How to Create the Dreamy Soft Focus Orton Effect in GIMP

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Create the Dreamy Soft Focus Orton Effect in GIMP

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

In this tutorial suitable for all levels of user, I'll show you how to replicate the Orton technique using the free image editor GIMP. The Orton technique produces a dreamy soft focus effect 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. This resulting images would be soft and surreal with slightly unnatural lighting.

Fortunately, it is very easy to recreate this style of photography in the digital age using GIMP. The digital technique is very closely aligned to the darkroom process in that more than one image of the same scene are 'sandwiched' using the Layers palette.

By following this tutorial, you'll be introduced to using the Layers palette as well as taking advantage of its different Layer Modes and opacity control. You can use any image for this tutorial, but please feel free to download this copy of the image that I've used: IP_bike_2000.jpg

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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

The first step is to open your image in GIMP and create a duplicate image. If you haven't got a photo handy that you'd like to use, then download a copy of the photo that I used.

To open your 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.

Now we need to duplicate the background layer to give us 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.

In the next step we'll edit this new layer to change the appearance of the photo.

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Add Soft Focus Effect

Add Soft Focus Effect
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

In the last step we added a duplicate layer and we can now use this layer to apply the soft focus effect by making use of the Gaussian Blur filter.

To apply the soft focus, click on the uppermost 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 quite a simple tool in use. Ensure that the little chain icon beside the Horizontal and Vertical input controls isn't broken - click it if it is, as this ensures that the blur is applied evenly in both the vertical and horizontal directions.

You can now use the little arrows beside one of the two input controls to vary the amount of Gaussian Blur that will be applied to the image. The amount will vary depending on the size of the image and personal taste, so do be prepared to experiment with this setting. If you look at the image, you'll see that I used a Blur Radius setting of 30px.

The image is now obviously in soft focus, but it doesn't look very impressive, however the next step will make quite a dramatic difference with a very simple setting change.

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Change the Layer Mode

Change the Layer Mode
Text and Images © Ian Pullen

Following the last step, the image is effectively very out of focus and rather unattractive, but changing the Layer Mode to Screen will have a dramatic effect on the photo.

If you're unfamiliar with Layer Modes in GIMP, they are effectively the same as blending modes in Photoshop (LINK: http://graphicssoft.about.com/od/glossary/ig/Blending-Modes/) and they can dramatically affect the way that layers combine within an image.

If you 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, in the drop down list that opens, select Screen.

Immediately you will see that the image has taken on a soft and dreamy appearance, however it is possible that the image may look a little light and lacking a little in contrast also. In the next step I'll show you how easy it is to offset that, if desired.

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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

Following the last step, your dreamy soft focus image may be exactly as you want it, but if you feel that it is too light or perhaps lacking in contrast, there is an easy fix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this involves another layer with a different Layer Mode setting.

Firstly, duplicate the uppermost layer that has had the Gaussian Blur applied. 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 could also duplicate the Soft Light layer if you wanted to increase the contrast further.

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