TwilightMushroomsACS3x5Welcome to today’s photography lesson. Over the past several weeks, I have discussed the differences in photo sizes, close-ups, and crop ratios. While my discussions on these three previous topics are largely complete, I still feel the need to explain a camera technique that relates to these three: the art of choosing between a vertical shot and horizontal shot. I touched on vertical photos a little while discussing close-ups and cropping, but now I want to really make sure that you understand when and how to use a vertical shot over a horizontal shot and vice versa.

Let’s Get Started

The type of camera that you use, whether it is an SLR for a simple point-and-shoot phone camera, will often determine what default image orientation you use. An image orientation refers to which way a camera sensor is held during the process of taking a photo. There are two standard image orientations: vertical and horizontal.

A digital SLR like the Canon Rebel T2i camera that I use is set up to automatically take horizontal photos because its viewfinder and its camera sensor use a 2 by 3 image ratio where the longer side (the 3 ratio) is at top and bottom and the short end (the 2 ratio) is on either side. My Samsung smart phone camera is set up just the opposite. If I hold the phone upright, the longer side of the photo will be up and down, and the shorter side will be at the top end bottom of the image, so the default photo will be a vertical image. What this means is that my SLR camera will shoot horizontal photos unless I tip the camera on one end, while my smart phone camera will shoot vertical photos unless I tip the phone sideways.

Here is why you should care about the difference between vertical and horizontal shots: not every photo subject looks good in a horizontal photo. Remember the example that I gave in my cropping lesson where I took a vertical photo of an actress as she walked down her movie premier’s red carpet? Why did I decide to shoot vertically? The answer is because I wanted to capture all of her—from her perfectly quaffed hair to her breathtaking gown to her stunning shoes. I can’t do that as easily in a horizontal photo as I can in a vertical photo. If I try to shoot the actress in a horizontal photo, I will have to zoom farther out to make sure that all of her is in the photo (i.e. that I do not accidentally crop off her head or her feet). With a vertical photo, I do not have to zoom nearly as far to capture all of her sleek silhouette. This makes the use of a vertical photo better than a horizontal photo when shooting this particular subject.

You always want to capture an object in a way that makes it look its best. As I have said before, some objects look better in a vertical image than in a horizontal image and vice versa. So how do you decide which image orientation is better? Well, if the subject of a photo is taller than it is wide, it will likely look better in a vertical photo because the longer edge the photo parallels the longer line of the object. If, however, the subject of a photo is wider than it is tall, it will look better as part of a horizontal photo. The easy way to remember this is: when in doubt, follow the length.

Let’s Break It Down

Horizontal Photos

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the water ripples) length in:
“Blue Undulations”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the lemonade stand) length in:
“Lemonade Dusk”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the two mushrooms) length in:
“Mushroom Duet”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the two kangaroos) length in:
“Red Roos”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the mountain railroad) length in:
“Simmons Vision”

Vertical Photos

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the relationship between the blue bench and the clouds) length in:
“Blue Bench”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the little girl) length in:
“Shy Flower Girl”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the sword) length in:
“Silken Sword”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the relationship between the tree branches and the mountain ridge) length in:
“Twig Window”

The photo’s length runs parallel to its subject’s (the lamp) length in:
“X Marks The Lamp”

Photographer’s Note

Perfectly square and round objects, by definition, have a 1:1 ratio. These objects can therefore be photographed either horizontally or vertically with equal ease. When choosing an image orientation for these subjects, I find it helpful to look at the width and length of any secondary subjects or predominant textures within the photo. For example, the horizontal bricks helped me make the decision to take a horizontal photo of this lovely young woman in “Beauty Beyond the Bars”.


Shoot 20 images or more photos using the vertical and horizontal shot techniques. Half of these should be vertical shots and half should be horizontal shots. If you really want to challenge yourself, try to shoot two photos of perfectly square or round objects and use your math sleuthing skills to decide what image orientation works best in each case. Make sure that you look for unique subjects and let each subject determine what type of photo will make it look the very best. Have fun!

Until we meet again, I wish all of you brilliant flashes of perspective!

[ O*] Alycia