Monday 3 January 2011

Orton Is a Second Spring When Every Leaf Is a Flower

With apologies to Albert Camus for the title (the original line is "Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower"), but it seems appropriate in describing the Orton effect, Orton images or the Orton slide sandwich. I stumbled across the term a few days ago in the rules for a photography competition:
Submitted photographs must not be heavily manipulated (minor edits like color correction are ok, but things like selective color, image stitching, HDR images, Orton effects and borders are not acceptable).
I didn't enter the competition but, like a child told to leave something alone or to not do something, I immediately wanted to know more about the something that I shouldn't in this case be doing. Searching around, I quickly realised I had seen the technique in practice, but I hadn't had a name for it or an awareness of the mechanics behind the effect.

As originally practised by Michael Orton, after whom the effect is named, you take one overexposed, high-detail image, and then a second shot of the same scene, but defocused so you get a blurry image. You then sandwich together a slide of the sharp image with a slide of the blurry image — hence, Orton slide sandwich — to get an effect that is "painterly, ethereal and romantic". Thanks to digital photography and image manipulation programs, this effect is now in reach of anyone with a camera and a computer... so I thought I'd give it a go and share the results of two of my more successful attempts.

I started with a picture I took in late October of Parliament Hill Fields in North London. The following image is lightly cropped and has basic colour correction:

After a couple of minor fixes, I then changed the levels to 'overexpose' the image. Using the resulting image as the background, I created a blurred copy (in Photoshop, a Gaussian blur of 20 pixels) that I then overlaid on the background (in this case, using layer multiplication with a mostly opaque layer). Looking at some online examples, I get a sense that many people go with their first attempt, which is both a shame and a missed opportunity. You need to experiment with degree and style of lightening, blurring and mixing, as well as with other effects, to explore the possibilities and find a pleasing aesthetic. For this image I also mixed in a little edge detection to recover some of the definition and a slight infrared effect to further emphasise and effervesce the effect of a low sun on the leaves and grass. The following lusher, more atmospheric image is the result:

The effect seems to work best on images with dominant natural elements. That doesn't, however, mean the picture has to be exclusively of nature or even wholly natural: anything with rough and organic forms is a potential candidate. I took the following picture last week (last year, in fact) on Tyne Path, round the corner from where I live in Bristol:

This is the image as taken, without any colour correction, adjustment of brightness or other fixing. Where the eye and visual system adjust to discern a richer scene, the overcast midwinter light mutes the colours and brightness on the digital image. Territorial teen graffiti is also clearly not going to cut it as street art — Bristol has high standards. After some quick fixing, instead of just doing a straight Orton effect — or an Orton effect with a few tweaks, as in the previous Orton image — I thought it would be interesting to try the technique out on an equalised image.

Equalising distributes the brightness levels of an image more evenly through the brightness range, from light to dark. Depending on your initial image, the result can range from slight to extreme, from a slightly more vibrant image to something quite surreal. Equalisation on the Tyne Path image is quite electric, so I took that and applied the Orton effect to it, resulting in the following image:

Hopefully, these two examples demonstrate a couple of the ways you can deploy the Orton effect. Where the image of Parliament Hill Fields is subtly enhanced and acceptably realistic, the enhancement of the Tyne Path image makes a bold statement of its own and is more deliberate in its attempt to distinguish itself from straight photorealism.


Allan Halme said...

Great post. Gotta try this out myself. I particularly like the new colours that the equalisation brought to the Tyne Path image. Very nice.

Kevlin Henney said...

See here and here for larger versions of the images.