Orton Effect Christmas TreeThe Orton Effect is an old effect that dates back to the film days and involved combining an in focus and an out of focus version of the same shot into a single image to give a dreamy effect where the shot is blurred yet has all it’s detail. You can read (a little) more about it on Wikipedia.

The reason I’m writing this tutorial now is that Christmas trees with their lights on make great subjects for the Orton Effect. It’s very hard to get a nice photo of the Christmas tree that does justice to the atmosphere of the scene, but the dreamy quality of an Orton image can really help.

Before you can apply the Orton Effect to an image of your tree, you obviously need to take a photo of your tree! To have a hope of getting a good sharp shot of something as dark as a Christmas Tree you’ll need a tripod. You should also shoot at your camera’s native ISO (usually the lowest ISO setting it has) to avoid getting noise in your image.

You should note that light-meters work great for typical scenes, but a lit Christmas-tree in a dark room is not a typical scene. Your light-meter will try to average the scene to 18% grey which is probably not going to look right. Similarly, your camera’s auto white balance feature is also likely to get very confused by such an unusual scene. For all these reasons, I’d suggest setting your camera to full manual mode and setting everything yourself. You are more intelligent than your camera! Also bear in mind that this scene is completely static, so it doesn’t matter if it takes you ages to get everything right, the tree will wait for you!

If you don’t know how to use manual mode to control your camera now would be a good time to learn. Get out that manual and take control of your camera! You can’t possibly hope to master photography if you are subservient to your camera! You just have to master your camera.

My suggested process for shooting a Christmas tree goes something like this:

  1. Set the Camera to Full Manual Mode
  2. Set the White Balance to Incandescent (usually a lightbulb icon)
  3. Set a low ISO, I use ISO 200
  4. Select a low but not too low Aperture – you want to let in a lot of light, but not reduce your depth of field to the point that bits of your tree will be out of focus! I used f/4.2
  5. If you have a remote shutter release, connect it and set the camera to use it, if not, set the camera to a delayed shutter mode – that will let you trigger the shutter by hand and still avoid camera shake
  6. Mount your camera on your tripod and compose the shot
  7. Cycle through a range of exposure settings till you get one that you think looks right. Bracket around that exposure just to be sure – you may change your mind when you see the shot on a big computer screen. Don’t be surprised if your exposure time are long – in my case the ideal exposure was 1.3 seconds.

Once you have an image to work with, you are ready to apply the Orton Effect. I’ve created my Orton Tutorial in two formats, a video screen cast, and a PDF. I’ve embedded the screencast below, and you can download the PDF here.

Finally, just to round things out, here are my before and after images:

The Original Image
The Original Image: on FlickrFull-Size

After Orton Effect
The Final Image: on FlickrFull-Size