Choosing Sides Part 4: Orton Lights

So far the “Choosing Sides” series has discussed two techniques for using Darks-series luminosity masks to manage image processing (print sharpening and detailed darks) and only one technique for using Lights-series luminosity masks (halo fixing). In the interest of balance and equality, the final post in this series will look at a technique called “Orton Lights,” which once again uses Lights-series luminosity masks to achieve its end. As with the previous posts, some familiarity with luminosity masks on the part of the reader will be assumed.

The “Orton Effect” was invented and popularized by Michael Orton. It is an in-camera technique that involves two transparency images:  one overexposed and sharp and the other underexposed and out of focus. These are stacked on top of each other to create the final image. When viewed on a light table, the stacked transparencies contain detail from the over-exposed transparency and a wash of color (but very little detail) from the underexposed transparency. “Ortonized” pictures are slightly blurry with enhanced color saturation. The elements have a dreamy, glow-like quality which, with the right subject (leaves, water, clouds, or objects illuminated by bright light) can be quite desirable.

Since most photographic capture is now digital, the in-camera process for producing the Orton Effect is uncommon; however, it can also be simulated using Photoshop. There are several websites which can be Googled that will describe how to do this, plus there is information on the necessary Photoshop layers below.

The previous posts discussed how Darks-series masks could be useful both in sharpening an image and for creating enhanced detail. This happens because Darks-series luminosity masks do a nice job of revealing desirable dark halos while at the same hiding unsightly light halos. The Orton Effect, however, is one area where light halos are desirable. The blur associated with the Orton Effect is perceived as glow, and light areas are generally thought to be more glow-worthy than dark areas. So using a Lights-series mask to restrict the Orton Effect to the light areas of the image makes sense. It’s in line with how we perceive things−light things glow, dark things don’t. Using Lights-series masks with the Orton Effect augments the glow by restricting it to visually appropriate tones (the light tones) just as using Darks-series masks with sharpening procedures confines that effect to the most effective tones (the dark tones). So choosing the right luminosity mask helps certain Photoshop techniques to work better. For the Orton Effect, Light-series masks provide the proper selection.

The image below is one where the Photoshop-simulated Orton Effect might be useful. The leaves have brightness and color that separate them from other elements in the image, and the Orton Effect could potentially emphasize this difference. The rollover (it may take a few seconds to appear) shows the Ortonized results, including restricting the effect to the light tones by filtering it through a “Lights” luminosity mask. As expected, the filtered Orton Effect works well for this image. It has increased color saturation in the leaves and added a sense of glow to the lighter areas of the scene. It’s also worth noting that there is still a naturalness to the results. The image has been enhanced, but in a way that doesn’t stand out prominently. The use of the “Lights” luminosity mask blends the Orton Effect into just those areas where it’s most effectual and hides it from those areas where it would look out of place. (NOTE:  The Orton Effect is slightly exaggerated here to make it more visible in the small, web-sized image.)

The blue highlighted layers in this screen capture of the Layers panel below are the ones used to create the Orton Effect.

Layers panel for Orton Lights

The bottom highlighted layer creates the necessary overexposed “transparency” by using an unadjusted Curves adjustment layer set to “Screen” blending mode. The overexposed image is then duplicated on a pixel layer above the other layers. A 20-pixel Guassian blur is applied to this pixel layer and it is set to “Multiply” blending mode. This creates the underexposed, color-wash “transparency” needed for the Orton Effect. Finally both these layers are incorporated into a group, and a “Lights” luminosity mask (created before the Ortinizing process started) is added to the group layer to restrict the Orton Effect to the light tones in the image. Generally, the Orton Effect will be too strong at full opacity, so lowering the opacity of the group layer effectively pulls back on the effect. For this image, 50% opacity was adequate.

The picture below once again shows the Ortinized version of the image with the “Lights” luminosity mask in place. This time the rollover shows how the image would look with the luminosity mask disabled, that is, Ortonized, but unfiltered. The rollover, in this case, is over-saturated and the dark tones too blurry. The dark tones are where we’re looking to find detail, but without the filtering effect of the “Lights” mask, everything gets blurred by the Orton Effect. The “Lights” mask appropriately confines the Orton Effect to the light tones where it’s most appreciated while at the same time allowing detail already present in the dark tones, where sharpness is best perceived, to remain visible. In summary, a Lights-series mask generally offers a complementary option for targeting the Orton Effect to the most appropriate tones.

If you would like to try this technique, an action to create it can be downloaded here. Remember, every image is different so experiment to see what works best. Two things to try are to vary the opacity of group layer and to try different Lights-series masks on the group layer to see what works best.

The “Orton Lights” action is also included in the revised custom actions panel.

14 thoughts on “Choosing Sides Part 4: Orton Lights

  1. Thanks Tony, excellent as usual. I do have a question, if I may. I tried this on an image of dead trees in fog, and discovered a lot of haloing at 100%. Backing off to about 60% seems to work. Is this what you recommend?


    1. There are lots of factors that can affect the final look of the Orton Effect, including the image itself. Yes, there will be haloing, but for many images this works as it creates the look that comes with the effect. In addition, the “Lights” mask used for corralling the effect is created before the blur is introduced, so this helps prevent excessive haloing since it is derived from the original image, not the blurred Ortonized image that would be expected to have larger halos from the blurring. But it is the haloing that to some degree defines the Orton Effect, so eliminating it entirely would NOT generally be the goal.

      Yes, backing off the opacity is one option. I often take it down to 50% to start and then go from there. Another option would be to replace the “Lights” luminosity mask on the group layer with a “Light Lights” or “Bright Lights” mask. These selections include fewer light tones, so the effect will be masked from more of the image by using one of these more restrictive masks.

      Another option would be to actually use a smaller blur radius for the Orton Effect itself. I find that a 20-pixel blur is ideal for most of my images, but different images might benefit from using a different pixel radius for the Gaussian blur. So this is another area in which to experiment to see what works best for a particular image.


  2. Hello Tony,

    I hope you are very, very well.

    Thank you for this. I’ve hardly used the Orton Effect, but I intend to try it more often now with opacity adjustments.

    My best always,

    Guy Perkins


  3. Hi Tony, and thanks for yet another great photoshop action.

    The only trouble I found is that the process often dampened out the very brightest parts of an image, and created slightly distracting dark halos around dark objects against bright backgrounds (you can see a similar effect around the darkest branch in your example image above).

    To remove the dark halos, I added an inverted darks mask – typically a shadow darks or darker – to the Orton blur layer, then blurred that mask by the same amount (in this case, 20px). That effectively knocks out the dark overspill.

    To bring back the specular highlights simply painting black through a Bright Lights or Super Lights onto the Lights mask helps to bring back some of the lost texture. How much texture / brightness you bring back is easily controlled by the paint flow rate and how restrictive the mask is.

    Doing this largely cancels out the Orton Effect, but does give a very nice luminous glow to the bright midtones.



    1. Each image will, to a large degree, dictate its own course of development. What works in one image may not work in another. The Orton Effect is a nice way to add a luminous quality to an image, but using different masks or combinations of masks and painting through masks makes perfect sense as a way to select tones in order to insure that the effect is revealed in the best tones. Given what you’re describing, Paul, you might want to just try the 1/4-Lights or Mid-tone Lights as the mask for the Orton Effect layer on that particular image as the “bright midtones” are what is revealed by these masks.


    1. I actually have not worked with infrared or pseudo-infrared, so I’m certainly no expert on this. The only thing I can offer would be that the tonal selections of luminosity masks work the same regardless of the type of image that’s being developed. So once you make the decision that a tone-based selection could be useful, you just need to find the best mask and proceed with using it to adjust the tones as desired.


    2. I’ve done a fair amount of shooting with a 720nm infrared filter on a fuji X100, often converting to b/w in editing. I’ve found Tony’s Orton combination very useful in recreating film IR highlight glow/blur on the appropriately chosen image.


  4. I first came across this concept of ‘diffusing the highlights’ on a separate website prior to t being incorporated into the TK Action set and I recommend it to everyone working with RAW files as these are often in need of a subtle boost in the highlight areas from the default, flat, unprocessed state they are captured in. It works well with images with nice blue skies which seem a bit ‘flat’ compared to how they looked even on Fuji Velvia slide film. Tony’s action for this is excellent.


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