Just as there are two sides to every story, there are two ways to take a photograph: horizontal or vertical. The most popular cameras use a 35mm format which creates a rectangular image. You can hold the camera in the traditional manner for a horizontal image, or turn it on its side for a vertical. This is all simple stuff, but what really is the difference?
Horizontal – On the level
The horizontal is the most common orientation chosen by photographers, and why not? It is the easiest. The camera is built to be held this way. Holding it in your hand or placing the camera on a tripod, it naturally sits on the level: horizontally. Turning the camera on its side presents some challenges for hand holding and on the tripod, so few do it.
This is not to say that horizontal is wrong or bad. The horizontal composition lends its strength to scenics and landscapes, the long edge following the line of the horizon across the film. It can capture the sky, the horizon, and the land below the horizon within the frame of the picture, providing the viewer with a sense of expanse. Mountains, oceans, low buildings, and sunsets all lend themselves to the horizontal format.
Art class students are taught that horizontal lines represent strength and peacefulness. Horizontal things usually won’t fall down, or they already have fallen down and represent no threat. We feel at ease with them. A bridge feels peaceful as it stretches across the rushing river below. We like things that lie down. We like to lie down. It represents sleeping, resting, comfort, and gentleness.
Verticals – Standing Tall
Towering trees, skyscrapers, standing people, and tall animals all beg for the camera’s vertical format to enhance their height. Vertical images capture the land, horizon, and sky, but only a narrow version of it; they give a more intimate view. Tall things feel taller and wide things feel narrowed.
With horizontal lines representing rest and peacefulness, vertical lines are dramatic, exciting, and create tension in the image. They revel in the subject’s ability to defy gravity as it reaches upwards. We also feel a tension because what goes up can come down.
Can you photograph a vertical subject horizontally? Sure you can. The result may be an exciting change that will give us a new perspective. It can add tension to a “normal” picture.
How Will The Photograph Be Used?
Family and vacation pictures tend to do better in photo albums as horizontals since this is the most popular format used and most photo scrapbooks are designed for them. The professional photographer, however, has to consider the end usage of the photograph. He has to know whether horizontals or verticals will sell more and work better within the markets he sells to. Here are some of our recommendations, but if there is a specific market you are interested in, research it thoroughly to determine what the requirements are for you. For instance, in the 1950s, vertical images were very popular on calendars but today you will usually find more horizontal images. Trends change with time. Since horizontal formats are the most commonly photographed, you can increase your sales potential by creating more verticals. When in doubt, or if the scene lends itself to both orientations, photograph it both ways to maximize your market potential.
- Note cards
- For the most part, the stationery market tends towards vertical images, though there is room for horizontals, too. The typical card display is set up for cards which show a vertical image and opens like a book. Postcards, though, similar in some respects to note cards, usually demand horizontal images.
- While there are some calendars which feature vertical images, in general you will find horizontal images most in demand, especially those dealing with landscape and locations.
- If you would like one of your images to grace the cover of a magazine, odds are that it will have to be a vertical to fill the cover from top to bottom. Interior images, however, can be in either format, though the editorial market does want more verticals to fit within the column or page format. Interior images that also work, whatever their format, include space within the frame for text to be written over part of the image.
- Picture books run in two different formats. Coffee table books, typically oversized, usually feature mostly horizontal images. Text books, guide books, and other books featuring photographs are typically vertical in shape and when they can, designers usually choose vertical images to fit within the column format. Unfortunately, though the photo buyers request verticals, they often get horizontals. Strong verticals, therefore, can increase your chance for a sale.
- The standard portrait frame you buy at the crafts store or any frame shot puts people in vertical frames and landscapes in horizontal frames. This is a big assumption, but if you are doing individual people or animal portraits, most people will choose vertical over horizontal, unless you are photographing a group. If you are photographing landscapes, few are found to be vertical. Most are horizontal, with emphasis on the horizon and “width” of the space within the landscape.
- Web Pages
- The Internet is consuming our lives in more ways than one and images for web pages are in demand. Due to the strong vertical format of most web pages, many designers tend to use vertical images to fit within the narrow width of the pages and frames. They like to squeeze the most info into the least amount of space, and horizontal images consume valuable real estate.
- Wall Art
- Photographic artwork comes in a variety of formats such as posters and framed pictures. Look closely and you will see that a good majority of artwork is found in a vertical format, tall and narrow, unless it is a landscape, then it will be horizontal, but these tend not to sell very well as they take up “too much wall space” Think “back of the door” where you hung posters when you were growing up. That’s a good vertical composition layout.