What is Your Orientation ?

No, I am not talking about your identity about the gender(s) to which you may be sexually attracted. I am talking about your preference for photographing using either Landscape or Portrait orientation. I’m sure most people know what I mean about portrait and landscape – but just in case you need a refresher. Landscape orientation is when your image has the long side of the photo along the bottom, and Portrait is, of course, when the short side is at the bottom. This terminology is easy to understand, considering how those two types of images are typically oriented.



Before going into more detail about orientation, it is worth discussing aspect ratios. The aspect ratio is your format's width to height ratio, with the width always being the first number. So a 4:5, pronounced four by 5 or 4 to 5, means this image would be four units wide and five units high. In other words, this is a portrait format. We can also express this in decimal format – but that muddles the water for this discussion, so let’s not and say we did.

The point of the aspect ratios is that they can be used to denote the orientation of an image since we always mention the width first. So, a 5:4 is a landscape, and a 4:5 would be a portrait. While talking about aspect ratios seems like a bit of a digression from the title is not a complete waste of time as it needs to be part of the discussion due mainly to the extreme 9:16 aspect ratios of many cell phone cameras. An aspect ratio of 9:16 means the image is almost twice as tall as it is wide – 9:18 would be the equivalent of 1:2, which is twice as tall as wide.


 

Getting back to my point about image orientation. Looking at images on social media platforms, it quickly becomes evident that most are made in portrait orientation and left at their original 9:16 aspect ratio. This makes perfect sense for two reasons. First, people usually use their cell phones in a portrait orientation, which carries over when they snap a photo. The second reason is that most people tend to look only at the thing of interest in the photograph they are making and forget about the rest. This last point is not surprising as it takes a lot of practice and knowledge to look at and judge the composition as a whole. Shameless plug, subscribe and follow my blog, and you will learn how to make better images.

At a basic level, a photograph captures a story that you, as the photographer, are trying to convey to an audience. Therefore, it stands to reason you want people to look at your photo and feel the same way you did when you made the image. Photographs have some interesting properties. It is straightforward to make one, and the person making the photo always tries to convey how they felt about something in the moment, be it a fantastic sunset, something humorous, or a delicious meal plated amazingly. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, when we look at that same image, we don't have the benefit of feeling the same way as the person who made the photograph, and that is the problem in a nutshell.

Your feelings in a picture-worthy situation rarely come through in a photograph. Jannik Plaetner

The fundamental problem you are trying to solve is; how to create a stronger and more compelling image to make the audience feel like you did when you captured the photo. It turns out that a good first step is to eliminate the things that weaken your image, and this is where a proper orientation of your picture comes to the rescue.

You are responsible for every square millimetre of your image, and everything in it either works for or against your photo – there are no neutral elements. Jay Maisel

When making an image, the first and easiest thing to do is determine whether your image's story should be horizontal or vertical. Picking the correct orientation can go a long way toward eliminating a lot of distracting and unnecessary things from your photo and leaving room for what is essential.

Look at this image. It caught my attention one morning when I went for a walk. I liked how the red poppies stood out and contrasted against the whitewashed fence, and I wanted to capture it.


A white washed fence with red flowers in front
Starting point. The entire scene

The first thing to think about is what is the story I am trying to tell. I like the portrait orientation for a single flower because the vertical fence reinforces the flower's story of reaching for the sun. On the other hand, the landscape orientation could also be interesting because it would allow me to show several poppies at increasing height against a vertical fence.


 

The first and most typical approach for people walking by and making this image would be to whip out their cell phone, photograph it from the road in a portrait format, and leave it at that.


Portrait format of a white washed fence with red poppies in front
Typical Cellphone Shot

This is what a typical walk-by-shooting from the road would look like. While this is a vertical capture, and I think I like the story in that format, there still is a lot of distracting stuff in the way of what I want to say.


 

Now, walking a little closer to the fence to eliminate additional items that do not belong in the image gives me this.


Whitewashed fence with red poppy in front
Take One

Better, but there are still distracting elements like the grass and the top part of the fence and trees. By re-positioning myself and framing a little differently, I ended up with this, which is getting closer to what I wanted.



Whitewashed fence with red poppy in front
Take Two

I could leave it at that, but I find myself distracted by the yellow line behind the fence as well as the bottom of the fence. This I can fix in a few ways. Either I can crop the photo by moving closer, use the editing tool on the cell phone, or edit out the yellow line in post-production – not quite as easy on a cellphone.

Re-cropping leaves me with an image which I still find acceptable despite the little bit of grass showing up at the bottom.



whitewashed fence with a red poppy in front of it
Final Version


And there you are - the essence of photography. Simplify, exclude, and create self-contained universes to strengthen your image and tell your story in a way that best brings your point across.


 

In closing, let me show you the final take on the landscape version of this scene, and you can judge which you like better.


a whitewashed fence with Red poppys in front of it
Final Horizontal Version

These are two very different images, and I have different feelings about them. I think my preference is for the portrait version, but my point remains the same. If you take a little bit of time and think about the orientation of your photo, along with some simplification, it can go a long way to strengthen your work and help your audience better understand what you are trying to say. And, if you can’t make up your mind when making the photograph, then make a couple of different versions in either orientation, so you have something to work with later when new ideas come to mind.