Portrait vs landscape orientation in photography – which is better?

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.

Vertical and horizontal formats in photography
When talking about the orientation of an image, not the subject or genre of photography… portrait photos are vertical photos and landscape photos are horizontal photos.

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 isn’t 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, 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)

Vertical image cropped to portrait format

A landscape orientation portrait, in other words a horizontal portrait image

Portrait vs Landscape orientation in composition

A tall and narrow photo layout is photographed in portrait orientation (vertical orientation), and is photographed vertically. A wide and short photo layout is in landscape orientation (horizontal orientation) 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 using photography composition become one decision. For many reasons, but sometimes it’s as simple as deciding not to include something in the photo.

Knowing how elements are emphasized or toned down in a photo purely with your choice of camera 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?

Environmental portrait in portrait format to include background for story

Including the background by photographing in landscape adds to the story and visual tension in this image.

How does portrait format affect composition?

Deciding on portrait vs landscape depends on what your subject is and whether it’s horizontal or vertical.

Changing the feeling in a photo

To make a tall subject tall and imposing in portrait images, photograph from a low viewpoint looking up at the subject. Using 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.

Wind turbine in portrait orientation dominates photo

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 scene’s vertical lines, to make them feel more solid and dominant

When to use portrait orientation for portraits of people

In portrait photography, the portrait format is usually best for full body photos when the subject is standing or sitting. The vertical format is more flattering and lengthens the subject.

How does landscape format affect composition?

Landscapes are about space. Even if the scene is stormy, there’s still room to breathe. So photos captured in landscape format automatically feel more spacious. 

Changing the feeling of a photo with landscape orientation

Different orientations affect the feeling of a photo. If you photographed 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

So when deciding on landscape vs portrait the best orientation to use is the one that suits the subject and the feeling you want to create. There are no. hard and fast rules.

Step in closer, fill the frame with the subject, and the photo becomes more intimate, because the viewer feels closer.

Step away for a wider field of view to 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

When framing the subject use the rule of thirds and the rule of space to further underline the feeling of space.

Placing the wind turbine on the rule of thirds creates space

This landscape composition of the previous image was taken within seconds of the first one, 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 main subject of the photo.

How landscape orientation affects background elements

Horizontal lines in photos 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.

When to use vertical orientation for portrait photography

When photographing a person lying down, or sitting with their legs out to the side, a horizontal orientation is better.

When you don’t have a choice on portrait vs landscape 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 for their websites and on different social media platforms. These different uses require different orientations, for example:

  • Facebook (landscape)
  • Instagram (square, portrait or landscape)
  • 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 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 will want vertical photos, not horizontal photos, 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 landscape vs portrait formats make interesting wall galleries of photos that work well together, because of both content and shape
  • Mixing page layouts to include both a horizontal layout and vertical layout 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

Portrait and landscape format examples of the same scene

By changing my camera orientation to include both landscape and portrait, 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 scene 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 aspect ratio or format. That’s okay, as long as you know the consequences of cropping. 

Portrait format image to accommodate standing pose

This vertical image is the feature image of this article before I cropped it to a landscape image to fit the set format required for a feature image. I think this image works just as well as a vertical photo as it does a horizontal photo.

One of the key differences when photographing for online use, is that you’re far less restricted with how to crop portraits as there’s only so large that an image can be viewed online.

Last tip for photographing vertically

It’s really important to ensure that you have a firm, supported grip on your camera to avoid camera shake, especially when using a telephoto lens or photographing in low lighting conditions which require a slower shutter speed. Over rotating the camera when photographing vertically can lead to skew photos which you then need to straighten in post production, which is annoying and a waste of time.

So, if you find it difficult to hold a camera securely in portrait orientation, or to change from portrait to landscape comfortably, for better results 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.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about portrait vs landscape orientation, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait vs landscape orientation tips have helped you to understand how to use your camera in landscape and portrait orientation for better photography composition, share that too.

1 thought on “Portrait vs landscape orientation in photography – which is better?”

  1. As always, another fantastic group of important aids to better photography. You’re so good at making it so understandable. You’ve got to publish this.


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