Vertical vs Horizontal Orientation in Photography

Changing habits is tough. I used to, for example, use my iPad in portrait orientation for the most part. Now I’m trying to break that habit.Ditto for things on the shooting side. At one point, I used to have a vertical grip on my 5D Mark II and shot primarily in portrait mode. Most of what I shot was vertical and I loved it. Portraiture, I used to think, should only be shot vertically. I even invested in an “L” bracket for my 5D so I could shoot in portrait mode with a tripod more comfortably.

Now? Not so much.

I’m shooting more horizontals. I’m consuming more content in that orientation, too. And, like any self-respecting geek obsessed with the reason underlying things, I wanted to know why. I think I’ve figured it out.

Tension and Space in Photography

“Fill the frame.” Every photographer I know says this. Some are starting to move away from that statement in favor of more contextual images, but getting closer to your subject is generally considered to be a good thing. I haven’t changed my mind about that, but I have noticed that there is a marked difference between getting closer to your subject while in a vertical orientation versus a horizontal orientation. Take these images of Dwayne Wade from a past issue of GQ. Here, in the iPad version of the magazine, the example makes much more sense. In the vertical orientation, Wade’s cut off at the hem of his jacket. He fills the frame, and it’s a great shot (totally dig the suit, by the way).

But look at the same image in the horizontal. Here, he’s cut off mid-thigh, and he’s looking off to stage left. There’s space, filled with text and graphics, and there’s breathing room on his sides.

In the first image, he’s being crowded. There’s tension there, but it’s the not-so-good type. He’s looking off the edge of the photo, and there’s almost no room for him to move. In the second image, his gaze has a direction to go in. You can imagine Dwayne Wade feinting to the left, or pulling back to the right. There’s tension, but it’s the kind of tension that comes from what I think of as potential motion. That’s the good kind of tension, the kind that exudes an energetic vibe. Horizontally, you get it. Vertically, not so much.

Context and Room

Take this image from a Dior ad. In the vertical, you see the model, you can see that she’s in a car.

Switch that out to the horizontal, and…what changed?

She’s still in the same car. She’s still in the same position. Nothing’s changed, except the space you can see in the photo. I argue this: in the horizontal, she seem more comfortable. Less cramped. She’s got room to move, room to shift. That room is what makes the horizontal image seem more luxurious than the vertical. I look at that vertical, and I think, “Yeah, she’s in a car. It’s probably a nice car.” The horizontal image, however, changes that to “Oh yeah, she’s definitely in a nice car. Look at how she’s chilling in that seat, look at all that room.”

Context is another reason why I’m digging horizontal images more. This ad from Longchamp Paris is an excellent example. The vertical focuses on the model and the bag, which is fine. She’s at edge of the frame, an elbow cut off. Nice image, but again, all I can see is that she’s on a motorcycle on a country road.

Cue the horizontal. Now it’s a whole new story.

The motorcycle is vintage. The helmet and goggles in her right hand could be straight out of the forties, fifties, maybe sixties. That adds context to the image, gives it a sense of place and time. It makes the image come alive with meaning and you buy into the picture of motoring down a French country road on a vintage Triumph. That’s context.

We See Horizontally

Okay, human vision isn’t really horizontal or vertical. But I do think we see things primarily on the horizontal axis. We read either left to right or right to left (the Chinese and Japanese systems being the notable exceptions). We see things that are in a horizontal panorama that stretches across our vision. How often do you look up and down, versus side to side, when you’re just walking around?

Visually too, we are trained to see things in the horizontal. Your TV is a widescreen, as is your laptop’s screen. Movies are made in widescreen, not narrowscreen. You drive, you scan left and right, because there’s no reason for you to look up. I argue this: the horizontal view is more natural for most people.

Benefits of Vertical Orientation

Verticality (yes, it’s a word) is all around us. It’s pervasive, too. Our book pages are vertical. Our magazines are vertical. I think that human beings prefer to read in narrower columns than wider ones. The vertical page is more convenient to hold as you read it. I can hold an 8.5 x 11 page quite firmly along one edge, with one hand as I read it, but if I switch it to horizontal, I have to use both hands. That’s why magazines have been vertical, I think. It’s a lot easier to read a magazine with one hand if you’re holding it vertically.

But in case it hasn’t escaped your notice, most situations where the vertical is more appropriate have to do with the written word – and even there, as I said, we still manage to insert a bit of horizontality (yes, also a word) by reading left-to-right or right-to-left. For images, I think, by and large, we prefer horizontal over vertical.

So In What Orientation Should You Shoot?

Shooting horizontally all the time may not exactly be the best proposition for all photographers. It’s kind of hard to envision taking an architectural shot of a tall building in landscape mode, for example, or you might be shooting for a poster, doing an editorial shot, or have some other very valid reason for shooting in portrait orientation. Also, my iPad is more comfortable to hold vertically. There’s no denying that. When I hold it horizontally, I feel like I’m cantilevering it with my hand. It’s annoying.

The point of this op-ed isn’t to convince you that, going forward, you should shoot everything in landscape mode. Rather, it’s to get you to try and think outside the (vertical) box and shoot something in landscape orientation that your natural instincts tell you to shoot vertically. On my most recent shoot with staffer and portrait photographer Alexandria Huff (who shoots almost exclusively vertically, for the record), I shot all but one image horizontally. The vertical one didn’t make it into the selects list.

Alex Huff, shot horizontally.

Portrait photographer Alexandria Huff standing in as my model for a horizontal shot.

Honestly, I enjoy looking at images a lot more in horizontal mode these days. Again, sure, there are images where the vertical works better. I once saw a great image of a kayaker about to go over the edge of a waterfall that must have been about a hundred feet high. In that shot, a horizontal might not have conveyed the gravity (no pun intended) of the situation. Yet, I find that these circumstances are few and far between. For me, at least, landscape works better than portrait, and I’m happy to accept that the new horizon(tal) is here, at least until something comes along to beat it.

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

1 Comment

  • Sonja Knight

    Totally agree with this! “Fill the frame.” Every professional photographer indeed says this. Some are starting to move away from that statement in favor of more contextual images, but getting closer to your subject is generally considered to be a good thing.

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