Photography is about choices. Whenever you go out for a shoot, you have to decide which lenses you want to bring with you, which angle is best, and what aperture gives the right depth of field for your subject. Another important choice is the one you make between portrait and landscape modes. It is a choice that has to do with the composition of the image, and as such, it is a choice that makes all the difference.
Some kinds of photos are just suited for landscape mode while others are perfect for portrait mode. The general idea is to fit your subject into the entire frame and to do it in a way that is visually interesting. Composition is about choosing what to include, what to exclude, and where to put it all once you’ve made the choice. When you decide whether a certain kind of subject is best as a portrait or a landscape, you are deciding what you want to keep in the photo and what definitely has to go.
Consider the following image I used for our WOW photo tutorial. As I walked along the beach to take this, I knew it had to be a landscape photo because of the nature of the subject I was shooting. It was simply too wide to fit into a portrait.
Could I have achieved the same level of visual interestingness by framing this picture as a portrait? Definitely not. What is so appealing about this image are the horizontal lines that guide the eye into and out of the trees. The same effect wouldn’t have been possible in portrait mode.
It’s much better to explain this with a picture. Through some work in Photoshop, I picked a portrait-sized section from this image. If I had taken the best possible portrait composition of this shot, it would have looked like this:
Now, is this a bad photo? Not at all. It’s just not a great photo anymore. The difference between choosing a portrait or a landscape can be the difference between okay and amazing.
I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again. The easiest way to produce visually interesting photos is to use the rule of thirds. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting in portrait or landscape mode, if you keep placing your subject in the middle of the frame, your photos will probably be uninteresting.
To avoid the photo blahs, try placing your subject in one of the upper, lower, left, or right thirds of the frame. Keep the center of the frame clear of anything you want to draw attention to, at least for now. As you become more accustomed to the rules of composition, you can start breaking more of them. That way, If you do decide to try an unconventional composition, you will at least know why you are choosing it over something more standard.
Most of the time, how you frame the photo (the composition) will help you decide whether you should choose portrait or landscape mode. If you can’t find a visually interesting composition that uses the rule of thirds in one mode, you can probably find it in the other. That’s why it’s important to experiment with every type of shot you take. While you’re still learning this, take the same number of portraits and landscapes, figure out why you prefer one version to the other, and use your experience in future shoots.
A lot of people tell me that the reason they switch between modes is to fit the subject into the frame. This is kind of true, but sometimes even if you manage to get the subject in the frame just by switching between landscape or portrait modes and vice versa, you still miss out on a great composition. Sometimes it’s better to zoom in further to capture a more detailed portrait of a person, even if you aren’t including that person’s entire body in the shot.
As a final note, don’t rely on your ability to crop shots later on. It’s time consuming, and it’s better to just get the shot right the first time. Cameras are getting better and better, with higher resolution image sensors. Why not take full advantage of this and enjoy the ability to blow up your images to gargantuan sizes? When you don’t use the right camera orientation, and you have to crop later on, you’re basically wasting the extra megapixels you paid so much for.
So there you go. Take your time and make the tough choice between portrait and landscape modes. If you think about composition first and make all of your decisions based on that, you’ll end up with much nicer images.