Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Orton Diffusion

My second favorite photography post-processing technique (following Midtone Contrast using Unsharp Mask) is Orton-style diffusion. I have been using this for the past couple years to varying degrees in just about every image starting with Morning at Mount Rainier. The Orton effect adds an almost mystical, dreamy element to the atmosphere which you can dial up or down depending on your preference.

When I first learned about the general idea of the Orton technique, I was using it globally on whole image, but I've come to apply it now by default only to a small degree just the shadow areas (since shadows in real life appear to the eye just a bit more blurry than bright areas). The camera usually just makes shadow areas more noisy which can degrade the overall impression of the image, even if it's not immediately noticeable. So even if I'm not looking for a noticeable Orton effect, whether it's just for gently blurring the shadows or taking the edge off sharpening artifacts, I love Orton diffusion!

The Orton Technique
Orton diffusion effect is achieved when sharp and blurry images are superimposed. This was originally done in the camera using multiple exposures, but I like the control of leveraging Photoshop to dial in this effect in post-processing. There are many ways to do anything in Photoshop, but here's my usual method for the Orton diffusion effect. (I made a macro of these steps to speed up my workflow.)
** The hotkeys listed are for the PC; for Mac, you would use the Option key instead of Ctrl
Orton Diffusion Example Layers
  • Duplicate the Image on a new layer
    • For instance: Click New Layer Icon; then Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E
    • I labeled this layer 'Orton Base'
  • Optional: Open Levels and set the midpoint slider to around 1.6
    • This brightens the image to compensate for global darkening that comes in the next steps. (Although, you could play around with omitting this step.)
  • Duplicate this lightened Image on a new layer (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E)
  • Filter => Blur => Guassian blur
    • I use anywhere from Radius: 3 - 10 if I want an obvious Orton effect
    • I use around Radius 1 - 2 for a final shadow-only application
    • Sometimes I also play around with more extreme Radius settings for funsies :)
  • Change the Layer mode from Normal to Multiply
    • I label this layer Orton Blur
  • Merge this Orton effect on a new layer (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E)
    • I label this layer Orton Final; (Or you could leave out this step if you want to do further modifications)
  • Optional: Duplicate the 'Orton Base' layer and move it to the top of the stack
    • Dial back the Opacity % as desired. (I start with 30%)
    • This blends back even more of the original sharpness.
    • You could also selectively restore more of the original sharpness using a layer mask
  • Optional: Create a final layer composite (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E)
    • I labeled this layer 'Orton Composite'

To restrict Orton diffusion effect to the shadow areas only, I add these extra steps:
  • Copy the pre-Orton image
    • Alt+Click the eye next to the pre-Orton layer (The Background layer in my example)
    • Click this layer to select it
    • Ctrl+A
    • Ctrl+C
  • Add a Layer mask to the Orton Composite layer
    • Select the Composite layer and then click the icon with the dark rectangle and little white circle (next to the fx icon)
  • Alt+Click the Layer mask thumbnail
    • This allows you to edit the pixels in the mask
    • By default the screen will turn white since the mask is currently empty
  • Paste your image into the mask (Ctrl+V)
  • Invert the pixels in the Mask (Ctrl+I)
  • Click the Composite Orton layer thumbnail to view the Final result
    • (This assumes all of the intermediate Orton-related layers are still de-selected.
    • I took a screen capture of my layers panel after all of these steps to show as an example

I use all of these steps to create an Orton-style diffusion so often, all of those steps now seem totally straightforward. As with anything, it gets easier with practice (especially if you are liking the results). At a minimum, you can also try just blurring a duplicate layer, setting the layer mode to Multiply, and then tinkering with the Opacity % for a simple, basic Orton effect. However, I find the complete steps listed above preserve the overall light/dark impression of the image which I usually find valuable. I recorded a macro once I got familiar with the proceedure and particular settings I liked (which really helps to speed up the future process).

In Summary
Figuring out how to give your image an impression of sharpness without looking overdone (especially for the web) is challenging. Using an Orton diffusion effect in the shadows for the final sharpened image has been giving me just the right backoff I've been looking for. It can also be helpful for giving images a dreamy, painterly atmosphere that I find absolutely beautiful.

Hope you find these tips helpful!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth 

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