The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
10. Ninety Degrees More or Less
The Underrated Portrait Format
How many photos from your last trip were shot in landscape format? Maybe 95 percent, or 98? Holding the camera in landscape format is much more logical and comfortable, and it corresponds to our natural perception (our eyes are next to each other, not on top of one another). In many cases the landscape format seems like the best option, and in many cases it is. But some subjects and pictures would greatly benefit from a change of format. It may seem like it’s more trouble and less comfortable to hold the camera in the portrait format, but the advantages outweigh the risks, not just with portraits. All it takes is the courage to turn your camera 90 degrees.
The first encounter with portrait format is often one of necessity: the subject simply won’t fit into a landscape-format image because the focal length is too long or because it’s impossible to increase the subject-to-camera distance. In many cases, however, a serious problem comes along with this use of the portrait format, first and foremost with urban photography – namely, converging verticals resulting from perspective distortions. Apart from that, the portrait format is much too valuable to serve only as a stopgap measure for these circumstances.
In almost any case, the portrait format will produce a photo with a drastically different effect than a landscape-format photo of the same subject. This makes changing up your format a worthwhile exercise in order to explore and take advantage of the peculiarities of the portrait orientation.
While the landscape format usually emphasizes the effect of horizontal lines and structures, thereby expanding the width and stability of a photo, the portrait format lengthens vertical lines and adds drive to many photos. The latter is a more challenging format for our habits of perception, but because of this, it also commands greater attention.
In some instances, the portrait format has downright practical advantages. Distracting elements surrounding your subject in landscape format can be relatively easily disregarded by adopting a portrait format. Composing panoramas of landscapes from several portrait-format exposures gives you more room above and below your subject for an eventual crop than landscape-format pictures. And then there are also photos that only work in portrait format; they would lose their impact if shot in landscape format. Apart from portraits, this includes wide-angle photos whose immediate foreground plays a key role in the composition, for example.
On a mountain tour in Peru: Climbing Diablo Mudo, Cordillera Huayhuash. Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/500 s • f/11 • ISO 200
Sometimes you will instinctively recognize a specific photo or composition calling for the portrait format. In many cases, however, you’ll approach the idea gradually, often after already having bagged a landscape-format version, as was the case with the pictures on this spread. The subject – the hands of a Tibetan monk linked behind his back and guiding a string of prayer beads through his fingers – had drawn my attention, and I first took some landscape-format shots. When I realized that the crop on the sides was far from being tight enough, I shifted to the portrait format.
One of the reasons that we don’t use the portrait format as often and as naturally as we might surely has to do with the fact that most cameras seem to have been designed with the landscape format in mind. The larger, heavier, and more cumbersome a lens and camera combination is, the more difficult it is to rotate it and then stabilize it for a sharp photo. A vertical grip attachment that doubles as a battery pack can make it much easier to work with the camera in portrait format by providing greater stability, particularly when you’re working with longer focal lengths. I have discovered that I am much more likely to at least try to shoot in portrait format when I have the grip attached to the camera – obviously, this particular accessory broadens my photographic opportunities.
Some of our reluctance to use the portrait format is probably also based on previous experience. The more frequently the portrait format results in a successful image composition, the more likely we are to use it with fewer reservations. If you use a tripod regularly, you’d do well to purchase an L-bracket, which allows you to easily change between landscape and portrait orientation.
A monk with prayer beads in Sera monastery, Tibet. The image below was the starting point for my final picture (opposite). | Opposite page: Nikon D700 • 170 mm • 1/640 s • f/4 • ISO 1600
Same subject, different effect: The picture above emphasizes the breadth of the landscape in Peru while the photo on the opposite page highlights the tension in the triangle created by the cairn, the lake, and the clouds. Top: Nikon D700 • 31 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 400 • polarizer. Right: Nikon D700 • 38 mm • 1/1000 s • f/4 • ISO 400 • polarizer
Despite all the encouragement for making use of the portrait format, however, there are some potentially undesirable consequences to keep in mind. Photographers who show their images in slide shows may want to stick with the landscape format, as portrait-format photos are often difficult to integrate.
You also need to take caution when using the built-in flash for a portrait-format shot because the light will not be emitted from a point above the optical axis; instead, it will come from one side of the lens. Under certain circumstances this can result in an uneven distribution of light in your photo. External flash units, preferably with adjustable swivel heads, can prevent this problem, as they can be positioned away from the camera’s flash mount.
The landscape-format alternative: In contrast to the portrait-format picture on page 85, this photo shows the summit of Diablo Mudo amid its surroundings. This depiction is more conventional, but I don’t think it’s as focused on the main subject. In other words, I prefer the portrait-format version. Nikon D700 • 19 mm • 1/1250 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200