What’s the difference between portrait and landscape?
When it comes to portrait vs landscape in photography, we could be talking about three entirely different things:
- Portrait vs landscape orientation
- Photography genre of portrait or landscape
- A camera’s portrait and landscape shooting modes, or camera modes
So I’ll briefly mention genre and shooting modes before we get into portrait vs landscape orientation and how your choice impacts photography composition.
Portrait vs landscape photography genre
We all know the broad difference between portrait photography and landscape photography. But when is a portrait a landscape and vice versa?
When photographing people, there are many types of portraiture, one of which is environmental portraits. While it might seem confusing to talk about environment and portraits as one thing, it is in fact portrait photography. It just entails photographing people in their natural environment (usually for work).
Of course, there’s also pet portraiture….or pawtrait photography (that was a joke). So, portrait photography is not always just people.
On the other hand, landscape photography is about the landscape, the great outdoors. Or is it? What about treating the body as a landscape in fine art nude photography, or boudoir photography?
Portrait and landscape shooting modes
On many cameras, particularly beginner cameras, you can select a pre-programmed shooting mode by choosing one of the icons. They include portrait mode, as well as landscape mode, amongst others. These are aside from auto, program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode.
I’ve written a full tutorial on shooting modes so won’t go into detail here (click on the link below), except to state the obvious that:
- The portrait icon is for portrait photography (the camera sets a wide aperture for a blurry background)
- Select the icon that looks like mountains for landscape photography (the camera sets a small aperture for deep depth of field)
Further reading: What are the best shooting modes to use and why?
Portrait vs Landscape orientation in composition
A tall and narrow photograph is shot in portrait orientation (or format), and is photographed vertically. When it’s wide and short it’s in landscape orientation (or format) and is photographed horizontally.
New photographers tend to photograph entirely in landscape in the beginning, and as they progress they start to use portrait orientation more.
Any scene can be captured in portrait or landscape orientation. It’s up to you as the photographer to decide what format would best suit the:
- Subject – filling the frame
- Scene – what’s in the background
- Purpose – the message or story of the image
This is where camera orientation and photography composition become one decision. For many reasons, but sometimes it’s as simple as deciding not to include something in the photo.
Further reading: 19 photography composition rules you need to know to be awesome
Knowing how elements are emphasized or toned down in a photo purely with your choice of orientation, creates opportunities to create:
- Harmony or
- Visual tension
So let’s have a look at the impact your decision has on an image and therefore, which is better, portrait or landscape?
Including the background by shooting in landscape adds to the story and visual tension in this image.
How does portrait format affect composition?
It all depends on what your subject is and whether it’s horizontal or vertical.
Changing the feeling in a photo
To make a subject tall and imposing, photograph from a low viewpoint looking up at the subject. Using a portrait orientation emphasizes the height of the subject.
Photographing a horizontal subject in portrait orientation might mean that only part of the subject can be included in the frame. If photographed from further back, there would be more space either above or below the subject. This would make the subject small and vulnerable in the photo.
If you step back and photograph that same subject in landscape orientation instead, you’d change the story of the image.
A vertical subject photographed vertically. The image is dominated by the wind turbine.
How portrait orientation affects background elements
In portrait orientation vertical lines are more prominent in a photo. So if a scene has a lot of vertical lines:
- Photograph vertically to make the lines appear majestic and never ending
- Switch to landscape orientation, and crop into the vertical lines, to make them feel more solid and dominant
Further reading: Using vertical lines in photography composition
How does landscape format affect composition?
Landscapes are about space. Even if the scene is stormy, there’s still room to breathe. So photos created in landscape format automatically feel more spacious.
Changing the feeling of a photo with landscape orientation
If you shot the same subject as above from the same position, but in landscape format, you’d completely change the feel of the image:
- You would see less of the subject as it wouldn’t fit the frame
- It would be less imposing and therefore less powerful
- Depending on the environment, the subject could seem more regal or more vulnerable
- There would be space in the image
Step in closer, fill the frame with the subject, and the photo becomes more intimate, because the viewer feels closer.
Step away and include more space around a vertical subject in landscape orientation to place it in the environment, which:
- Puts the subject in context and gives the viewer more information
- Creates a distance between subject and viewer
- Gives the subject room to breathe
This image was taken within seconds of the above image, but the feeling is very different, because of the space that the landscape orientation creates in the photo. The wind turbine is less dominant, even though it’s still the subject of the photo.
How landscape orientation affects background elements
Horizontal lines give a feeling of balance and security in an image. When there are lot of horizontal lines in the scene, which you then cut off by photographing vertically, you remove some of the restful, secure feeling.
Further reading: How to use horizontal lines in photography composition
When you don’t have a choice on format
If you’re photographing for a client and the brief is for a particular format, you need to bear image orientation in mind while you’re photographing.
With personal brand photography, for example, your client may want to use the same image online in various ways:
- Facebook (landscape)
- Instagram (square)
- Website header image (panoramic, or skinny landscape)
- Website “about me” page (either portrait or landscape)
Photographing in landscape orientation and leaving more space around your subject than you would for say a family portrait, or headshot, makes the image more versatile for the client to crop and use as they please.
If you’re photographing for a specific print job, the image orientation is very important. If the space for the image is vertical, your client won’t want a horizontal photo, and vice versa.
Sometimes headshots on company websites are in landscape orientation, but most of the time they’re shot in portrait orientation.
In all other situations, when I’m photographing for a client, I make sure that I capture a mix of portrait and landscape orientations, because:
- Combinations of formats make interesting wall galleries of photos that work well together, because of both content and shape
- A mix of formats is more visually interesting for album design
- They’ll have a collection of images for different uses online and in promotional material
- The more variety I can deliver, the more they’ll buy
By changing my camera orientation, and my distance to the model, I was able to capture a variety of images within 3 minutes.
Cropping to change photo orientation
It’s always best to crop in camera… despite what I said above.
In other words, frame the shot as you intend to use it, rather than cropping a photo afterwards in post production. This way you maximise the pixels you capture. If you crop in post production and then want to print the image large, you could lose quality.
That’s in an ideal world of course.
Sometimes when you get your photos loaded to the computer, you might see that it would be better cropped to a different format. That’s okay, as long as you know the consequences of cropping.
This is the feature image before I cropped it. I like it in landscape format, which is also necessary if I want to use it as a feature image, because the set format is landscape.
If you’re photographing for online use, you’re far less restricted with cropping as there’s only so large that an image can be viewed online.
Last tip for shooting vertically
It’s really important to ensure that you have a firm, supported grip on your camera to avoid camera shake and to make sure that your photos aren’t skew. Straightening them in post production is annoying and a waste of time.
If you find it difficult to hold a camera securely in portrait orientation, or to change from portrait to landscape comfortably, consider getting a battery grip for your camera. Because battery grips also have a shutter button, you wouldn’t have to change your arm position when you rotate your camera to portrait orientation.
Further reading: How to hold a camera correctly for sharp photos
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