The Orton Effect Mistake Many Photographers Make

The Orton Effect Mistake Many Photographers Make

The Orton effect is a popular effect in many other genres than landscape photography. It is used to soften the images with a slight glow, which can give a beautiful dreamy effect. However, I do see one mistake repeated again and again.

There are many ways to create and use an Orton Effect. Many applications already have a built-in function to apply an Orton Effect.

It is a very simple look to create in Photoshop. You simply duplicate your layer, apply a Gaussian blur to the top layer and turn down the opacity of the blurred layer. The effect differs dependent on how much blur you apply and how much you decrease the opacity. Personally, I like the Orton Effect but it has to be toned down to around 10-15% opacity. You can even change the contrast of the blurred layer to increase the effect/luminosity of the glow.

On the photo below you can see what actually happens when you blur a photo. You smudge it out blending the highlights into the shadows and the shadows into the highlights.

For me the point of making an Orton Effect is to decrease or soften the details in complex shadow areas such as forest scenes or add a glow to soften the image around high contrast areas, where light could spill over into the shadow areas.

I want to emphasize that light glows and shadows do not. This is important as I often see landscape photos, where the Orton Effect is used and silhouettes of cliffs or trees glow with darkness. This is what I will categorize as a mistake as that result is unwarranted. Check out the before and after photos below. One at full size and one where I have zoomed in. You can see how there is a long dark halo along the top of the mountains.

How To Fix It

Luckily, the fix is actually simple and it can often be done by applying a simple luminosity mask to the blurred layer.

For the sake of argument and because the images in these articles tend to be a bit small, I have gone with an Orton Effect and 50% opacity. As stated, I normally work around 10-15% opacity but after having tested those images the differences were so subtle, some of you might not be able to see the difference.

Follow these steps to fix the black halo:

  1. Apply a mask to the blurred layer.
  2. Hide the blurred layer by uncheck the eye icon next to it. We do this because we want to make the luminosity mask from the original layer without the Orton Effect applied.

  1. With the mask of the blurred layer selected go to Image in the top menu and select Apply Image. Keep the settings as they are in the pop-up window and press OK. This applies a mask to the blurred layer based on the luminosity values of the original photo. If the blurred layer were visible, we would have included the luminosity values of the Orton Effect.

  1. Make the blurred layer visible again by pressing the small icon where the eye was.
  2. As we want to hide the dark glow in the highlight areas, we have to invert the mask. Do so by making sure the mask is selected and press Ctrl + I (Mac: cmd + I). Alternatively, go to Image > Adjustments > Invert. This way we make sure the bright areas are unaffected by the Orton Effect and the glow is only applied to the darker tones of the image. The first image below is how my mask looks like after inverting. The second image is a before and after. The before is without mask, and the after is with the mask.

  1. Dependent on the contrast of your original photo you might need to apply extra contrast to the luminosity mask. You can do so by holding down ALT + left clicking the mask. Now the mask should be displayed in your work space. It should look something like this:

  1. With the mask selected in the layers panel press Ctrl + L. This opens the levels adjustment for the mask. By bringing in the shadow slider and highlight slider, you add contrast. Remember, working on masks we want the parts affected by the Orton Effect to be as bright as possible and the areas where we do not want to apply the effect to be as dark as possible. In all practical senses you want to make the sky black and ground white along the edge (in this case of the mountains) where we see the problem. Having white or black spots in the sky/ground does not matter as long as the edge is defined. When you have made your adjustments to fit your photo press OK. If you want to make the mask more precise, you can use the paintbrush to paint black or white where you think the mask needs it.

  1. Either, press ALT + left-click on the mask or simply just select the blurred layer in the layers panel to leave the “show mask” function. Now the glow of the Orton Effect should only be visible in the darker areas of your photo. You can see the impact of the adjustments of the Orton Effect by disabling the luminosity mask and turning it back on. You do so by right-clicking on the mask and selecting “disable layer mask”

Underneath here you can see three before and after images:

First: Zoomed in versions of the unfixed Orton Effect vs. the fixed.

Second: Zoomed in original without any Orton Effect vs. the fixed.

Third: Original image without the Orton Effect vs. with the fixed Orton Effect.

I have to stress that the Orton Effect and how much you fix it is individual to each photo. Sometimes it is hard to even see the shadows spill into the highlight in the first place. However, I think it is important to be aware that using an Orton Effect can lead to this unwanted results especially in high contrast areas.

As already stated, I do not work with such a strong Orton Effect and the images in this article is simply to balance for the low resolution files and the differences in the monitors of the readers.

It is a subtle problem to be aware of, but it is often the subtle alterations that make the difference between an excellent photo and a world class photo.

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Mark Smith's picture

Great advice.

Alex Armitage's picture

Mads there might be a much easier way to do this that I'm curious if you know about. Obviously if you do I'm just assuming it's not as effective or doesn't have clean results. Simply just right clicking the orton layer and change the blending options in the "blend if" section of the blacks/shadows.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Oh snap! I spend an entire morning making screenshots and setting up this article... I'm not entirely sure what you mean as my "blend if" section only have gray, red, blue and green. But you inspired me to try something even simpler. Change the blending mode of the Orton layer to lighten. And it works like a charm and theoretically shouldn't add any dark halos as the Orton layer is now only "allowed" to lighten the layer underneath. I feel like an idiot for not coming up with that myself *facepalm*.

You learn something new each day - Thanks Alex!

Alex Armitage's picture

Around the 7 minute mark is what I'm referring to. You just use the feathering seen at this point on the blacks side of the slider and feather it so that part of the layer doesn't show up on the photo. Using Lighten mode works but this gives you far more control where you want it to appear in my opinion!

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Thanks Mads for thorough tutorial! Luminosity masks are great for detailed selections and I use them a lot. But if I want to add an Orton Effect to the whole image (except shadows) I use screen blend mode (or similar) for Orton Effect layer (and maybe sometimes levels directly on the layer itself to make it more contrasty).

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Yes, I more than often use levels too. I think I mention it in one sentence in the beginning. And yeah screen mode should work too. Not sure if you saw it in the above comment, but lighten works too :)

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Yeah, I did read that comment few moments ago. And if I'm correct, Alex suggested to use "blend if" section which actually serves that purpose well, too. If you haven't try it yet, it lets the layer through only within some tonal range (like luminosity masks). So you can adjust the sliders to let the Orton Effect layer only within highlights range (with feather of your choice, if you hold an Alt / Option during slider adjustment). Same goes for RGB channels. For instance, if you have a really dull, flat and empty blue sky that you would like to replace but masking it would be a nightmare (eg. through the leaves, lack of tonal contrast to use luminosity mask) you can put your new sky on top and let it pass through only within blue channel. It's a really powerful tool! :)

Ian Browne's picture

Interesting; thanks for sharing
I have always added overlay or softlight blending layers to a very strong blur layer
Usually a level/curves adjustment will be required to lighten the photo

Pedro Quintela's picture

Again you nailed it, Mads!

The problem with Orton, which I love, is that many people use it as a action on PS withouth understanding the real effect of it to the image. If you understand how its done, then you can use it with really nice effects via those subtle alterations you talked about.

JUAN SOL's picture

Thanks for the point. Very interesting.

Jarrett Rathert's picture

am I the only one who thinks the end result looks horrible? its so soft and out of focus looking...

Kristian Brynie Hollund's picture

It's an example of how to apply a process/effect successfully, not on whether to apply it at all or how to enhance all your landscape images.

Jarrett Rathert's picture

except this "effect" doesnt look good on ANY photo. so why even tell people how to do it. tell them not to do it.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Did you read the article, Jarrett? :)