Incense

by Bart Arondson

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When I first showed my photos to relatively wide audience online, several photographers commented about the amount of portrait-oriented shots. The essense was that I should take more landscape-oriented photos, because it is easier to compose in portrait, but landscape "contains more information". It was a surprise for me, but when I looked at the main page of 1x.com, only 3 of 16 photos had portrait orientation.

Is this a rule of thumb that I should always prefer landscape (with other things being more or less equal)? And why is that? Is it because monitors are landscape-oriented or there are more subtle reasons?

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Get an old Hasselblad or Polaroid - then you have no choice, its Square :-) –  Darkcat Studios Jan 9 at 21:05
    
Was there a specific purpose/target for the photos? e.g. if you're taking photos to use for computer monitor wallpapers, then I can see how it'd be an issue... –  drfrogsplat Jan 10 at 1:11
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@drfrogsplat, it was some kind of picture story for a web-portal which arranged a competition for amateur photographers. –  faleichik Jan 10 at 10:50
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At least you had vertical shots. Way too many amateurs forget that cameras still work when you rotate them 90 degrees. –  Olin Lathrop Jan 12 at 15:51
    
I just like to add that taking any specific photo site as an example (1x.com) is not a solid base for gathering statistics. On some (many) photo websites, thumbs work in such a way that portrait images may appear better or grab more attention. –  Ferdy Jan 14 at 19:59

6 Answers 6

No, you are the artist and you decide what works best in your shots.

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I agree in principal that it is the artists discretion which is best, but there are also relative strengths and weaknesses of each aspect ratio that should be considered when making that choice. The situation may call for throwing conventional wisdom away, but it is good to understand why. –  AJ Henderson Jan 9 at 20:36
    
Of course, you need to have some basic "sense" and some knowledge where is better to choose landscape and where portrait. –  Juhele Jan 13 at 8:05

While portrait is nice for capturing an individual person or a small group of people because it relates well to the shape of the human form, it is not the way that we see the world. Our vision is not square, it is an oblong oval and we see wider than we see tall. This makes it so that we more naturally relate to seeing a wider image than we see tall. This is why movies are always landscape and why photos capture using landscape unless there is a specific reason to go portrait.

There isn't necessarily a problem shooting all portrait shots, but there are different strengths to both portrait and landscape images and it is good to have a thought process behind your decision either way. Landscape tends to be people's default since it mirrors how we see the world, but portrait really focuses in on the detail of a human subject.

As far as the statement that it is easier to compose in portrait than landscape, I would disagree strongly. Portrait gives very limited options for composition because there isn't much horizontal space to work with. The strength of portraits is that the human form fills the frame, but that doesn't leave much in the way of room for variety in framing the shot. This makes it much more important for the subject and angle of the shot to tell the story rather than the composition within the frame. Landscape on the other hand opens up a whole world of possibilities with the breadth of space you have to work with horizontally.

I guess when you are starting out it might be harder to figure out what to do with the space, but with experience, it is much easier to make the image say what you want it to when shooting landscape, and thus, I'd argue composition is also easier landscape.

The important thing to realize is the strength of both portrait and landscape, how they relate to your subject and your style and how they relate to your desired final image. Then make an artistic choice based on those criteria that fits your needs. If that's portrait more often than not, that's fine, if it's landscape more often, that's fine too. If it's somewhere in-between or even shooting them all relatively off angle, don't worry about it, just understand it and think about it.

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I challenge this sentence of yours: "Portrait gives very limited options for composition because there isn't much horizontal space to work with." There are million possibilities when portrait is equal to or superior to landscape. Humans standing, dancing, embraces, closeness, fashion - I find it hard to justify using landscape these cases. I have about ten thousand pictures people dancing tango, on street, on stage, etc. and unless you have something pleasing to the eye, and interesting to show in the background, close up on people is always better. –  TFuto Jan 9 at 21:01
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I also do low-key head close-up shots with wide open aperture. Portrait and landscape, both can be very nice, and they communicate a complete different emotion. –  TFuto Jan 9 at 21:02
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Your first paragraph describes exactly why I often find portrait orientation so inviting: it requires a different way of seeing. –  Dan Wolfgang Jan 9 at 21:04
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I'm not challenging what you are saying, I'm trying to explain how I agree with you and how what you are saying fits with what I am saying. Hope that makes more sense, because I agree 100% with everything you have said. –  AJ Henderson Jan 9 at 21:12
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Great first two paragraphs. You lost me one the third though: Portrait have as little horizontal space to work with as landscape has vertical space. –  Itai Jan 10 at 4:26

There's nothing wrong with portrait orientation. There are display mediums where it is more appropriate and other display mediums where it is less useful. This is true for both portrait and landscape orientation in general and particular aspect ratios in particular. Ideally a photo should be composed based on the intended display medium as well as the presentation of the subject. But things are not always ideal.

When a 3:2 landscape photo is viewed on an HD monitor (1920x1080), 84% of the monitor's area is used to view the photo 'full screen'. When a 2:3 portrait photo is viewed on the same screen, only 37.5% of the screen real estate is utilized so the amount of detail in the photo is reduced. Viewing size also affects things like perceived depth of field, the overall sharpness of the image, and noise. I think where the critics are coming from is that for online photo sharing sites it might be best to submit photos that fit the display medium as much as the subject matter allows.

As far as to which is harder to compose, I think that will always be based on subjective opinions. I do believe it is hard to compose a subject that would normally lend itself to portrait orientation when using landscape orientation. But it may be even more difficult to compose a subject better suited for landscape orientation when shooting in portrait orientation.

In the end the question comes down to who you want to please the most. Do you want to produce photos that you are most satisfied with? Or would you rather produce photos that please a particular audience (photo sharing site, customers, your instagram contacts, etc.) who might prefer something other than what you like best? Earlier we mentioned that things are not always ideal, and this may also apply to your current audience as compared to the ideal audience for your particular artistic vision: You!

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I stopped by here to say exactly this. I do photography to complement my web design, and I'm absolutely terrible about not taking enough portrait-style shots. More times than not I need a vertically-oriented image to take up some space in a sidebar, and all I have are landscapes. One of these days I'll learn. –  Ivan Aug 7 at 16:13

You will have to differentiate between you as an artist and you as someone serving your clients' needs.

You have full freedom to use any art form, in any way, to express your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and communicate whatever you would like to communicate. Anyone labelling that "wrong" deserve a punch in the nose, as there is nothing more fragile than an artist, not having any objective way to measure his performance, and a few guys out of a hundred have some joy criticizing the poor guy. The worst are who pretend to be nice and helpful: "You know, everyone talks about that you do not really grasp art, your knowledge is not sufficient. I am just trying to be your friend, and save you from embarrassment and wasting your money and time". You see and hear this guy, you instantly do a head kick, and I am not joking. Those are the one that, pretending to be nice, suck creativity out from artists. Critics, "everyone says that", "people rumour", now you know the recipe for handling.

Now, if your target audience prefers landscape, that is their preference. Everyone has the right to decide what is art for them, what is beautiful for them. This is influenced by culture, background, language, etc. No problem with that. If they want landscape, and they pay your bill, provide what they like: landscape format!

But never, NEVER ever believe that your art is in any way wrong. If a customer says that you do too much portrait, make a mental note that he wants more landscape. No biggie. If a customer says that you are WRONG by making too much portraits, make a mental note, that this guy is a jerk (or more preferably: the guy has not yet reached a level in human evolution to enjoy your art), but tell him that you will seek ways to produce art that is enjoyable for him. But that is serving your client and has nothing to do with how you perceive art.

But your art is your art, and if you like portraits, do portraits. If you want, do only portraits. If you want, create only circle-shaped photos.

The lesson I learned in my life is that if people criticize your art, you just have not promoted your art enough to find your right audience, who will be ecstatic about your art.

Good luck!

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There are valid reasons to choose one orientation over another; it may suit the subject best, fit your vision for how the image should be constructed, or because of how the image will be presented when it's all done. For example, video/computer display prefers horizontal photographs, and books often do best with vertical images. But the answer to how you compose the photograph, and create the finished work, must be yours.

But simple habit, or the effect of the tools that we use to take our photos, may also play a strong role in how we see and frame images. Almost all cameras take photographs in landscape orientation by default, but not all. I find that when I use a camera that has a viewfinder with a portrait orientation I am much more likely to choose that viewpoint for my photographs.

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Take the time to visualise how you want the final shot to look then select the orientation that best contributes to your achieving that shot.

As a photographer it's entirely your choice what orientation or aspect ratio you use, go with what you feel a particular situation requires and learn to trust your judgment.

That said time spent understanding the basics of how to compose a picture (rule of thirds etc) is always time well spent

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