image would be slightly overexposed. You would then sandwich the frames together to produce what Orton himself called a “painterly” photograph.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop
I’ve applied a strong Orton Effect to this landscape image. Note the bright highlights and soft glow, especially on the grasses and lone tree.

As I said, the Orton Effect was originally applied in the darkroom, but thanks to the power of Photoshop, we can easily recreate the effect. As with most things in Photoshop, there are numerous ways to achieve a similar result. However, the method I share below not only produces the Orton Effect from a RAW file, but it also works very quickly, plus it gives you powerful control over the resulting look.

How to create the Orton Effect in Photoshop: the basics

Now that you know what the Orton Effect is and how it works, let’s walk through my favorite way achieve the look in Photoshop, starting with:

Step 1: Select and edit your RAW file

You can create the Orton Effect with a straight-out-of-camera JPEG, but I always like to start with a RAW file and apply some basic edits in Lightroom. That way, you can ensure that your image is looking its best before you send it over to Photoshop.

Note that the Orton Effect can be applied to any image, but you’ll generally want to make sure that the approach fits the subject matter. In other words, when choosing a photo to use, ask yourself: Would a soft, pictorial look suit this photo? Or would it look strange?

I like to use Orton on my nature images, especially breathtaking landscapes and close-up shots of plants, where the effect can enhance the sky and/or any shallow depth of field effects. However, I wouldn’t be alone in suggesting that the Orton glow looks a bit odd when applied to a gritty street photograph or a tack-sharp product photo filled with lots of fine detail.

Here’s the example image that I’ll use for this Orton Effect tutorial:

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

The next part is important – don’t skip it! Right-click on the photo, then select: Edit In>Open as Smart Object in Photoshop:

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Converting the image to a Smart Object is a crucial step in this process. Yes, it will increase the file size, but it comes with so many benefits that it shouldn’t be avoided. (What are these benefits? I’ll explain more in a second!)

Step 2: Copy the Smart Object

Once the image loads as a Smart Object in Photoshop, you can begin replicating the Orton technique.

The first thing you need to do is copy the base layer (i.e., your original image). But don’t simply duplicate the layer; instead, right-click on the base layer and select New Smart Object via Copy:

How to Create an Orton Effect in Photoshop (Step-By-Step Guide)

(In other words, you should make sure that your duplicate layer is also a Smart Object.)

Going back to the darkroom process, think of this second layer as your frame of unfocused transparency film. This layer will add not only the necessary blur but also the slight overexposure.

Also – and this goes back to why you converted your photo to a Smart Object to begin with – you can now manipulate all the edits you applied in Lightroom while you’re working in Photoshop. It’s all done in Adobe Camera RAW. Just double-click the image to bring up the ACR panel, and make adjustments as needed.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

This allows you to stay completely flexible while you apply the next steps of the Orton Effect!

Step 3: Apply a Gaussian Blur filter, then brighten the image

Make sure the new copy of your Smart Object layer is selected, because that’s where you’ll apply the blur effect.

Simply select Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur in the main menu:

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

You’ll see the Gaussian Blur dialog box, and you can tweak the blur Radius slider as needed.

(The optimal Radius setting depends on your image size and the degree of blurring you want to achieve. Larger-sized images from high-megapixel cameras generally require a larger radius to create a noticeable result.)

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Once the image is blurred, hit OK. Then head over to the Layers panel and set the Blending Mode to Screen.

Not only will this help merge the painterly blur layer with the original image, but it’ll also brighten the result. Talk about two birds with one stone! You can always adjust the opacity of the upper layer until it reaches the desired effect.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Step 4: Refine your Orton Effect

Pat yourself on the back – you just made your very own Orton Effect image! But you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) stop there. At this point in the process, I like to make adjustments to my settings that refine the Effect further, and I encourage you to do the same.

For instance, you can make additional adjustments to the opacity of the layer to soften the effect. You can also use a Brush to selectively remove the effect from areas of the image (you’ll need to use a layer mask for this; simply apply it to the upper layer, make sure the mask is white, then paint in black where you don’t want the glow to appear).

Also, don’t forget: Since the image is a Smart Object, all the adjustments in the Camera Raw editor are still at your disposal. All you have to do is double-click the image thumbnail in the Layers panel, and the ACR window will reappear!

How to create the Orton Effect in Photoshop: final words

In just a few steps, we went from this:

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop
My image before applying the Orton Effect.

To this:

How to Create an Orton Effect in Photoshop (Step-By-Step Guide)
The same image, this time with the Orton Effect applied.

And if you want to watch me apply the effect step-by-step, here’s a video walkthrough of the process:

The Orton Effect is a super cool editing technique that’s rooted in the golden days of film and darkroom processing. Today, we have digital wizardry at our disposal that can get the same results – so use the technique I shared to start making your own dreamy images!

It’s easy, fun, and unlike in the darkroom, mistakes cost nothing. Happy Ortoning!

How to create the Orton Effect

Now over to you:

When will you use the Orton Effect to enhance your images? Share your thoughts – and your Orton examples! – in the comments below.

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