Artistic Digital Photo Effects: Zoom Blur, Orton Effect

Learn how to use blur selectively--in the lens and in your image editor--and how to apply the Orton Effect to your digital photos.

The Power of Selective Blur

Most photographers think of blur as an annoyance--something to avoid at all costs. But you can come up with some great uses for blur in photography. Done right, blur can introduce the illusion of motion, for example. Blur can also make your photos "pop" by isolating the subject from the background. You can apply some cool special effects, too, such as zoom blur. In the past I've shown you how to make photos sharper; here I've rounded up a slew of easy-to-apply techniques that can make your photos distinctive through the selective use of blur.

What Is Zoom Blur?

You probably already know about photo tricks that you can accomplish using photo-editing software. Equipped with even an inexpensive digital SLR, however, you can perform some tricks "in the lens," when you take the photo--like zoom blur, for example. To take a zoom-blur shot, you need a digital SLR with a zoom lens, or any camera that allows you to change the focal length of the lens while the picture is being exposed. You can get awesome results with your camera when you capture the photo. Consider this shot of my daughter's prized limited-edition Stupid Fox plushie, for instance.

Mastering the Zoom-Blur Technique

If you have a camera capable of playing along, give zoom blur a try. You have to shoot the scene with a somewhat slow shutter speed so that you have time to change the focal length during the exposure. Since the exposure will include a range of focal lengths, the resulting photo will be a blur that ranges from wide angle to telephoto.

Set your camera to Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode, and dial in about 1/4 second. Line up your shot, and then point the camera at the subject and start zooming with a steady motion. Just after you start zooming, gently press the shutter release. That's all there is to it.

Zoom-Blur Alternative

I think using a digital SLR and zooming with a real lens is the more fun way to experiment with the zoom-blur photo style, but you can always add the effect afterward using a photo editor--which is a good alternative if you have a point-and-shoot camera. To give it a try, check out the Radial Blur tool in Adobe Photoshop Elements (choose Filter, Blur, Radial Blur). In the Radial Blur dialog box, you can change the mode from Spin to Zoom. Other image editors have similar tools, though they might name the tools differently.

Add Drama by Blurring the Background

Blurring the background is a time-honored trick for forcing the viewer to look at your subject--and adding some drama to your shot. You can achieve this effect by shooting in Aperture Priority mode and choosing a relatively small f-number. If you don't remember to do that when you take the picture, though, all is not lost. Consider a photo like this one, in which everything is more or less in focus.

We can give the subject more impact by editing the image to produce a deeper depth of field. I'll use Photoshop Elements to describe the steps, but this is easy to do in any program that supports multiple layers.

Blur the Photo With Layers

In the Layer menu, choose Duplicate Layer, and then click OK. Now that you have two identical copies of the photo open, let's add some blur to the top layer. Make sure that the top layer is selected in the Layer Palette; it's probably called 'Background copy'. In the Filter menu, choose Blur, Gaussian Blur. In the Gaussian Blur dialog box, you can select the intensity of the blur by varying the radius value. Click OK. At this point, you'll notice that the entire photo is blurry. Fret not--we'll fix that in a moment.

Fine-Tune the Blur

You're ready to remove the blur from the subject in the top layer. Choose the Eraser tool, and ensure that it is the right size and shape for the job: First, in the Tool Options palette, choose Brush from the mode menu. Then, in the brush drop-down menu, pick a soft round shape and set it so that it is no bigger than any section you need to erase.

Now click on the subject and use careful strokes to erase the blur effect. Keep the edge of the brush a few pixels away from the edge of the subject, and you'll see the feathering effect disguise the transition between the foreground and the background. Here's what my original photo looks like after my application of the effect.

Create Glowing, Vibrant Photos With the Orton Effect

Over the years, I've admired and tried to emulate a handful of photographers. Michael Orton is one of them: His soft, glowing, almost ethereal photos have always been special to me. Even if you don't know Orton's name, you've undoubtedly seen his photos, or pictures based on his technique. Simply put, he combines two photos of the same subject, one in sharp focus and the other blurry. I'll show you how you can do this yourself in Photoshop Elements--as I did in this shot. (You can apply the following instructions to almost any photo-editing program. Only the specific menu commands will vary.)

Duplicate the Photo

To get started, choose a photo. It can be anything, but I've gotten especially good results using portraits and nature images. Open the file in Photoshop Elements. Your first task is to make two copies of the photo; one will be sharp and in focus, while the other will be blurry. Choose Layer, Duplicate Layer. Name the layer Sharp so that you don't lose track of which seemingly identical layer is which. Now create a second layer in the same way, but name that one Blurry. In this screen shot you can see the two layers, along with the original photo at the bottom of the stack, named 'Background'.

Overexpose the Bottom Layer

Next, in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen, select the layer named Sharp and change its blending mode from Normal to Screen. You won't see anything change because the top layer is obscuring the view, but what you just did was to simulate overexposing the bottom layer. You can see the result for yourself by temporarily turning off the top layer; to do that, click the Visibility icon (which looks like an eye) to the left of the top layer. You should see the image get brighter. Turn the top layer's visibility back on when you're satisfied.

Now let's combine the bottom two layers. Select the Sharp layer, right-click, and choose Merge Down. The bottom layers should combine into one.

Blur It Up

You just need to blur the top layer, and you're done. Select the Blurry layer and then choose Filter, Blur, Gaussian Blur. Use enough of the effect to blur the scene, but not so much that it renders the entire photo and all of its details completely indistinguishable. I can't suggest a specific value, because Gaussian Blur's impact varies depending on the resolution of the photo. As a rule of thumb, though, you might want to start around 14 and see if you like the effect.

Now, with this layer still selected, right-click it in the Layers Palette and change the mode from Normal to Multiply. You should immediately see the effect. The final step is to dial in just the amount of Orton Effect that you want by using the Opacity slider in the Layers Palette to adjust the brightness and blur.