Is Portrait Formatting always best for Portraits?

Is Portrait Formatting always best for Portraits?


There are two main ways of holding a camera when taking an image – vertically or horizontally. These two modes are also often referred to as ‘portrait’ and ‘landscape’ formats.

These names give some indication of how people traditionally have formated portraits and landscapes – but is a vertical (or portrait) framing always best for portraits?

Today I’m going to suggest that you explore mixing it up – as part of our breaking the rules of photography series.

Faces and bodies are generally pretty elongated objects and so a vertical (portrait) framing can be quite well suited to them – however using a horizontal framing can also lead to some visually interesting shots also.

I particularly like a couple of horizontal framings when it comes to portraits:

Tightly Cropped Faces – Try zooming right in on the face of your subject in horizontal mode. In doing so you’ll probably find that you lose a little of their chin and perhaps some forehead – but it will give you a shot with a strong presence with the eyes prominently placed. You’ll also find that it leaves little room in your images for distracting backgrounds.

Head and Shoulders – One of the most effective ways of using horizontal framings in informal portraits is when you want to place your subject off center with a nice out of focus background behind them. While you can do this in a vertical formatted shot there is less room to play with.

There’s something about a horizontally formatted portrait that says ‘informality’ to me. Conversely – the vertically formatted shot can come across as a little more formal or ‘posed’. Of course there’s nothing wrong with either formal or informal portraits – but it’s worth doing some experimentation next time you’re photographing people.

Which format do you use most in your portrait photography? Experiment with some different framings next time and see what impact it might have.

This post has been updated – it was previously posted in January 2007

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Subhash Dasgupta December 22, 2012 05:53 pm

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  • arthur baum July 12, 2010 06:52 am

    To I flavell: Whether you use the terms "vertical" vs. "horizontal" or "portrait" vs. "landscape" is unimportant. After all, language is about communication. As long as we understand each other we are successful.

    To Biliana: In this case you must use correct terminology. f/2.8 is "WIDE or LARGE APERTURE;" F/16 is "SMALL APERTURE." The variable for lens opening is in the denominator; therefore, the resulting ratio has an inverse relationship.

    To Sabrina: In each of the photos, the face sort of JUMPS OUT AT YOU. You are probably referring to the fact that the background was out of focus. That's accomplished with wide aperture; generally, the widest that the lens affords. Also, use a moderate telephoto lens: 100mm - 150mm.

  • L Flavell October 31, 2009 08:20 am

    Why we, as photographers, even allowed a computer software company (Microsoft) to change the names of the orientation of photograph aspect ratios, I will never know. Why did Adobe adopt the ‘portrait/landscape’ terminology rather than just us what we have been using for hundreds of years, vertical/horizontal. The entire photographic industry should protest the use of the terms as they have been applied to digital media anyway and demand that this nonsensical use of the terms be reversed.

    Why should it have been harder to learn to use the normal terminology for vertical and horizontal than these new, non-accurate, improperly applied terms anyway?

    The terms portrait and landscape do not even mean vertical and horizontal.

    No, ‘portrait’ is not the ONLY way you can shoot a portrait with a camera AND shooting a portrait as a horizontal is not ‘breaking any rules’ because the misuse of this term should not imply that it is the orientation that a portrait of person MUST be photographed.

    So make photographs of people in either VERTICAL or HORIZONTAL orientation, apply the rule of thirds if desired and find new ways to express your personal artistic style as a photographer.

  • shanelle lee October 30, 2009 04:14 am

    Loved this article. It is really useful and informative.

  • Sabrina June 27, 2009 08:56 am

    I'm still pretty new to the portrait photography world, because most of the work I did before was still-life, sunsets, etc. The one thing that I am having trouble with is this:

    You see both of those pictures of the girl in this tutorial?
    How in the WORLD do you get them to look so real?
    "Real" meaning: so smooth, so clear, so... perfect I guess you could say.
    Especially in something like wedding photography. I look at so many professional photographer's work, and there is just that "something" that makes the picture just "POP." To be a little more... I don't know, specific.. I mean it just feels like you are RIGHT THERE with the people in the picture.

    Can anyone tell me how this is done? I'm guessing it is done in post processing, but no matter how much I fool with my photoshop, I just can't get it to look like those...

  • Eddie van der Walt July 12, 2008 05:24 am

    I recently found an article dealing with this and other portrait photography issues at

    Hope that helps too.

  • bogart July 11, 2008 10:35 am

    Nice advice, but I believe in a portrait the eyes plays a major role. The shine and color of the eyes can out shadow the rest of the face. Another thig to condsider is the texture of the skin. The skin is not always presumed to be smooth sometime some oil and blemishes add mood to the picture.

  • Dan Woods October 5, 2007 11:55 am

    You forget to mention the square format! These are neither portrait or landscape. If anyone has any good square pics that resemple emoticons, they should submit them to this contest Norton is doing. I work with them, so I'm ineligible for the $10,000 prize. Here's the link
    Good luck!

  • Darren September 18, 2007 11:54 pm

    vasanth - check out this tutorial on depth of field

  • vasanth September 18, 2007 11:33 pm

    Hi.. How to make the background out of focus, while focusing on any foregrounf objects?

  • Jeff Krieger September 18, 2007 05:59 pm

    I really like these images. Thx for the tips! Can you share what effects you use to get this look? Love it.

  • PLouie September 18, 2007 10:29 am

    I prefer the horizontal format for most images especially portraits. I do very much like the cinematic feel of movies and taking portraits in the "landscape" format are closer to that respect. A lot of my composition choices for portraits are made by imagining if it was a movie.

  • Francene July 5, 2007 06:43 am

    I love your website. I will try your tip on dark tops for photographs. I typically like florals, polka dots, etc. for black and white photos. My favorite thing to do is photography my toddler in oversized hats. I can email you a photo if you'd like.

  • Vineeta Bhat June 9, 2007 04:07 pm

    Ver nice article and very nice pics as well.

  • Thiru May 25, 2007 02:12 pm

    portrait can be made with both way ( landscape and vertical) but it will look good only when you apply rule of thirds or golden rule.

  • Biliana May 4, 2007 06:03 pm

    To Dan: to blur your background you use smaller aperture like 2.8 or even 1.8, focusing only the face!

    I like to experiment with portrait`s frames and I like the horizontal way too :) Nice tip! but only for the framing!
    Do you think of more photographs as examples?


  • Dan January 26, 2007 02:20 am

    never mind

  • Dan January 26, 2007 02:19 am

    How do you soften the photos like bikeracer did?

  • hippie January 26, 2007 01:03 am

    Interesting ideas, I'm doing an assignment on portrait photography for college, so very timely for me. Thanks!

  • sheik January 25, 2007 09:28 pm

    Julián's remarks about movies reminds me to allways keep in mind what the photo is being used for - which can help your decision concerning landscape or portrait.

  • bikeracer January 25, 2007 07:05 pm

    Hey, thanks for the mention / use of my photos. I noticed a little bump in activity on them and had to go looking for the reason. Nice article too. =]

  • nick January 25, 2007 10:34 am

    great article and some amazing examples too!

  • Raquel Paladino January 25, 2007 07:33 am

    Thank you...good article!
    I like to use landscape formatting for portaits...zooming in on the face...focusing on the best feature...usually the eyes or an interesting smile. This is a very good way to capture their essence in black and white.

  • Rolograaf January 25, 2007 05:51 am

    @Mike bikeracer has explained his Technique in the Technique group:

  • mike January 25, 2007 05:19 am

    Great tips, Ill be sure to keep them in mind.

    On a side note, how did bikeracer get those images to be so vibrant? Is that the blurring filter you mentioned a few articles back?

  • Julián Rodriguez Orihuela January 25, 2007 02:18 am

    You can think of landscape formatting for portraits as the only way to frame in movies. So, if you want some ideas, go see any movie made in the last 80 years!