Perfecting the Orton Technique in Photoshop

Add Dream-like Effects to Your Images

The Orton technique is named after its creator Michael Orton. He developed the technique back in the 80’s with slide film, sometimes referred to as an Orton slide sandwich. One shot was taken in perfect sharp focus and the other was completely out of focus to register only light, dark and colour. Back in the darkroom, when the slides had been processed, the idea was to sandwich one sharp image and one out of focus image, align them, and print both of these at the same time.

Of course, these days, this can be done much more quickly and efficiently with digital files, but the basic idea remains the same. Some professional landscape photographers use this technique in their work today, albeit in a much more refined and subtle way. We will apply this technique to enhance a lovely landscape image.

Step 1 – The first step is to choose a relevant image that will work well with the Orton effect applied. Scenes with leaves, grass and strong skies work particularly well. For our example we have a sunrise image.

Step 2 – Click on its layer thumbnail and press Cmd + J to create a duplicate. Rename this layer ‘screen’. Make sure the screen layer is active and click on the Layer Blend Mode button at the top of the Layer Palette menu. Select Screen as your blend mode.

Step 3 – The brightness of the screen layer is added to the background layer and now appears very bright. Not to worry as the next steps will take care of this.

Step 4 – With the screen layer active press Cmd + J once again to create another duplicate. Name this layer ‘multiply’. Again go to the Layer Blend Mode button, click and select Multiply as your blend mode for this layer.

Step 5 – Now the image should appear to be very dark. That’s ok though, at this point we can adjust the overall image brightness.

Step 6 – We will need to add an adjustment layer to modify the image brightness. Navigate to the Adjustments button at the bottom of the Layers Palette.

Step 7 – Click the button to open the Adjustments menu and select Levels.

Step 8 – An Adjustment layer appears above your three current layers. With the Levels Adjustment active, its Properties tab will open and you can lighten the image by pulling the middle slider to the left. Adjust until it roughly matches the original image’s brightness.

Step 9 – Click on your Adjustments button again and this time select Hue/Saturation. A Hue/Saturation adjustment layer will appear above your previous Levels adjustment. Increase Saturation until the image is as vivid as you prefer.

Step 10 – As mentioned in the introduction to this piece, the effect is created by one sharp image and one out of focus image. At this point all the layers contain sharp images, so we need to remedy that now.

Step 11 – Click on your multiply layer to activate it. Go to the top menu bar and select Filer > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

Step 12 – The Gaussian Blur dialog box will open and here you can set your blur value. This value is determined by the resolution of your image. Our example is 2100 pixels wide by 3200 pixels high.

Step 13 – Very large values do not work very well at all for this effect. In fact even for an image the size of our example, only 8 pixels was enough to generate the soft, dreamy effect we were after.

Step 14 – Now we have our ‘Ortonized’ image, we can take this a stage further now and use masking to bring some areas into sharper focus again. Areas like the stone path, rocks and tree can have the effect removed to draw the eye.

the orton technique 2

Step 15 – Click on your topmost layer to activate it then press Shift + Alt + Cmd + E to create a new layer that is the merged version of all current layers. Call this new layer ‘merged’.

Step 16 – Turn off the visibility of all layers except your original ‘Background’ layer and this new ‘merged’ layer. These are the only two we need to combine in this next stage.

Step 17 – Click on the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the layers palette to add a mask to the ‘merged’ layer. Make sure the ‘merged’ layer mask thumbnail is active.

Step 18 – In the toolbar, make sure your Foreground Colour is set to black. Click on the Brush Tool icon (B) and choose a medium sized, soft brush. Set the opacity to about 50% so as not paint at full strength in one go.

Step 19 – Now you can apply the black brush to the ‘merged’ layer mask (not the image itself) over the path, tree and rocks. As you brush, the dark areas of the mask lets more and more of the sharp ’Background’ layer show through.

Step 20 – If you Alt + left-click on the layer mask thumbnail, you’ll be able to see the results of your brushwork on the mask. Alt + left-click on the layer mask thumbnail again to return to normal view.

Step 21 – You can soften the layer mask by going to the Masks Properties panel and setting a Feather value of about 90 pixels. This adds another level of blur to your brush strokes and softens the blend of the ‘merged’ and ‘Background’ layers.

Step 22 – Your image now has a soft, ethereal glow in the sky and on the grass in the foreground, but the details of the stone path, tree and rocks are maintained by the mask that allows the background to show through.

Step 23 – You have your completed image. Now you can experiment with different strengths and application of this effect and turn you landscapes in dream-like masterpieces.

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Mark Frost

Mark started work as a commercial artist during the good old days of Letraset, spray mount and having to process your photos at a local chemist. Having discovered his passion for photography, Photoshop and the wonders of digital image manipulation, he has not looked back. He is well on his way to owning more cameras than he’s had hot dinners.

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