This and That

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Archive for July 2nd, 2009

The Orton Effect

Posted by Avital Pinnick on July 2, 2009

I downloaded a great podcast about a month ago from that made me think about the Orton effect in a new way. It was interviews with the originator of this technique, Michael Orton, and another photographer who uses this technique, Canadian nature photographer Darwin Wiggitt. (Funny line: Darwin brings his blurry, over-exposed shots to the lab and is told, “Um, Darwin, maybe we should talk about metering.”)

If you’re not familiar with the Orton effect, I’ll give a brief run-down. Michael Orton, a Vancouver-based landscape photographer who produces some haunting images, discovered that if you made a sandwich of two unmounted slides, one in focus and one out of focus, and both of them over-exposed, the result was a rich, glowing, almost surreal effect.

In the days of slide film, he painstakingly taped together the unmounted slides with a tiny bit of adhesive tape, then mounted “sandwich” in a slide mount, keeping the two layers carefully aligned. Because the images had to align perfectly, you can understand why he used this for landscapes, which tend not to move around very much. In his interview he mentioned that he’s never tried it with people or animals because his subject would have had to remain very still.


Today the process can be done easily in Photoshop. In fact, it’s so straightforward (create three identical layers of your image, set the middle, sharp layer’s blending mode to screen, create a Gaussian blur on the top layer and set that layer’s blending mode to multiply) that it can be reduced to an automated Photoshop action. You do get better results, however, if you play with the settings a little. Chris Empey has written a clear tutorial on the subject. Darwin Wiggett’s tutorial describes the same fundamental process but gives more concrete advice on suitable subjects for the Orton effect.

For those who prefer a more visual approach, Bob Campbell (aka Some Other Bob) has posted an excellent video on YouTube. He covers level layers and the importance of maintaining highlights and colour information. The most innovative part of his method is his use of a layer mask to control the areas that are blurred (rather than blurring the entire iimage). There is a lot of good information in this tutorial and his presentation is very clear.

And the results? Google Books has a preview version of Michael Orton’s book, Photographing Creative Landscapes. His images are stunning — moody and saturated with glowing colour. He himself doesn’t use the digital technique, although his wife does.

His imitators and admirers have a Flickr pool devoted to Orton effect photos. I tried the technique before I heard the podcast, so I was experimenting on a lot of different kinds of photos, some of them not as suitable subjects as others.

My Experiments

This is a doorway that I photographed in the Nahlaot neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

Doorway in Nahlaot, Jerusalem

I think that the textures and colours lend themselves well to the Orton effect, but shadows become just a little too intense. Michael Orton does mention in the podcast that high-contrast subjects tend to increase their contrast when they’re sandwiched together. He prefers overcast conditions, something that doesn’t occur a lot in my part of the world except in winter.

Here’s the original shot of the doorway:

Blue Doorway

These floweres turned out rather kitschy, like a Hallmark Valentine from the 1955, although from the comments, it appears that a few people like it. It’s interesting but maybe I should have used less blur.

Flowers in Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem

Here’s the original:

Flower Stall on Agrippas Street

This photo of coloured foliage shows how the colours become quite intense with this technique.

Coloured leaves 2

And the original:

Light through foliage

I wasn’t thrilled with my initial results but I think I chose unsuitable subjects (the black-necked swan looks out of focus rather than romantically blurred, although someone did ask to use it for an article). I didn’t try landscapes because at the time I didn’t like the way my Canon Powershot S5 captured them. The lens just wasn’t wide enough. Now that I have an 18-55mm lens on a DSLR, I will give it another try.

It’s the middle of a blistering heat wave in Israel. Now I have another reason to look forward to winter.

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