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.

Choosing Sides Part 3: Detailed Darks

NOTE: Like many of the the other posts in this blog, this one makes use of the concepts and terms discussed in the Luminosity Masks tutorial on my website.

Part 2 of this series looked at image sharpening using luminosity masks. Specifically, it discussed how a Darks-series mask can help eliminate light halos that result from enhanced edge contrast that occurs during the sharpening process. The Darks-series mask also allows the “dark halos” from the sharpening process to remain and thereby impart an appropriate amount of sharpness to the image.

The concept of selecting the image’s darker tones for sharpening can also be applied to improving detail in an image before sharpening. There are several ways this can be done in Photoshop, but the method below uses adjustment layers (instead of pixel-containing layers), so that the overall increase in file size is kept to a minimum. It’s also somewhat paradoxical in that it uses blur to increase sharpness.

Here’s are the steps:

  1. Create a Dark Darks luminosity selection.
  2. With the selection active, create an unadjusted adjustment layer (Curves, for example), with the selection in place as the layer mask on the adjustment layer.
  3. Duplicate the adjustment layer so that there are now two identical adjustment layers with the Dark Darks mask as the layer mask.
  4. Set the blending mode of the bottom adjustment layer to Multiply. This will darken the image.
  5. Set the blending mode of the top adjustment layer to Screen. This will reverse the darkening in Step 4.
  6. Click on the layer mask of the top adjustment layer (the one set to Screen blending mode) so that the framing brackets are around it.
  7. Invoke the menu command Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur… and set the blur radius to 15.
  8. Put the two new adjustment layers into their own group.
  9. Adjust the opacity of the group to dial in the amount of detail enhancement desired for the image.

A Photoshop action to do these steps can be downloaded here.

This is it what it looks on the Layers panel when it’s finished.

Layers panel for Detailed Darks

Below is an image where the Detailed Darks group was employed and set at 50% opacity. Rolling the mouse over the image shows how it would look without the Detailed Darks group being used to enhance detail in the darker tones. (It may take a few seconds for the rollover image to appear.) Although this is a small jpeg, the improved detail is already apparent at this size. It’s subtle, with the luminosity masks blending the effect so well that it’s hard to say exactly what is producing it. And even though the effect is concentrated primarily in the darker tones because of the Dark Darks mask that was used, the entire image, including the lighter tones, seems to have benefited.

What’s happening here is that the two adjustment layers are working together to create sharpening edges throughout and around the darker tones in the image. The Multiply blending mode layer essentially creates a dark halo throughout the Dark Darks selection. The blurred mask on the Screen blending mode layer lightens the dark halo from the Multiply blending mode layer considerably (but not entirely), AND it also lightens the pixels now included in the mask’s selection because of the blur that was applied to the mask. These newly included pixels are on the opposite or lighter side of the Dark Darks selection edges, and Screen blending mode layer lightens these pixels. This creates a situation where pixel-darkening from the un-blurred mask layer is adjacent to pixel-lightening from the blurred mask layer, and this is essentially a working definition of how Photoshop sharpens an image by increasing contrast at the edges. The combination of blurred and un-blurred luminosity masks provides a nicely feathered and graduated sharpening-like effect that is restricted to the tones selected by the layer masks. In an image, this is perceived as improved detail. For a “normal” image it will look like a very sharp lens was used to take the picture. In an image with with slightly blurry areas caused by lack of depth-of-field or imprecise focus, it can actually help reduce the blurriness to some degree.

There are potentially many variations on the ways this technique could be applied to an image: different opacity settings for the group layer, different luminosity masks for the adjustment layers, and restricted application using a mask on the group layer are some possibilities. Interestingly, substituting a Light-series mask (Light Lights instead of Dark Darks, for example), does not sharpen the light tones; it blurs them. This leads to some thoughts on ways to enhance the light tones, and the final installment in this series will provide an example of using luminosity masks to give special attention to the lighter end of the tonal spectrum.