Landscape vs. Portrait Photography: What’s the Difference?

Guy holding a canon camera on an angle

Landscape versus portrait photography comes down to which way your photo is orientated, either horizontally or vertically. If you want to change between landscape and portrait it’s really simple to do, just turn your camera 90 degrees to the right or left.

Things start to get difficult, however, when it comes to making a decision about which orientation to use. Knowing the difference between portrait and landscape is the key to taking great photographs, so it’s well worth getting right.

Here’s what you need to know.

Portrait vs. Landscape Orientation

In photography, portrait and landscape can refer to the genre of photography as well as the orientation of the photograph, so let’s start with understanding the terminology.

What Is Portrait Orientation?

When a photo is taller than it is wide, it’s considered to have a portrait orientation. It’s commonly used to take portrait photographs of people, which is why it shares the same name.

Your phone’s display has a portrait orientation and when you take a photo using the inbuilt camera, by default the photo will be in portrait. Not all screens have a vertical display, however, and for most of history, cameras captured images in landscape by default, not portrait.

If you want to take a portrait photo using a point-and-shoot, DSLR, or film camera, you will need to turn the camera 90 degrees to the right or left.

It might be worth buying a tripod if you don’t already own one since they are one of the most important accessories for photographers, plus they are great for composing landscape and portrait photos.

What Is Landscape Orientation?

Landscape photograph of a desert

When a photo is wider than it is tall, it’s considered to have a landscape orientation. It’s particularly great for capturing natural landscapes —hence the name— because it has plenty of space in the frame to fit subjects that expand out across the horizon.

By default, digital cameras and film cameras are designed to take photos in landscape mode. So, to capture a photo in portrait you have to turn the camera 90 degrees to the left or right. And to capture a landscape photo with your phone, you also have to turn it 90 degrees to the left or right.

How to Choose Between Landscape and Portrait

All photos can be taken in either landscape or portrait and there is no orientation that is inherently better than the other. However, choosing the right orientation can help create a well-composed shot and make your image stand out.

If you’re new to photography or looking to learn more about the medium, there are a few guidelines that are worth remembering.

Uploading Photos to the Internet

The first step in choosing between landscape and portrait is knowing where your photo will be published. If it’s destined for the internet, there are a few restrictions that will help you decide.

A hand holding a phone displaying an instagram photo

A photo-sharing app like Instagram, for example, is designed for endless scrolling on a phone and some photos look better in this format than others. As we mentioned before, a phone has a portrait display, so the images that naturally look best on screen are photos taken in portrait, not landscape.

You do come across landscape images on Instagram, but they often look small, and the details are hard to see. A landscape photo can have a greater impact when you view it on a laptop or computer instead since computer displays are rectangular.

A laptop on a desk displaying a website that uses a landscape photo on the landing page

Landscape photos are perfect for filling up large amounts of space on the screen, which is why a lot of websites use them for eye-catching content.

If you already know that your photo will end up online, then choosing between portrait and landscape will be a lot more straightforward based on the platform you’re posting to.

Fitting the Subject in the Shot

Sometimes the subject of your photo will determine which orientation you need to use based on how much of the subject you can fit into the frame.

Taking photographs of a person is a good example. In all cases, people are taller than they are wide, and they usually pose in a vertical position, whether that’s standing, sitting, or in motion. Naturally, only portrait photos can capture the entire human body inside a frame, or at least a large portion of it.

The same photo of a woman in portrait vs landscape

Compare this to if you took a photo of a person in landscape. A lot of information will be cropped out above and below the subject, creating a photo that feels much more compressed and doesn’t contain a lot of information about the subject.

When it comes to shooting landscape photography, consider using it whenever you need to fit in vast scenes that stretch across the horizon. It’s a natural fit for taking photos of a desert, forest, or lake, although you shouldn’t forget about urban settings either. A city skyline, for example, will look impressive when taken in landscape.

Following Natural Lines

Another trick is to study the natural lines inside the composition and see whether they run horizontally or vertically. You want to try and orientate your camera in the same direction as these lines to highlight the subject’s form.

A waterfall is an interesting example. You might think that you should capture a landscape photo of this scene since it is clearly a natural landscape. However, when you look at the lines in the composition, they run vertically, following the direction of water that flows from the top of the waterfall to the bottom.

Two portrait photos, one of a waterfall and one of a desert road

Taking a portrait photo in this case is a better fit because it helps to highlight the grand height and magnificence of the waterfall. Portrait photos also look great for tall buildings or roads that lead into the distance.

Another term for this is leading lines, and it’s a commonly used technique to help compose a great shot. There are lots of benefits to learning how to use leading lines, and helping you choose between landscape and portrait is just one of them.

Which Orientation Should You Use?

While there are no hard rules, there are some kinds of photos that look better in either landscape or portrait. It’s worth getting familiar with how each orientation helps to make a subject shine so that making the right decision becomes intuitive.

Here are a few subjects that are best captured in either landscape or portrait orientation…

Landscape Photos:

  • Mountains, forests, lakes, and deserts
  • City skyline
  • Cars
  • Houses
  • Interiors
  • Group photos

Portrait Photos:

  • Portraits of people
  • Fashion
  • Architecture
  • Waterfalls
  • Roads
  • Food

This is just a handful of subjects that fit into each category, but of course, there are many more things you can add. Once you get a hang of when to use landscape or portrait, you can start to experiment with breaking the rules.

The Difference Between Landscape and Portrait

Choosing between landscape or portrait seems insignificant, but it’s actually an important decision for taking any photograph. Making the right call can elevate your photo and frame the subject in the best light.

It’s worth keeping in mind where the photo is destined since apps and websites have different requirements. Then you’ll want to consider which orientation best fits the subject and how leading lines can help determine which one to use.

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