Portrait orientation vs. landscape orientation is a simple composition principle that is very important to developing a deep understanding of photography.
Portrait and landscape orientations take their names from the canvas orientation used in art. However, landscape orientation has been used not only for landscape photos or art. Of course, many landscape masterpieces have been in a landscape format. But in the past, there have been some artists that have created non-landscape art using landscape orientation. And the same thing happened with portrait photography. Photographers such as Annie Lebovitz and many others have approached portraiture in a landscape format.
That’s why when you take a picture, you should also focus on the page orientation that the photo should have. One of the many differences between a portrait and a landscape photograph is that the first is taken vertically while the second is usually horizontal. Of course, there can be some exceptions, for example, if you want the subject of your portrait to be part of the environment around him/her.
As the name suggests, portrait orientation is mainly used to shoot portraits of people. In this case, the subject is taller than it is wider, so your photo will turn out just like that, in a vertical orientation.
Remember that taking photos of living subjects isn’t the only application of this orientation, and you can use any object in the scene if you let your imagination guide you.
Landscape refers to the camera’s orientation when photographing a great environment such as natural landscapes. You want to hold your camera in landscape orientation to capture as many of the best parts of the scene as possible. However, if you look at the world around you, the most exciting and eye-catching things happen around your eye-gaze level or slightly above and under it. If you take your landscape photographs in a vertical orientation, a lot of the surface of the photo will be about the sky. But if you use your camera horizontally, you capture less of the sky and more of the environment around you. This approach makes the city/mountains/lake (whatever you are taking a picture of) the most prominent element in the image and achieves a nice balance to the composition.
One of the factors that will help you choose between a portrait or landscape orientation is the dimensions of the subject itself.
In terms of framing the face and body of a human, a portrait format can be ideal. The vertical nature of the human body works perfectly with a portrait orientation fame.
Vertical subjects like trees, tall buildings, and waterfalls may also require a portrait orientation to be entirely captured in the picture.
This is very useful in genres of photography like environmental portraiture, where the location of the image is just as important as the subject.
An image’s orientation contributes to giving visual emphasis and meaning to the photograph.
The portrait orientation emphasizes the upright extension of the subject in a photograph. The portrait ratio also gives a sense of independence and even superiority to the image’s main subject, depending on the storytelling of the picture (like colors/facial expressions/guiding lines).
On the other hand, the landscape orientation makes sure to add importance to the space around the subject so that the audience feels a sense of ease and immersion.
If there are some elements that you would rather omit, switching camera orientations would help achieve a more precise image. The process can be done either in-camera or post-processing the picture.
Cutting out the excess of information with a portrait orientation will simplify an image and minimize distractions.
When is best to choose Portrait or Landscape orientation?
It all depends on the purpose of the image and how you want to compose the frame.
The background elements of these orientations are very different. For example, in landscape shots, there is a horizontal balance, and both the foreground and background elements are usually balanced.
Alternatively, in portrait shots, the background stretches into infinity and gives a sense of height and vertical length.
In each orientation, the focus of the subject also changes significantly. In portrait shots, the subject is the photo’s central object and the one with the most meaning. The portrait orientation framing immediately draws your eyes toward the subject. On the contrary, when you shoot in landscape orientation, the main subject is less clear and usually feels more distant. If you utilize techniques like leading lines or the rule of thirds, you can still draw the viewer’s eye where you intend to, but the subject is not as imposing or immediately clear as it is in portrait shots.
The decision to shoot in portrait or landscape should be the first basic rule of composition to think about while taking photos. Of course, the same applies to video.
You’ll learn which to choose with practice to achieve the best composition. Of course, there’s no right or wrong decision, but there are some excellent rules you can follow to make a choice easier.
For example, photographing a tall subject in landscape mode won’t be as pleasing to the eye. The subject matter will appear compressed – the flow of the image will be interrupted by excess space to each subject’s side.
Or, when photographing a broad, vast subject in portrait, it will feel like the subject is trying to bulge out the sides of the composition.
These two orientations can also create incredibly different emotional reactions. Landscape orientation shots can evoke a sense of wonder and amazement. They can also instill a sense of grandeur and make the central subject seem small. Alternatively, portrait shots evoke intimate emotions. You can build a stronger bond with the subject and make the viewer feel a closer connection.
Portrait photography is not the only genre that uses this orientation. For example, when you want to capture a full-body image like you would do in fashion photography or couples portraits, you might want to use the portrait format. Another example is architectural photography, where there are tall buildings captured in photographs or a cliff. You could use portrait format to capture a landscape scene, but it depends on the composition. The portrait ratio may be better if there’s a tall subject, such as a tree or large rocks. Getting closer to a tall subject can also create a dynamic feel to the image – as though the subject is towering over you. But taking a portrait of a living subject and capturing him/her from a lower angle can give a sense of intimidation.
In portrait orientation, the broad context of the photo may get lost. Usually, the main subject occupies the center of the image completely. And as a result, this can also add a sense of mystery to your photos.
The most common use for landscape orientation is, of course, landscape photography. However, other photography genres include landscape ratios such as street photography and large group shots. In street photography, you’re usually moving in an area with lots of horizontal lines and elements that can be interesting and worth being included in the shoot.
Streets, buildings, and objects moving in a horizontal direction are typical. Using landscape vs. portrait orientation allows you to capture your main subject and have enough going on in the background to tell a story. Although, without any doubt, storytelling is the base of photography, the emotions and feelings that you want your photo to produce in your audience are essential. Therefore, you have a significant impact on your composition as well.
In large group shots, many people have to fit into the photo’s frame.
That’s why you should rely upon landscape mode. If you used the portrait format, your subjects would be squished into the frame with unnecessary elements at the top and bottom of the image.
Landscape orientation shots bear all – you can see many more details and often provide a broader context against the central subject. You can use this to tell a story and to place your subject effectively within its surroundings, creating an environmental portrait where the subject and him/her surroundings seem to interact in a perfect balance.
While we’ve talked about the correct times to use both portrait and landscape orientation in photography, for sure, there are times when you can break the rules.
Choosing between a portrait or landscape orientation isn’t easy. There are many aspects to consider, and the orientation of an image depends a lot on the situations you have to work with.
But if you understand the benefits of different orientations, you’ll be able to decide which one to use to achieve the best result also considering the story you want to tell.
Usually, portrait orientation is the best choice when you have the main subject you want to be the focal point of your image like a person would be.
Instead, landscape orientation is often a better choice if you want to show more details of a broader range of subjects.
Which orientation you should choose comes with practice and an understanding of the differences in composition. It can be a personal choice or preference but could also be caused by the different situations you have to work with. In certain circumstances, when you compose a photo, it is clear which orientation to use, but most of the time is not that immediate. However, often the lines are blurred, and you must consider the composition, what you wish to communicate, and the purpose of the photo.