Portrait vs Landscape – more than meets the eye [2000 views]

I have some theories about these modes – for example, cropping one into the other. I tried them out on the Monna Lisa and … read on!

I like to take pictures (you’ll see some here). Some of them turn out good but I’m not in the same league as the real professionals.

I’m very curious about what makes a good picture and am amused by newbie mistakes. Like not getting close enough. Or having the sun at your back so your subjects are squinting.

Or taking all your pictures in landscape mode.

Landscape image of a photographer taking a portrait mode picture.

You can hardly blame the newbies, cameras are set up to be used in landscape mode. To take a portrait you need the awkward hand-over-the-camera maneuver pictured above. Practically a sign of a better-than-average photographer.

I love portrait mode. Recently my wife gave me an Aura Frames smart photo frame. It’s brilliant, starting with the images. (I have no investment in AF).Your images are stored in the cloud, so you can have tons of them. They are presented as a side show, with you controlling the interval.

One of their best ideas is to allow the frame to operate in portrait mode – just place it upright on the surface, as in the picture on the left. And that brought up the question, which mode to use?

Initially I set it up in landscape mode and loaded a bunch of my pictures into the cloud. This was disappointing since pictures that weren’t landscape were crudely cropped and peoples’ feet and heads disappeared into the edge. Same with portrait, this time arms disappeared.

Aura allows you to upload entire Mac photos albums so my next step was to create two albums, with pictures (cropped properly) into landscape and portrait modes, respectively.

There were good pictures in both albums, but I soon preferred the portrait album. There was something more impressive or active about them, whereas the landscape album was laid back.

Soviet stamp: “Paris Commune Day March 18”

For example, political posters (and posters for movies and concerts) are invariably in portrait mode. They are designed to be energizing.

So I decided to stick with portrait only for my frame and began going through my pictures and editing them to portraits (mainly copying and resizing). I even ransacked the landscape album and was able to convert most of them to decent portrait images.

Portrait mode in history

It has to be said, that historically the portrait mode has been dominant. The earliest writing was done on stone or clay tablets, and they were much taller than they were wide.

Thank God for Portrait Mode!

Throughout history important documents designed to impress have been produced in portrait mode. Hollywood aside, we don’t know about the ten commandments but we know for sure about the Gutenberg Bible, which, like almost all books, is made of portrait pages.

Famous declarations, like the French revolutionary Rights of Man and Citizen, were portraits.

Page from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455.

Why did portrait mode dominate for so long? A partial explanation is that text is much easier to read in portrait, because the lines are shorter. With landscape it you have to follow the long lines carefully and have trouble going back to find where the next line begins. The Gutenberg Bible is not only portrait, each page has two tall columns.

For that reason letters, reports, academic papers and in general Word documents are portrait.

The Changing Landscape

Why did Landscape emerge as such a strong contender? The short answer is TV, in the early 1950’s.

Portrait is good for showing one or two people, but if you want to show a group you need landscape, because groups of humans spread sideways. TV shows are almost all about groups of humans. Also TV shows have a lot of literal landscapes (like the westerns that were popular in the 50’s).

Don’t Even Mention “Portrait”

So there was really no choice about which mode to use for television, and that had a knock-on effect for other media.The same can probably be said about cameras, which in the consumer market are mainly used to take pictures of groups of people (family).

It’s now hard to imagine, but the first personal computers (like the Xerox Parc Alto) had portrait screens. They were designed to produce, edit, and display documents, so portrait was the obvious choice.

Xerox Alto

This started changing when computers began being used for other purposes, like games and, later, video. For a while there were even ‘bimodal’ monitors that could be rotated between landscape and portrait but they soon disappeared. Nowadays we’re surrounded by rigid landscape screens, with Aura Frames being an outstanding exception.

The Aesthetics of Landscape and Portrait

As I said, I prefer portrait. I noticed that when I edited a picture into portrait, I got better images than when I edited them to landscape. In landscape, there tended to be uninteresting spaces on either side.

One of my Favourites

Hold on then, aren’t there wasted spaces in portrait images? On the whole, no. Top and bottom are equally important. Sometimes newbies waste the top, typically by pointing the camera up so that, for example the subjects’ faces appear in the middle of the image. (This is a very common error).

Sometimes the newbies point the camera down, so that the bottom of the image is empty foreground (sometimes they achieve both).

The key to successful portrait mode pictures is to have the interesting parts in the upper half but also have something to look at in the lower part so that it’s not totally barren (there are other patterns as well).

For example, in the image on the right, the important part, the flower bowl, is at the top, while the pillar beneath it, with the flowers at the base, is also attractive if not the main event.

My Brother Took This

Similarly, in my brother’s flowers picture the important part, the blossoms, are at the top but the vase and the drooping stems keep the bottom interesting.

I don’t know of any such formula to avoid boring parts of landscape photos.

Inside Every Portrait Image …

… is a landscape image trying to get out. After watching my portrait photo slide show over and over I realized that this pattern was very common (and violated in images that I felt for the most part were badly composed).

Sather Gate

For example, this picture of Berkeley’s Sather Gate looks a bit off. The top half is mostly empty blue sky, of no interest. The interesting part is in the bottom half.

Eventually I became curious about the result of cropping the image and removing the bottom, less interesting part. And keeping the top part which should be in landscape mode. The result, it turned out was in general a reasonable landscape (though not necessarily better) image.

Here are the landscape images lurking in the column and flowers pictured above.

What about Sather Gate? Extracting the top half would be pointless. The bottom half doesn’t work our either,, because the top of the Gate gets clipped. We need to crop a bit short of the bottom.

The result is a much better image.

There is no wasted space in the image.

In this case the cropping improves the image.

The question arises, what will be the aspect ratio of the cropped landscape image, assuming we take exactly 1/2 of it?

That depends on the original aspect ratio. If it’s 4:3, like my Aura frame, the new ratio is 3:2, or 4.5:3, close enough. If we want the exact same ratio, a little high school algebra tells us the ratio should be √2 : 1. This is very close to 7:5, a ratio offered by most image editing software.

Note: this is NOT the golden ratio – the golden ratio is 1.618, whereas √2 is 1.414. Any number of articles and books and articles will tell you the golden ratio is the key to artful images, but I’m suggesting something different. Which ratio is used in the Monna Lisa? Read on …

Inside every landscape image …

… is a portrait image struggling to get out.

As I said, I don’t view landscape images on my Aura but landscape images are omnipresent on the web. I was looking at the (all landscape) images in the New York Times. I was struck by the fact that almost all of them would benefit by a 1/2 crop to portrait.

In cropping portrait, you by default take the upper half. With landscape, the default is the middle half (with 1/4 removed on either side). But this may vary if the interesting part is not in the middle.

Here is the result of taking the image of the photographer at the beginning cropped down to the middle half.

I think it’s a better image, it really focuses on the camera and gives more prominence to the hands.

I could give dozens of examples of applying just the default rules but you get the idea.

Testing on the Monna Lisa.

No discussion of images is complete without talking about the Monna Lisa (correct Italian spelling), the most famous image in the world. How do my theories hold up? Quite well, as it turns out.

For a start, it’s in portrait mode. Can you think of a landscape image which is famous and the best landscape image in the world? I can’t.

And consider its aspect ratio. Recall the ideal ratio for cropping is 7:5. The Monna Lisa is 77cm x 53cm. Its aspect ratio is1.45, while 7/5 is 1.40 and √2 is 1.41. This is NOT the golden ratio.

Notice how the centre of attention, Monna Lisa’s face is solidly in the upper half. But the bottom half is not empty. We have a hint of cleavage, the robe, and the hands. It follows the formula exactly.

So let’s extract the upper half. The result is on the right.

I sort of like it. Her eyes and smile stand out more. Yet you never see this image, only the full portrait.

Inside every portrait …

… is a smaller portrait struggling to get out. And inside every landscape is another landscape …

You’ve probably noticed an interesting corollary of my rules. Portraits can be cropped to landscapes, but they in turn can be cropped to portraits. In other words, two stages of cropping can reduce a portrait to a smaller portrait.

Let’s try that with the cropped Monna Lisa landscape. The result is on the left. I like it too, again because it focuses on the eyes and the smile even more. I feel she’s looking right at me.

Let’s try 1/2 cropping on the portrait version of the photographer. It gives us an interesting take,

In fact we can 1/2 crop again, and we get the second portrait on the left.

The image is starting to get square because the original aspect ratio was not close to √2 . The aspect ratios of the crops oscillates.

Take better pictures

These considerations aren’t just of intellectual interest. They can help you take better pictures (or drawings, or paintings).

For portrait mode,

  • decide what is the interesting part of the image
  • get close enough so that the interesting part almost fills the frame from right to left
  • point camera down so that the interesting part is right at the top
  • make sure there is something interesting in the bottom half (foreground)

For landscape

  • place the interesting part by default in the center
  • make sure it fills the frame from top to bottom (get close)
  • have an interesting background (e.g. a hedge or a sea view)

These rules aren’t logically complete – you can take good pictures not following them. Also, I’ve been told that the real pros don’t need rules, they just go by gut feel. But for the gutless rest of us, rules are better than nothing.

About Bill Wadge

I am a retired Professor in Computer Science at UVic.
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