portrait and landscape

There's no reason why a portrait shouldn't be landscape, or why a landscape shouldn't be portrait -- as long as you separate content from orientation. In talking about formats, 'portrait' is a vertical rectangle and 'landscape' is a horizontal rectangle.

A double portrait, like the one on the right, is often 'naturally' landscape in orientation, but even individual portraits can equally well be shot landscape, like the example of Jack, below.


Julie and Holly

Pentax SV, 85/1.9 Super-Takumar, Paterson Acupan 200 (same as Fomapan 200 Creative) rated at EI 80 and printed on Paterson Warmtone paper.





Do not be deceived by his mournful expression -- he was a consummate actor even at 5 years old (nearly 6 when this was taken) and could do 'cheerful', 'thoughtful' and so forth on demand.

Leica MP. 90/2.2 Leitz Thambar, Ilford XP2 printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Waterfall, France

Just to show there's no prejudice: a portrait-format landscape. The mood would be completely different if Frances had shot this in landscape format: it would be sprawling, with far less impression of falling water. Voigtlä:nder Bessa-T, 50/2.5 Color-Skopar, Kodak Tri-X printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

orientation and mood

In the Bad Old Days of the 'Rules of Composition', there were excessively fixed ideas about what the two orientations conveyed.

Portrait format was noble, lofty, aspiring, stately, grand, etc., but landscape format was not (as you might expect) base, plebeian, unambitious and ordinary. No: it was calm, tranquil, long-enduring, serene, that sort of thing.

Then the 'Rules of Composition' fell out of favour, largely because they were treated as rules to be slavishly followed rather than guidelines which are useful more often than not. When this happened, the baby was thrown out with the bath-water and people forgot a lot of information that was useful as long as you didn't treat it like a straitjacket.

the portrait mood



It is all very well to say that the old Rules of Composition surprisingly often prove applicable, and can be seen in your own pictures, but you can run into difficulties if you start trying to apply them. For example, the picture on the left cries out for the 'lofty, soaring' properties of a landscape shot: the pagoda perched on the hill is obviously what is important.

Try to shoot it, though, and you find that the hill isn't very impressive. Nor does focal length help. With a shorter lens, you've got a bump on the horizon. With a longer one, you can't really see that it's a hill at all.

Roger therefore used something of a trick, making the tree stand in for the height of the hill. Even though the tree isn't anything like as high as the hill, we can see that it's quite a high tree and that climbing it would be hard work. In other words, we already have the idea of height. The pagoda and hill ride on the coat-tails of the tree.



Quite honestly, Roger can't remember what focal length he used. It looks like the 75/2 Summicron but it might have been a 50/2.5 Color-Skopar; the perspective is wrong for his usual 35/1.4 Summilux. The camera was the Leica MP and the film was Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

It can be hard to separate your own memory of a place from the mood of the pictures, too. The shot on the right, taken just after sunset, seems to Roger (who took it) to be very tranquil and peaceful, and indeed, there are several clues (or to be rude, cliches) pointing in this direction, most importantly the reflections of the trees in the smooth water. Another cliche is the calm landscape glimpsed through the trees; an image so powerful it is sometimes used as a metaphor for death, as reflected in the last words of Stonewall Jackson.

This is perhaps an argument against thinking too hard. Just shoot the picture that looks right, and it will probably be right. It's only when you're not sure what to shoot -- when you know there is a picture in there, but cannot quite see where it is -- that rational thought plays an important part.

Chengde, sunset

Leica MP, 35/1.4 Summilux wide open to avoid camera shake, Kodak Elite Chrome EBX ISO 100 (Roger).



the landscape mood



As well as calm, serene, long enduring and that sort of thing, another possibility for the landscape mood is simply 'sprawling'. If Roger had shot the Bastille day celebrations, left, in portrait format, the drummer wouldn't have had the space to work his drum kit and the party in the street wouldn't have filled the whole street.


Bastille Day, Avignon

Leica M4P, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX, 15/4.5 Voigtlä:nder Super-Wide-Heliar.

Cyclist, Minnis Bay

Every art form has its own formal expectations. Chinese ink-paintings, for ecample, are almost always portrait format. But this is more reminiscent of an 18th century engraving, very formal, very precise. Quite apart from that, the long, thin format -- around 3:1 -- emphasizes the flatness of the path and makes us feel that the cyclist is pedalling slowly, going a long way. The lens was a 21/4 Voigtlä:nder but the camera and film are forgotten: either a Leica or a Voigtlä:nder and (from the look of it) Ilford XP2.

camera and print formats

Unless you print your own pictures, via the traditional wet process or digitally, you have no easy way of controlling the final shape of your photographs. You start out with what the camera manufacturer gives you, whether it's the long, thin 35mm format or the stubby 4x5 inch format, and then the printer fits that onto the print size you order, which often means cropping your image.

If (as so many photographers do) you have fixed ideas about the 'integrity' of printing 'all in', you can tie yourself down just as much even if you do make your own prints. There's no doubt that printing 'all in' (the entire negative) with a filed-out negative carrier can give you an attractive border which becomes part of the composition: it's a trick we've used in the waterfall picture above. But there's equally little doubt that if you steadfastly refuse to crop, you are going to have a much harder time making the picture fit into the frame.



Some pictures 'want' to be long and thin, while others 'want' to be square or nearly so, and if that's what's needed, that's what we print. But generally we find that a 1:1.5 aspect ratio (24x36mm, '6x9cm' and 44x66mm Alpa format) is as long and thin as we want to go for most pictures, while 1:1.3 or so is about as stubby as we are comfortable with (Linhof 56x72mm, half-plate).


Sophie as Pretty Baby

The picture was inspired by Bellocq's 'Storeyville Portraits' and Louis Malle's film starring Brooke Shields. Sophie was about 15 here, in the late 1990s; the dress is actually her First Communion dress, but in combination with the deshabille and the cotton stockings the effect is much more of a 19th century 'risque' picture than a modern portrait. We shot this (we are reasonably sure) on 4x5 inch Ilford FP4 Plus using our MPP Mk. VII and 150/4.5 Voigtlä:nder Apo-Lanthar. The print, however, 'wanted' to be almost square -- so that's the way we printed it.


shooting both orientations

You can never shoot exactly the same picture in both portrait and landscape: the two must necessarily be composed differently. On the other hand, you can shoot the same subject in both orientations. If you do, you will find that a lot of the old 'Rules of Composition' ideas really do work.

Consider, for example, the picture on the right and the one below. Both are of the same subject, and both contain a lot of blue sky. And yet, the one on the right emphasizes the way in which the building soars towards the sky, while the one below emphasizes the broad, spreading roof. You may say that this is obvious and inevitable. We reply: yes, it is, but that doesn't mean that everyone notices it, or that they think about it consciously.

It's also worth pointing out that deliberately trying to shoot both orientations, especially if one seems much more obvious than the other, can be a useful spur to creativity.


Chengde, China

At Chengde, site of one of the summer palaces of the Chinese emperors, there is a scaled-down copy of the Potala in Lhasa. Although it's beautiful in one way, it's quite depressing in another, because the Chinese use it to try to 'prove' simultaneously that Tibet is part of China and that Tibet was primitive and backward.



Fake Potala

This is the same building as above. Roger shot both pictures on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX using his Leica M4-P and 75/2 Summicron.

scale and mood

A page-filling picture usually has more 'presence' or impact, other things being equal, than one that fills only part of the page. For example, here on a computer screen, the landscape version of the fake Potala is more dramatic than the portrait version. But on a printed page, unless the landscape version was run across two pages, the portrait version would have more impact because the landscape version would occupy only half a page.

It's also eminently true that usually, other things aren't equal. A strong picture is a strong picture at any size, and a weak one is rarely improved by over-enlarging it.

Palms, Goa

Even with a postage-stamp-sized image, just 200 pixels high, you can almost feel the wind here, and the vivid hand colouring conveys the bright, clear tropical sun. Frances shot this with her Nikkortmat FTn and 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor on Ilford SFX, then printed it on Paterson Warmtone and hand-coloured it with Marshall's Oils. There is a full-sized version of this (550 pixels high) in the Hand Colouring Gallery.




square shooting

We have already mentioned cropping to a square, but it is historically more common to crop a square to a rectangle. This is one of the most compelling arguments advanced by the users of Rolleiflexes, Hasselblads and many other SLRs and TLRs. You can, they say, compose the image the way you like and crop away the leftovers at the printing stage (or nowadays, the scanning stage).

There is a good deal to be said for this argument, provided you do not have to relinquish control of your (square) transparencies to an art director who may then crop them in the most extraordinary manner: this is why we gave up using Hasselblads, delightful though they are.

On the other hand, not everyone finds it it easy to compose this way and we have to confess that on the rare occasions we shoot 6x6cm we surprisingly often prefer square compositions. Also, the real reason the 6x6cm format exists is that it is wildly inconvenient to tip a reflex on its side unless you have a pentaprism.


St Martin, Noize

KowaSIX, 85/2.8 lens, Maco Cube 400 film, print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone (Roger).



the bottom line



As so often, a lot of what we have said in this module is obvious -- and, again as so often, it is only obvious once you have thought about it.

We do not always make a conscious effort to shoot every subject in both portrait and landscape formats, but sometimes we do, and we also shoot with the final use of the picture in mind. This means biasing our shooting towards portrait format for publication, which is worth remembering if your ambitions lie in that direction.

Compare the picture on the left with the one below. The two are as close as one can easily get to shooting the same picture from the same location with the same camera and lens, in landscape and portrait orientation. But with the one on the left, the ruins in the foreground seem to invite you in, to go beyond them and explore the chateau. In the picture below, the ruins reveal themselves much more as fortifications that are designed to keep you out; the mood is, indeed, different.


Chateau, Touraine du Sud

Voigtlä:nder Bessa-T, 21/4 Color-Skopar, Ilford XP2 Super printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone (Frances).

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks