First published on: June 2, 2001
Horizontal or Vertical:
Which way should I turn the camera? This is a common
question. Many amateurs rarely, if ever, turn the camera
in order to compose a shot in a vertical format. Why?
The answer maybe simply because they are used to seeing
the world through a horizontal format. Or maybe it is
because they have not yet realized that one key point of
composition is to match the shape of the frame to the
shape of the subject. Or perhaps its because they just
haven't ever done it that way before. Perhaps after
reading this article they will be inspired to flip their
cameras a time or two to get some great shots they may
have otherwise been missing.
Choosing which format to use is a very important part
of composition. Try it both ways. View the scene in both
formats, see which one looks better. But more
importantly, there are several guidelines to keep in
mind when deciding which format to use. Below are
several guidelines to follow and the when and why's of
using each one. Study the examples and try to apply the
guidelines to your own work.
The frame shape should always match the shape of the
subject. For instance, if shooting a skyline scene, the
only choice is horizontal. Why? Because a skyline is
horizontal, it follows the horizon. On the other hand,
if the subject is a skyscraper, the choice would be
vertical. Why? Because skyscrapers are vertical
buildings. The shape of the frame isolates the subject.
Compositions should not look like a round peg shoved
into a square hole. The frame should compliment, not
distract from, the total composition. Should this rule
of thumb ever be broken? Of course, but only if you have
a very good reason for doing so and only if the frame
choice adds to the theme.
Take a look at the three images of the roses. In the
first photo, the photographer has chosen to place a rose
dead center of the frame. Why? There seems to be no
valid reason for this placement and two-thirds of the
space is wasted. The subject is a single rose. Flowers
with long stems are naturally vertical in shape. Then
why place it into a horizontal frame? Why place it dead
center? Look at the second image of the same flower. The
change is in the format, here the flower itself is the
subject and the viewers know it immediately because the
wasted space is gone. Now look at the last image of the
roses. This composition works? Why? Because here the
subject is not a single rose, but rather a group of
roses in a horizontal arrangement. The repetition is
carried out through all three thirds of the image. The
repetition is the subject or theme, not the single rose.
A single rose is vertical where as a bed of roses is
horizontal. The choice of format emphasizes the subject
and reinforces the theme.
Look at the three photos below. Because of the
placement of the bird in the frame as well as the
format, each one tells a different story. In the first
one, the bird itself is the subject. The frame matches
the shape of the bird. In the second photo, there seems
to be no direct relationship to the shape of the bird
and the photographer's choice of frame shape. The poor
bird seems squashed into the frame. The only relative
theme here maybe to show the bird's habitat. In that
case, the bird is not the subject, the habitat is the
subject. In the third image, the bird is again the
subject but the theme has changed. Is the bird ready to
fly away? Has it sensed the photographer's presence? We
don't know, but because of the placement in the frame we
can assume that the photographer used a horizontal
format and left one-third of the frame blank for a very
Learn to use frame shape as an important tool in
composition. Look for examples in magazines and try to
understand when and why to use different views. If you
notice, magazines favor the vertical format. Why?
Because it cuts down on wasted space. Most often, only
true landscapes will be used in the horizontal format.
Is that always the case? No, but it is the most common.
It is important to pay attention to the shape of the
actual subject when choosing the frame shape. Not only
will your shots look better, they will start to look