Landscape vs Portrait Orientation in Nature Photography
When it comes to composition, one of the most important considerations we as photographers need to make is whether we shoot in landscape vs portrait orientation.
It can sometimes seem like an obvious choice, but there will always be occasions when it is not so clear.
In this article, we will explore when and why you might choose to use either formatting option, and look at the ways in which you can make the most of your chosen image orientation in your nature photography!
It should come as no surprise that traditionally, landscape orientation is most commonly associated with landscape photography.
Composing in this way captures an image that is close to how the human eye views a scene, so it often appears most balanced.
Unsurprisingly, portrait orientation is traditionally mostly used for portrait photographs. The narrow frame focuses the viewer on the subject and can be more suitable for more upright, vertical views, such as a person’s or an animal’s upper body.
However, there are no hard and fast rules here. In today’s saturated market, breaking these traditions and pushing the boundaries is often when the most compelling images are created.
Top Tip: It’s best never to get stuck thinking about the way something ‘should’ be done. I would always encourage budding photographers to test the boundaries of their knowledge and push back against the ‘ideals’ of certain photographic rules.
Why not set yourself the task of shooting landscape photographs in portrait format and portrait images in landscape?
How to Photograph Landscapes in Portrait Orientation
Landscape images are so often suited to the landscape format that it is often difficult to train your eye to visualize a landscape composition in portrait orientation.
Breaking away from this rule, however, is a great way of pushing your creative boundaries. By setting yourself the task of shooting a landscape only in portrait, you will inevitably force yourself to view each scene differently.
Here are some things to think about when out in the field aiming to compose your vertical landscape shots:
When composing portrait orientation landscape images, look for vertical leading lines, rather than horizontal ones. A line of rocks, a dock over a lake, or a path, for instance, can lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.
If the path twists and turns diagonally through the picture, this can add a strong dynamic element.
A prominent feature such as a lone tree will pull the viewer’s eye at first glance, before they then go on to explore the rest of the frame.
Find the depth
Feature the foreground
Going in close to a foreground feature will emphasize perspective and further increase the feeling of depth within a scene.
Calculating the hyperfocal distance will ensure that you achieve the maximum depth of field, but simply focusing just past your foreground subject and using a small aperture is a much quicker way, and should ensure enough depth of field for even the most expansive scene.
Focus on the details
Using a longer focal length and closing in on smaller, more intimate details within the landscape can be another great way of exploring portrait orientation.
These smaller details can reveal interesting shapes, patterns, and form which would otherwise become lost in the wider scene.
Just because the landscape photography world is saturated with landscape-orientation images doesn’t mean you can’t create outstanding shots!
You may find that extra-wide vistas just can’t be captured in any other way, or the sense of scale and depth you’re looking for requires that horizontal breadth.
And as it is closer to what we see with our own eyes, it can be the best way to capture the beauty of the scenery as it was when you saw it in real time.
Besides, there are plenty of landscape photographers, particularly those with an Instagram focus, who shoot mostly in portrait orientation, so remember that creative and unique images will ultimately come from more than just deciding between a portrait or landscape composition.
How to photograph wildlife in landscape orientation
Wildlife portrait images are synonymous with portrait orientation. Shooting vertically will often appear most natural and balanced when filling the frame with a bird or animal.
This is especially true when you are framing the image tightly and focusing on the head and shoulders of your subject in true ‘portrait style.’
You may choose to use this method when it looks right aesthetically, or perhaps when you want the viewer to focus on the facial expression or features of your subject.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you should ignore landscape orientation when photographing portraits or even when focusing on a facial expression!
There are plenty of successful frame-filling wildlife portraits, taken in landscape orientation. And, as is the case with landscape photographs, conforming to traditional rules and guidelines can stifle creativity.
Instead, explore the boundaries and don’t be afraid of bold compositions! Here are some tips to get you started.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
Leaving plenty of negative space around the subject when shooting in landscape orientation can create a heightened sense of space and isolation.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
Mood and atmosphere
Including large areas of shadow can add an air of mystery, while contrasting or complementary colors can also affect the mood and atmosphere of an image.
These can often have a powerful, immediate impact. Using a long lens to close in on just part of a bird or animal, for instance, and leaving space to one side can be a bold way of interpreting your subject.
It is these types of images that make a viewer look twice and perhaps think a little more deeply about the message behind the picture. There are no hard and fast rules, so experiment!
Choosing between landscape and portrait orientation
Ultimately, you will ‘in the moment’ probably need to decide between the two orientations. A good example of this could be when composing images of wildlife in the environment.
This is one of the best ways to tell a story with your photography and can require a combining of your knowledge of portrait and landscape orientation compositions to decide which is better suited to the scene in front of you (though for this method, I find I usually opt for landscape orientation).
For example, when the subject appears smaller in the picture, elements of the landscape can be used as a natural frame.
Think about the way in which these elements lie. Perhaps a horizontal tree branch above the subject can be used to draw the viewer’s eye into the picture. In this instance, the horizontal nature of the branch will undoubtedly suit the landscape format.
The key is to study every inch of the frame and think carefully about the elements within it and the way in which they lie.
And of course, if your subject remains in the same spot for long enough, taking images in both landscape and portrait orientation is good practice.
You can then spend as much time as you need afterward to study each style and make up your mind about which you prefer!
But again, don’t be afraid of breaking convention. By capturing a flying bird in portrait format, you may find yourself creating something a little more unique and surprising.
Consider social media
Depending on the type of photography that you specialise in, and the motivations behind it, social media can be an important consideration in today’s market.
It can provide a gateway into selling your work or simply showcasing it and sharing it with others. If you are a photographer who uses platforms such as Instagram regularly, you may find that the way your images are displayed influences your choice of orientation.
Portrait orientation will fill a mobile phone screen and tend to show your pictures in their best light, but try not to feel trapped by this.
You should try to give yourself as much freedom as possible when it comes to composition and let your own personal vision be the guiding force behind your creative decisions.
Shooting in portrait or landscape orientation does not demand any specialist gear, but there are certain considerations to keep in mind.
When using a tripod, it is important to use a head that allows the camera to swivel onto its side. I use a ball head for landscape photography as it is quick and easy to make fine adjustments to composition.
The vast majority of ball heads will have a small recess midway down the housing to enable the camera to be swiveled 90 degrees, allowing for quick changes to portrait orientation.
Certain camera models that don’t have vertical shutter as standard allow a vertical battery grip to be added with the extra shutter button. This can be a useful accessory to have and will give you the added bonus of extra battery life.
Read more: The Best Equipment for Landscape Photography
When photographing wildlife, the critical moment can come and go in the blink of an eye. Making fast decisions and reacting quickly is vital if you are to achieve the most effective compositions in-camera, and this is what every photographer should strive for.
There will always be instances, however, when we are not able to react quickly enough, and we come away thinking ‘if only I had shot that in portrait – or landscape!’
Alas, all is not lost.
In the early days of digital photography, this was not ideal as the size of the image after a substantial crop would be too small for anything but social media.
The advancements in camera resolution, however, have made it possible to make sizeable crops and still end up with a respectable file size, but be aware that you will ideally need a full-frame camera with at least 40 megapixels to do this successfully.
Although there are plenty of guidelines when it comes to composition, the way a picture is designed is subjective, and no photographer should feel confined to these ‘rules.’
Challenge yourself to think outside the box. Take wildlife portrait images in landscape orientation, and landscapes in portrait.
Switching things up like this can help unleash your creativity, and you might just be surprised at the results. But don’t be afraid to use the ‘traditional’ orientations either.
There is a reason they are so popular in their chosen genres! And if you can manage to shoot both in the moment, this is always your best option, as you can decide between the compositions from the comfort of your home afterwards.