The standard camera sensor is rectangular in shape – a configuration that allows for both portrait and landscape orientations.
But is landscape orientation crucial to the execution of a landscape photograph? Must portraiture always be photographed in portrait orientation?
Plus, what if you’re photographing a subject that’s neither a portrait nor a landscape? What orientation works best?
In this article, we’ll have a look at how to choose between a portrait or landscape orientation in photography.
A bit of history
Portrait and landscape designations likely stem from the orientations of canvasses used in art.
The dimensions of a horizontal rectangle best accommodate the wide vistas depicted by landscape artists. This earned the format its landscape title.
However, the landscape orientation is not restricted to landscape photos. Yes, landscape masterpieces by Vincent Van Gogh, Hokusai, and Monet have been in a landscape format. But artists like Sandro Botticelli and Wassily Kandinsky have created non-landscape art using landscape orientation. Frans Lanting, Andreas Gursky, and Gregory Crewdson all depict photographic subjects with the landscape orientation.
It’s the same for portrait photography. Photographers such as Robert Frank and Annie Lebovitz have approached portraiture in a landscape format.
A canvas taller than it is wide has become known as portrait orientation.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring are famous examples of portraits depicted in the traditional format. And Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl are well-known examples of portrait photography executed in a portrait format.
But portrait orientation isn’t limited to depicting people. Painters like Rachel Ruysch and Claude Monet worked in a portrait format to accommodate non-human subject matter.
And 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.
Should you use portrait or landscape 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.
Vertical subjects like tall buildings, trees, and waterfalls may also require a portrait orientation to be captured in their entirety.
Subjects made up of horizontal elements (like aircraft and landscapes) can fit better in 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. But a portrait orientation 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 you can see the different emphasis being placed on the floral silhouettes.
The portrait example emphasizes the energetic, upright quality of the flower. The landscape orientation creates a more relaxed perspective.
Every photographic situation is different and sometimes an element in a potential image is less than ideal.
If there are elements present within a photo that you would rather omit, switching camera orientations might help achieve a more polished image, either in-camera or in post-processing.
Cropping out excess information with a portrait orientation will simplify an image and minimize distractions.
Switching from a portrait to landscape orientation will decrease image height, prioritizing the horizontal flow in a photograph instead.
Formality vs relaxation
Over time, our historic use of image orientation has associated specific visual qualities with both portrait and landscape formats.
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.
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!
Do you lean towards portrait or landscape orientation? Share with us in the comments!