Landscape vs. Portrait can mean different things to different photographers. Know the difference!
One of my six year old’s favorite jokes is “When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar!” It’s easy to amuse a first-grader. But just like a door that’s a jar, landscape vs. portrait, as used in photography, can be a bit confusing. The two terms actually related to three different aspects of photography: orientation, genre and camera mode. So a portrait can be shot in landscape orientation and a landscape can be shot in portrait…wait, I’ve gone cross-eyed. If you’re ready to unboggle your brain, too, keep reading as we explain how the terms apply in different situations in photography and when to use them.
Landscape vs. Portrait as direction
Both the terms landscape and portrait can describe how an image is oriented AND both describe a genre of photography.
When discussing orientation or direction, landscape refers to an image that is wider than it is tall, that is, shot in a horizontal orientation. The image below is shot in landscape orientation. It is wider than it is tall.
Portrait, then, refers to an image that is shot so it is taller than it is wide. It is shot in a vertical orientation, as shown in the photo below.
Portrait vs. Landscape as genre
When discussing a genre, or style, of photography, how the orientation of the final image or how it is displayed doesn’t matter. Portrait photography is a genre featuring pictures of people. (Or pets. Pet portraits are a growing market. But we’ll stick with people for purposes of this post.) Portrait photographers work to capture a person’s appearance, personality, style and attitude in an image. Landscape photography focuses on…well…landscapes. Mountains, city skylines, seascapes, any image featuring a space within the greater world is a landscape image.
Landscape vs. Portrait as a camera mode
The final way landscape vs. portrait are discussed in photography are as camera modes. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras and prosumer DSLRs have “modes” that you can select. These are pre-programmed settings that the camera uses based on what it thinks you intend to photograph and how you intend to compose the scene. In portrait camera mode, the camera thinks you are shooting a person, will likely fill the frame and want it bright and well lit. The icon on your camera to choose this mode is usually a person’s profile. In landscape camera mode, the camera thinks you are shooting a scene and want a great depth of field recorded. The icon on your camera for this mode is probably a mountain. These settings are great for occasional shooters. For maximum control over your camera and images though, you’re always better off learning how to shoot in manual mode and making the decisions for the camera.
What is better – landscape or portrait? The choice of orientation
When discussing how an image is shot and presented, is portrait or landscape orientation better? Do I have to shoot a portrait of a person in portrait orientation? The answer is, it depends on you. There is no one right way to shoot ANY photo. It depends on your goals and vision for the image as a photographer.
Before there were photographers, there were painters. Like artist on canvas painters, not house painters. These painters painted how they viewed the world. When we view a scenic vista, we take it all in as far as the eye can see…like in a landscape orientation. Think Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” But when we are viewing or talking to a person, our eyes naturally focus on the person and let the background fall away. We naturally see other people in a mind’s eye portrait orientation. Think any presidential portrait you’ve probably ever seen.
So our natural inclination is to paint and photograph a landscape image in landscape (horizontal) orientation and a portrait in portrait (vertical) orientation. It’s literally why the orientations are named the way they are.
BUT…there are no rules when it comes to creating compelling images. Sure, I could blather on about the evocative quality of shooting against how we naturally perceive a scene. I could even use big words like juxtaposition and counter-intuitive. But that would just bore you and only impress my mom. Instead I’ll say this…try it both ways. Play with angles and orientation to find a composition that satisfies you, as the artist. You might find one orientation or the other suites the scene better or helps create different emotion. You get to decide how the viewer ultimately sees the scene, not some painter from 200 years ago or a stuffy photography blogger. So go…shoot…experiment!
Other things to remember
- Don’t rely on cropping. If you think later you might want that image in the opposite orientation, shoot it that way. Yes, you can crop in post later. But your goal should always be to get it as correct in camera as possible.
- Check with your client. Stylistically you might adore a portrait shot in a vertical orientation, but your client might require it in the vertical. Yearbook photos, head shots or photos shot for advertisements sometimes have strict size and orientation restrictions. Know those going into the job and shoot with them in mind.
- If you’re shooting video, shoot it in landscape orientation. Most online platforms now accommodate video shot in a vertical orientation, but shooting in a horizontal orientation gives you the most flexibility for video in the long run.
- Be social savvy. If you are shooting content for a specific social media platform, know the orientation each platform prefers. Photos are displayed differently on Instagram than on Twitter or Snapchat. Know the aspect ratio and dimensions used by the platform you are shooting for and choose an orientation with that in mind.
Help! My Phone is Locked in Vertical!
Smartphones allow you to view content either vertically or horizontally by rotating the device. If you’ve locked your phone, however, it might not make the switch on it’s own! Knowing how to lock and unlock automatic rotation is definitely a must for phone photographers. That way you are making the choice between landscape vs. portrait, not your camera.
The Choice is Yours
Photography is all about choices. Canon vs. Nikon. 35mm lens vs. 50 mm lens. Landscape vs. portrait. You choose your composition and your camera settings to record the scene. Most beginning photographers choose settings that best recreate the scene before them. But as you become more confident in your skill and move along your photography journey, you’ll soon have the ability to choose settings that enhance the scene in front of you or even make it something else entirely. That’s where your sense of artistry and imagination come in. Starting out, it’s okay to play it safe by shooting people’s portraits in portrait orientation or landscape scenes in landscape orientation. But you’ll grow more if you step out of the safe zone and bring your own vision to life.