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  • Ed Dozier

The Orton Effect

Michael Orton is a photographer who wanted to re-create the look of a water color painting with film. He invented a technique that combines slides containing a sandwich of in-focus and de-focused images. Michael originally called his technique “Orton Imagery”, but now everybody just calls it “the Orton Effect”. When digital photography came along, people wanted to emulate this effect using software.

Perhaps the most famous use of this effect is in the Hobbit movies. People knew the “look” was different, but they couldn’t put their finger on what the difference was.

I really love the look of the Orton Effect for certain kinds of subjects. Just like cupcakes, though, you may like them but they're less than ideal as a steady diet. Everything in moderation.

A straight shot

The Orton Effect (Capture NX2, blur radius 25)

A Few Ways To Create The Orton Effect

Many different photo-editing packages have the capability to create the Orton Effect. Some examples are Gimp, Photoshop, and Nikon Capture NX2. Maybe one of these days, your camera will have an “Orton Effect” setting to create it directly.

Nikon Capture NX2

I must be one of the last hold-outs on using Capture NX2. I have a zillion batch files to process pictures using this software; one of them is, of course, the Orton Effect.

The first step is to set the Output curve to a value of 3 in "Levels & Curves". Leave other settings at their defaults.

Second step: Set a Gaussian Blur value to around 25. Use a blending mode of “Multiply”. The radius value here should be set to suit your subject matter.

Third step: Set a midpoint value to “2” in Levels & Curves. Alter the blending mode to “Multiply”.

There you have it. At this point, it would be prudent to save your steps as a Batch Process (Batch | Save Adjustments… | Save As | OrtonEffect).

Now, you can select photos and run the batch process on them to get the Orton Effect without having to memorize any more steps. You might want to save a few different batch files, setting a different Gaussian Blur radius in each one (the “second step”).

The Orton Effect (Capture NX2, blur radius 35)

For simple subject matter, I prefer a larger blur radius. For you, sprinkle to taste.

Adobe Photoshop

First, duplicate the photo and call it “Sharp”

Second, right-click on the “Sharp” layer, select “Duplicate Layer…”. and name it “Sharp copy”. Select “Screen” for the blending mode of this layer.

While “Sharp copy” is still selected, right-click and select “Merge Down”. You will be left with just the “Sharp” and “Background” layers.

Right-click on the “Sharp” layer, select “Duplicate Layer…” and name it “OutOfFocus”.

With the “OutOfFocus” layer selected, go to “Filter | Blur | Gaussian Blur” and set a radius suitable to the effect you want. No details should be visible, but you can still make out shapes.

Set the “OutOfFocus” layer blending mode to “Multiply”.

All that’s left is to save your final image in whatever format you prefer.

Finished Orton Effect using Photoshop


I would encourage you to explore this processing technique. It can transform a blah photo into something special. I find that purely literal recording of images can start to feel a bit mundane. Try something on the wild side once in a while.

Michael Orton did some really pioneering work in photography. We owe him a big thank you.

It does look a little like a watercolor painting, doesn't it?

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