Let’s start off by explaining what Portrait and Landscape are, exactly, for anyone reading this that doesn’t know. Portrait orientation is a more generally reserved for… well, portraits, like Figure 1. Landscape orientation for landscapes, as in Figure 2. Makes sense, right? So what’s with Figure 3, which shows a portrait (of sorts) in Landscape orientation?
This is worth thinking about since it’s one of the first decisions we make when we decide to make a photo. Here are a few things to think about when you choose whether to shoot in Landscape or in Portrait:
First of all, where’s the eye going? Also bear in mind that once the photo’s taken, you’re effectively trying to lead your viewer around by the eyeballs. Where do you want their eye to go? While there’s a lot that goes into composition, a general rule of thumb is that landscape tends to lend itself to “panning” (the eye’s following the horizontal axis), whereas portrait favors “tilting” (the eye follows the vertical axis) Sometimes there will be lines within the photo that draw the eye, but just as often it’s the shape of the subject itself (or the interplay of its various shapes) that’s doing the work for you.
Landscape is great for creating a sense of context, since it practically begs you to provide some background for your subject. Portrait orientation, on the other hand, is helpful when you want your subject to be the center of attention. Of course, that’s only a guideline, since the way you frame the shot in either case (and specifically, how close or far you are in relation to your subject) can either isolate or contextualize your subject just as well as the way you’re holding your camera.
And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to another consideration. We’re conditioned by years of seeing things presented in a certain way. So much of what we see — television, the monitor on which you’re reading this, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — is in Landscape that we expect certain kinds of scenes to be presented that way. It’s expansive, inclusive, and informal. On the other hand, so much of portraiture, from Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, relies on what we’ve come to read as the formality of the Portrait format. Using one format where the other would normally be used is a way to work against type on a subconscious level; a horizontal portrait, for instance, can make someone seem more approachable.
Using the Rule of Thirds sometimes also means changing your orientation. If you’re using your viewfinder or LCD’s grid lines (or even just eyeballing it), you may have something that lines up perfectly where it “should” on the grid lines. However, it could also be an awkward, or otherwise ineffective, composition. Try changing the orientation and reframing the shot. This is also true when you’re shooting more than one person, since a vertical photo tends to emphasize closeness (something to bear in mind if you’re shooting a group of friends), whereas a horizontal photo, if not framed properly, can make your subjects seem a bit lost or insignificant.
Here’s what I’d like you to do: Experiment. If you tend to shoot everything in one orientation, try the other. Or, if you tend to shoot certain types of subjects with the same orientation, change things up and see what it does to your composition and framing. If you’re all about context, see what happens when you zoom in on the details; this can have the added bonus of making you notice, and appreciate, details you might’ve missed or otherwise passed over. If, on the other hand, you’re all about detail, enjoy the forest and skip the trees for a bit. Sometimes these small changes can make a big difference, especially at times we’re starting to feel things getting a bit stale.
And here’s something else to try, just for fun: Instead of aligning your camera in a conventional portrait or landscape orientation, use a diagonal line within the photo (even if it’s a diagonal created by a vanishing point) as a guide to align the camera. Take Figure 4 as an example; the landscape format would tend to lead the eye from left to right, and in fact the signs do just that. At the same time, however, the slight diagonal tends to lead the eye “upward” at the same time. The results aren’t always going to be spectacular (indeed, the jury’s still out on Figure 4), but I’ve found that this can be effective at times when you have a really busy frame. When you’ve only got one strong subject, it just looks like they’re toppling over, but if there’s a lot going on, tweaking your orientation can be an option to slow your viewer down. Not only can this give you a different perspective (literally), it’s also a way to play with the leading lines within the photo and where the viewer’s eye is led as a result.