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Should You Photograph in Portrait or Landscape Orientation?

Which photo orientation should you use?

The standard camera sensor is rectangular in shape – a configuration that allows for both landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) orientations. When folks pick up a dedicated camera for the first time, their initial impulse is to photograph most subjects in landscape orientation (such as landscapes, cityscapes, and architecture), while portrait orientation is used primarily to photograph portraits of people.

It’s not hard to understand why: Most cameras are designed with landscape orientation as the default. Capturing a photo in portrait orientation requires flipping the camera on its side, which involves deliberate decision-making (and is often uncomfortable!). So unless an image is meant to be a conventional portrait, most beginners go the landscape route.

But as photographers progress, a question often arises: Should you really be using landscape orientation for landscapes and other scenic subjects? And should you really always be photographing portraits in portrait orientation? And what about subjects that don’t qualify as scenic but aren’t portraits, either? What orientation works best?

If you’re asking those questions yourself, then I think you’re on the right track – and I think I can help you gain a better understanding of the differences between portrait and landscape orientation, and how they can affect your images. Below, I share my best advice for working with these different photographic formats so you can make the right decisions when it counts!

Let’s get started.

Portrait vs landscape orientation basics

portrait and landscape orientation examples

If you’re simply interested in practical advice for working with portrait and landscape orientations, feel free to skip to the next section – but for those of you who want to understand a bit of the history behind these visual formats and how painters and photographers have used them in the past, keep reading!

Landscape orientation

The designations “landscape” and “portrait” likely stem from the orientations of canvases used in art way back when. The dimensions of a horizontal rectangle were best able to accommodate the wide vistas depicted by landscape artists. This earned the format its title.

However, the landscape orientation was not restricted to landscape paintings – and it’s not restricted to landscape photos, either. Yes, landscape masterpieces by Vincent Van Gogh, Hokusai, and Monet have been created in a landscape format. But artists like Sandro Botticelli and Wassily Kandinsky have created non-landscape art using landscape orientation.

And on the photography side of things, photographers such as Frans Lanting, Andreas Gursky, and Gregory Crewdson all frame subjects with the landscape orientation – yet many of their subjects are not landscapes.

horizontal orientation leaf
My image of a leaf is far from a traditional landscape shot, yet I chose the horizontal format to create a more relaxed approach to viewing.

Portrait orientation

A photo (or canvas) oriented so that it’s taller than it is wide is framed in the portrait format.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring are famous examples of portrait paintings depicted in the traditional format. And Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl are both well-known examples of portrait photography executed in a portrait format.

But portrait orientation isn’t only used for art that depicts people. Painters such as Rachel Ruysch and Claude Monet worked in a portrait format while accommodating non-human subject matter.

And the photographer Edward Henry Weston used a portrait format to lend a formal quality to his investigations of organic materials, while the Bechers made hundreds of portrait-oriented images of urban landmarks.

It’s also possible to do portraits in a landscape format; photographers such as Robert Frank and Annie Lebovitz have approached portraiture this way.

vertical leaf abstract
This is the same leaf displayed above, this time photographed in a portrait orientation. The portrait orientation lends a more formal quality to the image.

Should you use portrait or landscape orientation?

Now it’s time for the big question: What orientation should you use when photographing? When is portrait the better choice? When should you stick with landscape?

Here are the four key items to consider when choosing your frame orientation:

Fitting the subject

One of the deciding factors in choosing 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 well with a portrait orientation, simply because it fits.

Vertical subjects like tall buildings, trees, and waterfalls can sometimes also require a portrait orientation to be captured in their entirety.

vertical orientation flower
The verticality of this plant made it perfect for a portrait-format photo.

On the other hand, subjects made up of horizontal elements (like aircraft and landscapes) can fit better in landscape orientation. Because the landscape format is longer than it is tall, you can use landscape framing to frame these more horizontal elements without unnecessarily chopping off parts along the sides.

horizontal or vertical horizontal airplane
Because of the dimensions of aircraft, aviation photography is often carried out in a landscape orientation.

Landscape orientation can also provide more room for incorporating additional elements into a photograph. This is particularly useful in genres of photography like environmental portraiture, where the setting of the photograph is as important as the subject.


The orientation of an image contributes significantly to visual emphasis.

A portrait orientation exaggerates the upright extension of subjects in a photograph. It also speaks to our associations with tall subjects, emphasizing a sense of independence, wonder, modernity, and even superiority or unease.

In contrast, a landscape orientation places extra emphasis on space, illustrating ease and immersion.

In the simple example below, note how the change from portrait to landscape orientation results in a completely different emphasis:

flower silhouette example
Portrait or landscape? Both of these flower silhouette images have their merits, but despite the identical subject, the results are wildly different!

The portrait example emphasizes the energetic, upright quality of the flower. The landscape orientation creates a more relaxed perspective.

Removing distractions

Every photographic situation is different and sometimes an element in a potential image is less than ideal.

If there are elements present within the frame that you would rather omit, switching camera orientations might help achieve a more polished image. In general, it’s best to do this while out shooting, but you can also use a crop tool to reorient the image when you get back home.

Cropping out excess information with portrait orientation will simplify an image and minimize distractions. On the flip side, switching from a portrait to landscape orientation will decrease image height, prioritizing the horizontal flow in a photograph instead.

abstract horizontal of water
If you notice a distraction along the edge of the frame, a quick adjustment from horizontal to vertical orientation can deal with the problem.

Formality vs relaxation

Because landscape orientation has been regularly used in certain ways, and because portrait orientation has been regularly used in other ways, these orientations now have specific associations in the minds of most viewers.

Portrait orientation is associated with the formality of historic portraiture. It is also associated with being upright, which is attached to wakefulness, sociability, and energy.

A landscape format, on the other hand, can lend a more relaxed, organic impression to a photograph. So a horizontal orientation is associated with laying down, lending a more tranquil quality to an image.

As a photographer, you can play off these associations to create images with different effects. Want to capture a more formal photo? Try a portrait orientation. Looking to create a more relaxed shot? Landscape orientation might be a better pick.

woven mat

When in doubt, try them both!

Choosing between a portrait or landscape orientation isn’t easy. There are many aspects to consider, and the orientation of an image depends heavily on the situation.

But if you understand the benefits and drawbacks of different orientations, you’ll be in a good position to decide which orientation to use!

And in scenarios where you can’t quite figure out whether portrait or landscape is best, don’t be afraid to try them both, then evaluate the two images side by side on your computer screen.

Not only will you ensure you end up with a good shot, but you’ll learn something about photo orientation along the way!

Now over to you:

Do you lean towards portrait or landscape orientation? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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Megan Kennedy
Megan Kennedy

is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications. More of Megan’s work can be viewed at her website or on Instagram at MK_photodiary.

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