Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Orton's Method

Image (RAW) With Orton Softglow Effect Via Photivo
Original JPEG from Camera

Many (most?) photo editing software suites now offer a wonderful effect called "Orton / Softglow". It has been part of GIMP (for 8 bit JPG) since I can remember, and a much better production of it is available in Photivo (for 16 Bit RAW). As far as I  know, it is now included in Photoshop too. It is an "effect" as opposed to a "filter", in the same way that HDR and Retinex are known as effects. You can read about it's origins from the man himself, Michael Orton, and also see some samples of his application of the effect that bears his name in slide film photography.

Personally, I've occasionally used Orton / Softglow on digital photos that didn't work - such as those with excess noise, or focus problems. Clearly, this was not Michael Orton's original intent, but with the application to digital files, it works wonderfully well in taming a problem photo. In the original shot, above right, I could see I had quite a mess on my hands, mainly because I was at ISO 3200 with a 1/45 sec shutter. To strengthen the composition, I wanted to make the doll stand out as the main subject, without creating too much degradation of her surroundings. What I had was a noisy image with bad colour balance, and everything under equal light with the doll merely blending into the whole mess. Additionally, the focus is a bit soft throughout the whole picture, because I was using my EF 40mm STM lens at wide open f2.8.

So, I started with the RAW file in Photivo, and at first made my decisions about emphasizing the doll, and de-emphasizing everything else. I played around with some Exposure and Gamma adjustments, along with as much Midrange recovery as possible (including some subtle Local Texture emphasis). All this did little to bring out the doll the way I wanted, but it helped tone down her surroundings, at the expense of even more noise. From past experience with Orton, I knew it is wonderful for eliminating noise, so I bypassed all other noise reduction algorithms and went right to Orton / Softglow. Orton may unwittingly be the best noise reduction out there, because it creates such a wide-radius blur effect - in addition to the softly focused light which is it's trademark. So yes, noise is eliminated completely, but at the expense of an ethereal softness, which is not really an "expense" at all because it is wonderfully attractive, with an inner luminescence, and oil-like. As a final touch, I added a fairly aggressive vignette.

So if you've got a picture that is a real keeper, but is spoiled by high noise or soft focus due to shooting with a wide aperture in a dark setting, keep Michael Orton in mind to help save the day.

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