The Orton Effect

It is quite likely that you have seen the Orton Effect applied in nature photographs, whether you are aware of it or not. The addition of a glow, dream-like effect, which is added in post-processing, has taken the landscape and nature photography world by storm. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of the Orton Effect, how this style has become prevalent in the world of nature photography today, and discuss the situations you might apply the technique – if you like the look – that is. 

In today’s digital world, the Orton Effect, or a version of it, can be applied using software such as Adobe Photoshop. This article will not address the ‘how-to’ steps involved, so apologies upfront for anyone looking for a step-by-step. For those interested, the technique is introduced within the curriculum of Backcountry Journey’s Adobe Photoshop: Beginner to Intermediate classroom workshop.

Shameless Plug Alert: We happen to have a class running over the weekend (Sat & Sun, April 25th-26th). Register today! 

The Orton Effect was created in the 1980s by photographer Michael Orton. A film photographer, Orton would take two (or three) images and layer them on top of each other – one that was in focus, and one that was overexposed and out of focus. Orton originally created the effect to imitate watercolor paintings, adding a soft glowing, dreamy effect. Take a look at the image below. Look for its fantasy-like look. Believe it or not, that is not exactly what the scene looked like on the day this photographer snapped this image (Whether that matters or not is for another article). 

Take another look at the above image. Then, carefully inspect other nature images across the web. Take a look at your favorite photographers’ Instagram pages, as well as anywhere else you view images. See it now? All over the place? While there are varying degrees in which photographers are utilizing the Orton Effect, it is prevalent in many many nature images. The Effect will be very easy to spot in some photographs, and a bit less obvious in others. 

It’s prevalent for good reason – the dreamy glow really makes images stand out above others! And in a world saturated with photos, and the use of filters and presets (think Instagram), making yours stand above others is important, even if (nearly) everyone is doing it. So, should I just apply it to all of my nature images? It looks super cool, and would instantly create a definitive style.

Not so fast, my friend!! As with just about everything, there are some things to consider before you simply apply the effect to every photograph in your portfolio. While the effect can enhance your photos, it has the potential to do the opposite if applied to all images as it is not right in every instance. For example, if you have a scene with flat front light, you’d create a continuity problem by adding dreamy light. Where did it come from?

When to Apply?
Deciding if this look is right for your image is obviously up to you. Are you a photographer who wants to create this sort of feeling in your images? Or, are you more interested in showing a scene as close to exactly what you saw when you took the image? Only you can decide what is correct for you. However, the Orton Effect typically will work well on images with the following qualities:

  • Soft light
  • Clean gradients between lights and no harsh shadows
  • Fog or smoke
  • Mist around water
  • Water
  • Landscapes that include forestry or mountains

While this is by no means a complete list, it should get you thinking if you are interested in trying out this method. This technique, when applied correctly, can be an effective way of transporting your viewer into a different world, but if applied in the wrong situations, or too much too often, it can backfire as well.  

The Orton Effect is here to stay. Landscapers love it because it really does add something nice to images, making them pop and really stand out! It is loved by many and, as with most things, also hated by some, but only you can decide if its right for your photography. 

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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