Composing Photographs: Horizontal vs. Vertical Compositions

August 16, 2013

Composing Photographs: Horizontal vs. Vertical Compositions

In photography, when we talk about composition, we're talking how the elements in your image are laid out and arranged. And, as we talked about in previous posts, there are a number of rules or guidelines that can help you compose a more pleasing, dynamic shot.

Unless you are shooting with a camera with a square format (most consumer cameras—point and shoots and DSLRs—have a rectangular rather than a square sensor), the first decision that you have to make about composition when you line up to take a shot is orientation.

Do you want to hold the camera horizontally so that your photo is wider than it is taller, or do you want to take a vertical shot by rotating the camera 90 degrees to create an image that is taller than it is wide?

Most beginning photographers take all of their shots in the horizontal orientation. And in a sense, that's not really surprising. It would seem from first glance that cameras are naturally set up to shoot horizontally. The camera comes out of the box that way. And with the position of the grips on the sides of the camera and the flash on the top, it seems that cameras are designed and set up for taking horizontal photos.

And for that reason, it seems, many people either don't think to or don't realize that the camera can be rotated….!

In fact, one of the easiest ways to improve your photography is to mix it up when it comes to compositional orientation.

First let's talk about some basic guidelines for the best orientation for your images.

In general, your subject will give you the first clue as to the best orientation.

So, for example, the horizontal orientation is also sometimes referred to as "landscape". That's because it tends to suit landscape-type subjects, scenes that are naturally wider than they are tall.

Here's an example:

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But who's to say that a vertical orientation wouldn't also work for this subject:

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You'll notice that the two images above, with their different orientations on the same subject, emphasize different aspects of the scene. The horizontal image conveys the movement of morning light through the expanse of the landscape while the vertical orientation highlights the morning light in terms of the almost lanky aspect of the tall trees.

So the different orientations tell different stories.

We can see the same situation when we look at the vertical orientation. The vertical orientation is sometimes also referred as "portrait" and you can probably understand why. The vertical orientation is especially well matched to photos of people.

Again let's look at an example. The vertical orientation of the photo below seems appropriate for the image of this young girl.

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But we can also use the horizontal orientation for this shot, especially if we crop close and employ the rule of thirds to emphasize her beautiful eyes:

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So what to do when it comes to orientation?

Well, certainly consider the orientation that the scene naturally draws you to. So that means a vertical orientation for subjects that are tall in nature and a horizontal orientation for scenes or subjects that are wide and expansive.

But also don't be afraid to go against these guidelines for a fresh perspective.

And, when in doubt, shoot both and decide which you like best later.




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