Portrait vs Landscape

Recently I was asked a question which when I originally read it I thought was a very simple question to answer.  Only after writing a lengthy reply I suddenly realised that actually I don’t know what I was being asked.  The question was:

Portrait vs Landscape.  Which do I prefer and why?

It turned out that I had totally the wrong end of the ‘camera’ and was answering in response to genres when I was actually being asked in relation to composition and picture orientation.  Yes, I felt like a complete plum but it got me thinking about the various ways it can be interpreted for each meaning so decided to look at each in detail at answer the question.


Portrait vs Landscape by Photography Genre

Portrait vs Landscape – Humans vs Nature

To sound like a politician I will start off answering a question with a question.  What makes a photograph Portrait or Landscape Photography?

Portrait photography or portraiture by its definition is the art of capturing a person or a group of people, capturing their personality, the essence of their identity and attitude artistically.  It is a whole lot more than just pointing the camera at someone and clicking the shutter which I would term as a headshot.

Landscape Photography on the other hand in my opinion is very difficult to define as it means different things to different people.  If I had to try and put it into words and define it I would say its capturing the spirit and emotion of the great outdoors through photography.

That is pretty much how I see it but obviously there are many spin offs as you can imaging for such a general statement such as Seascapes and Coastal, Forrest and Woodland and Nightscapes to name just a few.

Then there’s the grey area in between such as a model within the landscape and I think this should be characterised by the subject intent.  If the photograph is about the model and they are the key subject showing their personality and identity with the great outdoors for me its Portraiture.  If the subject is the landscape with a model to add scale or used as an anchor in the image then I think it can be classed as Landscape.

So to answer the original question which do I prefer and why?  Well I am useless with people and have the utmost respect for portrait photographers who can work with their subjects to enable them to show their character on camera and have the ability to capture it.  I don’t have that issue with Landscapes they don’t move and I can certainly not position it and love pitting my wits against mother nature and enduring whatever she decides to throw at me.

So obviously I prefer to practice Landscape photography but in terms of art I can get just as much pleasure from looking at a stunning portrait as I can form a great landscape photograph and appreciate the artistic value of both.


Portrait vs Landscape Camera Modes

Portrait vs Landscape – Camera modes

Most cameras will have portrait or landscape modes which can be selected by use of the mode selection dial on the camera body or selecting scene mode and then selecting portrait or landscape from the menu.

These program modes tell the camera to use pre-programmed settings along with aperture and shutter speed tailored for the type of scene you are shooting.  Depending on camera model the predefined settings vary so for an entry level camera this might just change shutter speed and aperture but on most DSLRs these days it may also alter clarity, sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue (coloration).

These settings other than shutter speed and aperture are often missed and not understood when you read information online about program modes and todays generation of DSLRs are very sophisticated crammed full of amazing wizardry to get the best from the camera.  I highly recommend learning to understand your own specific camera by simply reading the manual and understand what settings are being changed.

Portrait Mode selection tells the camera that you have a subject in the foreground of your frame relatively close to the camera.  This will create a shallow depth of field to de-emphasise the background, maximise sharpness and produce flatter skin tones by using more of a neutral base.

If your camera has a built in flash and the scene is dark it will automatically add fill-in flash to try and lighten the subject unless you have it overridden.

Landscape Mode is used for distant scenes where it will selected a smaller aperture (High f/number) to increase the depth of field and may add extra sharpness and richen colours.  If the camera metering sees a dark foreground it may try to use a fill-in flash but again this can be overridden if required.

There is one big thing that needs to be understood here and that is that these program modes do not affect RAW files in anyway but it does affect the way the photo looks on the back of your camera screen!  Extra care needs to be taken if you use the histogram or have blinkers turned on for exposure because the program mode may add contrast and make whites appear completely white sooner than what they actually are.

This is why it is important to understand exactly what the different program modes do on your camera and the alterations it makes to its settings.  The best way to see how they work is get out and practice and check your images in a photo editing suite.

To answer the question on which do I prefer, well none because I always shoot RAW and in manual mode.  Don’t get me wrong these modes are a great way for quickly selecting different camera settings and a good starting point for someone picking up the camera for the first time.

If you are new to photography don’t get bogged down with all this jargon and settings just yet, grab your camera use the program modes and just shoot.  You will learn much quicker doing this than faffing around with settings until you get a good feel for it.  It is much better to capture adequate images in the beginning rather than blurred or totally under or over exposed images that are out focus where you will quickly get frustrated.

If your camera can shoot both RAW and Jpg I recommend to do this straight away and then later when you have a better understanding of editing you can go back over your original RAW files.  Once you get comfortable with RAW files and can recreate the look of the JPG files you can switch to just RAW.


Portrait vs Landscape Frame Orientation

Portrait vs Landscape – Image Orientation

Deciding to frame a Photograph in portrait or a landscape orientation obviously has a huge influence on how your final image will look.  Most photographers are comfortable shooting portrait due to the way our eyes naturally are use to seeing the world.

Humans have horizontal binocular vision which is made up of approximately 120 degrees of binocular field of view with two uniocular fields of approximately 40 degrees either side.  Binocular vision meaning having two eyes and able to perceive a single three-dimensional image of its surroundings.

This leads us to have natural eye movement with the brains desire to scan an image from side to side with a slight reluctance to scan up and down and why it can be difficult for photographers to frame scenes in portrait mode at first and can feel unnatural.

Reasons for choosing between the orientation of an image can be broken down into two main reasons in photography, the intended use of the photograph and based on composition.

What will the photograph be used for?

The intended use of the photograph will have a big influence on the orientation a photographer frames the image.  Printed media companies mostly favour portrait oriented photographs due to the normal format of books and magazines.  This is not always the case though as a publication might want a double page spread which suites a landscape image.  They may also require space within the image to put large text or advertisements so offsetting a subject in an image creating space is much easier in a landscape orientation than portrait.

Social media is also a key factor, try using a portrait photograph on Facebook, Instagram or even displaying it on your own webpage it can be difficult to make them look right and extremely difficult to show off images to their full potential.  Pinterest on the other hand loves portrait images where a portrait orientation is much better suited to their platform.

This is why most professional photographers make the effort to shoot both Portrait and Landscape images so they can keep their options open and cover all their bases.

Image orientation based on composition

We all know that composition is a very important aspect of photography to aid the viewer to identify key elements within a scene creating balance, harmony and photographs that are pleasing on the eye.  Making the correct choice in frame orientation is a an essential ingredient to composing and creating compositions that work and one of the simple tools we all have at our disposal.

Your brain is very good at quickly identifying the distinction between width and height which allows the eye to quickly settle in an image knowing whether it is horizontal or vertical and giving intended direction of eye travel through the image.

I don’t shoot square format very often for this very reason unless there is a very predominant key element within the scene as I find its hard for the eyes to settle knowing where to start and finish giving it direction through the scene.  Don’t get me wrong they have their place used on the correct subjects but I much prefer to have clear direction in my images.

If you have a subject that is moving such as a person running you may want to leave space to provide awareness of movement where the mind can imagine the person moving into the space which again gives your image direction.  If a person is moving in a horizontal direction it would make sense to frame horizontal however if they are moving away or towards you then a Vertical frame would be better suited as your eyes would naturally know the direction of travel.

The scene does not need to have a moving subject but orientation as previously mentioned is a key way to give your eyes direction through the scene.  Take this image here I took of a lighthouse, my intention was for the eye to travel from the bottom of the frame to eventual rest at the lighthouse.  This keeps the eye moving through the image making it more interesting and perfectly suited to a vertical portrait frame.


Seascape Photograph of Strumble Head Lighthouse
Seascape Photograph of the gorgeous Strumble Head Lighthouse in Pembrokeshire

An easy way to simplify a scene is to fill the frame with the subject and why Portraits best suite vertical subjects and likewise horizontal subjects in the Landscape orientations.  This way the subject can fill the frame minimising distractions within the image unless there are other elements you want to capture.

Horizontal landscape frames are not well suited for vertical subjects such as tall buildings or trees but under the right circumstances work well by again creating eye movement through the image.  This is why you typically see tall subjects offset from the centre of the frame such as a tree offset to the right of the frame with a golden sunset to the left.  The image is balanced by having elements on both sides of the frame and creates movement for the eye to travel through the scene between both points of interest.

There are always times when you can just break away from the convention like I have here with this picture of a lone tree.  It works well with it in the centre of the scene or to the left and right like I have chosen here as I wanted to emphasise the fog and isolation of the tree in relation to its surroundings.


Photograph titled Solitude of a lone tree in fog
Photograph titled Solitude of a lone tree in dense fog back illuminated by the winter sun


So as you can see there are quite a few reasons that can influence your decision to shoot Portrait or Landscape and like anything try shooting both until you train your eyes and mind to be comfortable with both horizontal and vertical compositions.

Grab your camera and get out and shoot whenever you can, enjoy your photography!