Most of the time, a photo is a rectangular print you hang on the walls or put in an album. It has one side longer than the other and you have two display options: with the wider side on the bottom (horizontal) or with the narrower side on the bottom (vertical).
When you choose the horizontal position, the photograph has a landscape orientation. When you choose the other way around, the photograph has a portrait orientation. However, as a photographer, you make this decision long before pressing the shutter release button.
In fact, it’s one of the first decisions you make when seeing the scenery. But which one is better from an aesthetic point of view and also from a storytelling point of view?
Does the landscape vs portrait orientation battle change the composition or the message you want to convey? Here are the answers to all your questions.
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The Effects of Landscape vs Portrait Orientation on Framing
The way you hold the camera changes completely the framing of your photos. The simple 90-degree rotation of the camera decides which elements enter the frame and which don’t.
The landscape format is wider than it is tall and provides more space on the sides. It allows you to include in the frame wide short subjects without cutting them awkwardly at the edge. At the same time, it covers elements situated on the right or left from your subject, which usually provides more context, multiple subjects, or negative space. When you use the landscape orientation you want to have an interesting background that adds value to your photo.
The portrait format on the other hand is taller than it is wide and provides more space above and below the subject. It allows you to include in the frame tall thin subjects and offers a narrower perspective. The portrait format usually works better with a single vertical subject and leaves less space for context. The focus is almost entirely on the subject and you don’t care so much about the background.
The effects of landscape vs portrait orientation on framing are the effects of a novel vs poetry approach in literature. The first one has a strong narrative line, multiple characters, and a plot. The second one is mostly contemplative, usually has just one character, and invites to reverie and inner thoughts.
The Effects of Landscape vs Portrait Orientation on Composition
The rules of composition apply the same whether you choose the portrait or landscape format. However, the orientation of the camera influences the balance of composition and requests special attention.
Composing in Landscape Format
The landscape orientation is more likely to make the viewer pass through the photo from left to right. Especially if your scenery includes the horizon (e.g. landscape photos), a strong horizontal leading line, you need to make sure you place the focal point and the narrative of your photo across the viewer’s visual path. Other elements should have a horizontal orientation as well. For example, reflections and symmetries should have a horizontal axis; the subjects should have more space in front of them than behind; horizontal features of all kinds (e.g. textures, shapes) should be prioritized; the largest part of the subject should be exposed (e.g. place the camera parallel to your subject).
It seems a composition covers more space when you use the landscape orientation. As a result, the viewer feels far away from the subject and you need to find a compositional way to make them feel included. For example, you may add a sense of depth by using leading lines, placing an object in the foreground, or using side lighting for your scene. Your composition should offer a 3D perspective, allowing the viewer to feel the distance between elements, perceive contrast, and see all the details. Especially when the camera-subject distance is long, wide-angle lenses or a deep depth of field will help you. On the other side, when the camera-subject distance is short, macro lenses or a shallow depth of field will make the subject stand out and fill the frame.
Composing in Portrait Format
The portrait orientation focuses on a subject and makes it the star of the composition by default. Therefore, you should place the focal point in an appealing position to the viewer. A tall narrow subject in a portrait format creates a powerful vertical leading line. Make sure lines with other directions don’t distract the viewer’s attention. Similar to landscape format compositions, the portrait orientation requests vertical elements such as people, trees, mountains, and so on. If your scenery includes the horizon, remember to blend it well by placing it according to the rule of thirds.
Because the portrait format makes the viewer feel closer to the subject, it’s usually a good idea to place the subject in the foreground. The viewer will most likely pass through your image from bottom to top and perceive a long distance between foreground and background. A subject placed closer to the background will appear distant and less interesting.
While the horizontal lines of the landscape orientation add weight and stability to your composition, the vertical lines of portrait orientation create movement and instability. It’s more natural to imagine the flow of a waterfall or the grass moving in the wind in a vertical composition. Therefore, composing with the portrait format includes not only the visible elements of your scene but also the implied ones, which makes balancing vertical compositions exciting and challenging.
Tips for Choosing when to Use Landscape or Portrait Format
Landscape vs portrait orientation in photography is an old debate that led to a few myths. Most people believe that scenes with vertical elements such as people, trees, wind turbines, and tall buildings should be photographed using portrait orientation. And wide elements such as landscapes, street life, and large groups of people should be photographed using landscape orientation. While this may be helpful sometimes and ease the framing process, it also evens your portfolio, creates too similar compositions, and limits your creativity.
Instead, focus on the scene in front of you, choose your subject and the surrounding elements, evaluate lighting conditions, and compose each scene individually. If you want to frame as much as possible of the scene, use the landscape format. You may have to step away from tall subjects to be able to fit them in the frame. You may have to change your position to align leading lines with your composition. Do whatever it takes to make it work in the landscape orientation.
However, if you want to narrow the viewer’s perspective, hide an unaesthetic background, or focus on a single subject, choose the portrait orientation. You make have to give up framing the entire subject and focus on a single feature. Or you may have to place the camera in a lower position to make the subject look taller. Again, do whatever it takes to make it work.
You’ll notice that some scenes ask for a specific orientation: rivers and roads create powerful leading lines that can’t be ignored; the objects arrange themselves in an intuitive line; the arm or gaze of a person leads the viewer’s eye in a specific direction; a flag on top of a building makes it seem taller and more imposing; a little flower uses all its energy to follow the sun. Give your subject a voice and allow it to reveal its story.
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How the Photo Format can Change its Meaning
Landscape vs portrait orientation discussion isn’t just about the technical aspects of a photo. It’s also about its meaning. When you photograph a subject from a particular position, you capture a specific moment and angle and provide a personal perspective.
The viewer sees only what you show them. For example, you may choose to take a photo in portrait orientation and deliberately eliminate elements from the frame. Or you may choose to photograph a subject with back-lighting and hide its details, transforming it into a silhouette.
The landscape orientation makes things look smaller and far away. This may diminish their individual importance in the eye of the viewer and emphasize collective power. For example, photographing the city square in landscape format is more about the mass than it is about individuals.
With landscape format, you have to get really close to your subject to individualize it as you do in macro and close-up photography. There is a force of the context, of the background, that can’t be ignored.
With portrait orientation, you make a subject the main character. It’s probably the reason for which this orientation is often used for portraits. It may help you increase the significance of an object, focus on a dramatic feature, and impress the viewer.
Photograph a subject from below using the portrait orientation and you’ll make it look taller, more impressive, proud, and even authoritative. Photograph the same subject from above and you’ll make it look shorter, less impressive, submissive, and fearful.
When photographers want to make a child look sweet and innocent, they photograph them from above. On the other hand, sovereigns are usually photographed slightly from below.
Want to learn more?
Choosing between landscape and portrait orientations is a big decision and you should make it when taking the photo. Knowing the format from the beginning helps you create well-balanced compositions and find interesting perspectives. It gives you the chance to change the position of the camera, adjust camera settings, and focus on what matters. None of this is possible afterward.
If you don’t make up your mind, take two photos using both formats. It’s possible to resize the image and change its orientation using a photo editor but you’ll lose quality and consistency.
Do you have a favorite in the landscape vs portrait orientation battle? Let us know how often you use each photo format and what your reasons for choosing each of them are.