How to Create the Dreamy Soft Focus Orton Effect in GIMP

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Create a Dreamy Soft Focus Orton Effect

Dreamy Soft Focus Orton Effect in GIMP
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

The Orton effect produces a dreamy soft focus that can make a relatively uninteresting photo take on a much more striking appearance.

Traditionally, Orton photography was a darkroom technique that involved a sandwich of two exposures of the same scene, generally with one out of focus. The resulting image was soft and surreal with slightly unnatural lighting.

It is easy to recreate this style of photography in the digital age using GIMP. The digital technique is closely aligned to the darkroom process in that more than two or more images of the same scene are sandwiched together using the Layers palette.

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Open an Image and Make a Duplicate Layer

Open an Image and Make a Duplicate Layer
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

To open a photo, go to File > Open and then navigate to the location on your computer where your image is stored. Select the image and then click the Open button.

To duplicate the background layer to have two versions of the image, you can either go to Layer > Duplicate Layer or click on the Duplicate Layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette. If the Layers palette isn't visible, go to Windows > Dockable Dialogs > Layers.

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Add Soft Focus Effect

Add Soft Focus Effect
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

To apply the soft focus, click on the uppermost image layer in the Layers palette to ensure that it's selected and then go to Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur. This opens the Gaussian Blur dialog, which is a simple tool in use. Confirm that the chain icon beside the Horizontal and Vertical input controls isn't broken—click it if it is to ensure the blur is applied evenly in both the vertical and horizontal directions.

Use the arrows beside one of the two input controls to vary the amount of Gaussian Blur that is applied to the image. The amount will vary depending on the size of the image and personal taste, so be prepared to experiment with this setting. 

The image on the layer is now obviously in soft focus, but it doesn't look particularly impressive. However, the next step makes a dramatic difference.

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Change the Layer Mode

Change the Layer Mode
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

Look at the top of the Layers palette. You should see a label called Mode with the word Normal to the right of it. Ensuring that the uppermost layer is active, click on the word Normal and select Screen in the drop-down menu that opens.

Immediately, the image takes on a soft and dreamy appearance, and it may look just like you want it. However, it may look a little light or lack in contrast. 

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Add Another Layer and Apply the Soft Light Mode

Add Another Layer and Apply the Soft Light Mode
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

If you feel that the image is too light or lacking in contrast, there is an easy fix that involves another layer with a different Layer Mode setting.

Firstly, duplicate the uppermost image layer that has the Gaussian Blur applied to it. Now click on the middle layer in the Layers palette and change the Layer Mode to Soft Light. You'll see that the contrast increases as a result. If the effect is too strong for your taste, click on the Opacity slider, located just below the Layer Mode control, and drag it to the left until the image is as you like it. You can also duplicate the Soft Light layer if you wanted to increase the contrast further.

Feel free to experiment by duplicating more layers and trying different Layer Modes and amounts of Gaussian Blur. These random experiments may result in interesting effects that you'll be able to apply to other photos.