Composition is a very subjective thing, there are lots of guidelines like the rule of thirds but as clichéd as it sounds these are all there to be broken. One thing I have found as I’ve been learning photography is that I often prefer landscapes shot in portrait orientation which might not be the most obvious or conventional approach.
I think it’s always worth trying when you’re shooting your next landscape, take a portrait version of the same scene and see the difference it makes to the photograph.
One big reason it can work is adding depth, you can get a lot more foreground in while still keeping the horizon around the 2/3 line which might allow you to squeeze in that extra detail that makes the image, or add another layer in front of your foreground which can help draw the viewers eye through the scene.
Another plus point for changing your orientation is when the scene just doesn’t have that much going for it in terms of wide angle interest. The horizon might be flat and uninspiring, or there could be things off to the side that would ruin the photo.
Below is a great example of this with side by side landscape and portrait shots of Tarn Hows in the Lake District taken from almost the same spot. You can see in the landscape version that the far bank of the lake looks nice, but doesn’t change much from left to right so there’s nothing in particular to draw your eye, especially with very little in the foreground. Switch to portrait and suddenly we can push the horizon further up, bring a lot more foreground in and find a bit of interest in the pebbles under the water. Now there are more layers and much greater depth, as well as only looking at a small slice of that shore which means there’s not so much leaning on it as a focal point, we’re more drawn to the symmetry of the reflection rather than the shape of the horizon itself.
The next example is from a small estuary bay off Loch Tarbert on the West coast of Scotland. It’s a fairly flat landscape here for Scotland, but the line of the grass against the shore with the sheep’s hoof prints running alongside caught my eye. On the right edge of the photo there wasn’t anything of interest (a tree lined road) and the left you can see is a flat open expanse of loch bed. Because of this the landscape composition doesn’t work for me, it feels too empty on the left side leaving it unbalanced and the big area of lighter ground pulls your eye away from the shoreline which I wanted to be the focal point. In the portrait version I prefer the fact that the focus is now purely on that shoreline and there’s a balance between the green and brown areas, almost creating a yin yang shape from them. It has narrowed in on the detail that I wanted to capture and feels like there’s more of a route for your eyes to follow through the frame.
One final example shows Loch an Eilein in Scotland. Here there’s only a small glimpse of the mountains in the background before the view is obscured with trees either side, if I had widened the shot at all it would have just showed more dark forest and pushed the landscape into the distance. Switching to portrait here allowed me to pull the underwater stones into the foreground similarly to the first example, but here there is more importance on this due to the formation of the rocks, I’m not sure why they are arranged like that, but it’s a great compositional line. We don’t lose anything either side as I mentioned it’s just dark forest and the reflections on the water are very bright over to the right hand side as it’s exposed for the shaded foreground. Again the portrait orientation gives more depth, which in turn helps draw your eye through and makes a stronger composition overall.
As I mentioned at the start there are a lot of guidelines in composition but it’s very subjective and some of you may prefer the landscape orientations in the examples above. The point of this post is to show that there may be another option and to always try looking at a scene from different angles.