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Photography 101: Finding the Best Shot — Portrait or Landscape?

Jeff Sinon talks about scouting the best shot and deciding when a portrait or landscape works best for a photograph.

Mt. Washington: Landscape (Horizontal)

Last week, landscape photographer Jeff Sinon introduced the basics of composition and shared techniques on how to look for various elements in a scene. Today, he talks about scouting the best shot and deciding when a portrait or landscape works best for a photograph.

What’s the best shot?

Let’s say you’re out and about, have found a great scene to capture, but aren’t sure how to approach the picture. What’s the best shot? The answer depends on the subject. If I’m photographing wildflowers close up, I’ll look for a good specimen: one with great color, and without any broken or missing petals. I want a flower that stands out, so I’ll look for one with a little something extra, like the dew drop glistening on the leaf of this painted trillium:

Painted trillium in New Hampshire

Painted trillium in New Hampshire

For grand scenic landscapes, finding the photograph within a scene can still be a challenge for me. When faced with an awe-inspiring view, I’m overwhelmed and want to capture it all, and in the end, I’ll come away with nothing but a snapshot. To remedy this — and to become a better photographer — I take a few moments to enjoy the splendor before me. I can settle down, enjoy the view, and look for the photograph that I want to make. Then I’ll attempt to create a compelling image that conveys the grandness of the scene — to capture the essence of the landscape.

After hiking to the summit of Mt. Avalon in the White Mountains in New Hampshire on a cold, windy evening, I stumbled upon this beautiful scene:

Mt. Avalon

Mt. Avalon

This was the reward for the effort I put forth on my first winter hike! However, this wasn’t the photograph I wanted. After setting up my tripod, I sat down in the snow to take it all in and “look for the shot.” It took a few minutes, and a bit of experimentation with composition and focal length, but I finally found what I was looking for. I’d noticed that while most of the Presidential Range was shaded from the sun by the clouds, the summit of Mt. Washington was in and out of sunlight. If I’d waited for just the right moment, I hoped the summit would be bathed in a beautiful pink alpenglow. So, this was the photograph I wanted to make:

Alpenglow of Mt. Washington

Alpenglow of Mt. Washington

This second image is a much smaller snippet of the grand vista, but it captures the essence of the location more so than the wider view in the first photograph.

Portrait or landscape?

Image via polymathprogrammer.com

Image via polymathprogrammer.com

When approaching a shot, you’ll consider whether a portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) orientation works best for your scene. Most nature landscape photography is done with the camera in horizontal mode. But in my quest to gain more recognition for my work, I started shooting a lot with my camera mounted vertically on my tripod. It didn’t take long to realize that not every scene works when shot vertically! But when it worked, like in this shot of a stream, it worked really well.

I soon started to recognize the elements that made a good portrait-oriented landscape photograph, in which you’re able to convey more depth. In general, you need very strong foreground, middle, and background elements, which I talked about in part one. (In a lot of horizontal shots, you can get away with a so-so middle-ground element — but not so in a vertical one.)

Here’s an example of a strong vertically oriented photo:

Below Bridal Veil in  Moultonborough, New Hampshire

Below Bridal Veil in Moultonborough, New Hampshire

Quick Exercise: Compare the shot above with its horizontal version, which you can see in my post, “Portrait, Landscape, Both?” Which is your favorite of the two? Why?

But you’ll come across scenes that work equally well in both landscape and portrait mode, like this one from New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington:

These two shots were taken within seconds of each other. I may be biased, but I think they both turned out well!

Also, this nighttime scene of a waterfall on the Cocheco River in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, yields good results in both horizontal and vertical mode:

What do you think?

A challenge from Jeff

The next time you’re out taking a picture, capture the scene horizontally and vertically. Then, ask yourself: does one shot work better than the other? Do you recognize why?

This is a great way to hone your photographer’s eye, and you’ll begin to see the world both ways. I’d love to see what you’ve come up with — feel free to share your photos in the comments section on my “Portrait, Landscape, Both?” post, or visit my Facebook page and share them there.

Extra tips from The Daily Post editors

Theme suggestions: Love landscape photographs? Nishita showcases wide images well, and offers two layout options, including a “photoblog” setting at 1024 pixels wide. Check it out on blogs like Urban Mosaic and Mabry Campbell Photography. Modularity Lite displays your photographs beautifully, too (big bold images ideally at 950×425 pixels). See it in action on Marc J.

Cropping images: While much of Jeff’s tutorial involves finding those perfect shots while you’re shooting and looking through your camera, you can consider cropping an image after you’ve uploaded it to frame it the way you want. (In a past writing challenge, Erica discusses using the image editing tools in the dashboard, too.)

About Jeff Sinon

Jeff Sinon After serving in the US Air Force, I’ve spent the last thirty years earning my living as an auto mechanic. Though I’ve always been creative, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I stumbled into photography. Interested in astronomy, I wanted to try to capture some of what I saw through the eyepiece on my telescope. So, I bought my first DSLR in 2008. It didn’t take long before I combined my love of the outdoors with photography. I’ve decided to pursue it on a more professional level, with the dream that one day I can put down the wrenches for the last time and earn my living as a photographer.

I currently live in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, with my wife Lisa, daughter Nicole, and a big goofy yellow lab named Hunter. You can follow me on my blog, my website, or my Facebook fan page.

Previous posts in our Photography 101 series

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    1. Hey Tim, that’s the best way to learn new things. There is no one “right” way to make a photograph, so reading other people’s methods has helped me a lot.

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      1. I couldn’t agree more. Its great to read about and then try other methods of getting a photo. It can give you a whole new perspective. Also I find reading about how someone actually came about getting the shot can be as interesting as the photo itself.

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      2. No matter how good you become with a camera, there is always something new to learn. One of the reasons I like to get together with some of my other photographer friends is that even though we may all be shooting the same basic subject, the way we each go about it is often quite different. I regularly have “why didn’t I think of that” moments.

        I think the information about how a shot was made can be very helpful. To both other photographers who may be interested in capturing the same type of scene, and potential clients. I visit a lot of the local galleries and quite often overhear something to the affect of “why don’t we just go take that picture ourselves,” when they see a photo they like. When someone who really likes one of my photos realizes that I may have been on the trail by 2 a.m. in order to capture a mountain top sunrise, or hiked 3-5 miles out of the mountains on icy, snow covered trails long after dark, to get a photo, they soon realize that buying an expensive camera is less than 1/10th of what it takes to make a great photo. It’s probably cheaper for them to just buy a print 😉

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      3. Exactly! Everyone has their own methods of going about shooting a subject and by collaborating or observing that, there can always be a lesson learned.

        You have quite a point. Its true, many people don’t realize what kind of effort can go into capturing just a single photo. There is a lot more involved than just having expensive gear. I recently had someone take interest in using a few of my photos and when I told her what I had done to capture the photos she was shocked haha

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    2. That is the thing I’m worried about. I talked to her recently and she wants to meet up with me to discuss the possibility of an assignment job but I’ve yet to hear the word compensation in any way, shape or form. I am going to be meeting with her on the 18th. I am hoping to bring up that issue before then, but I don’t exactly know how to go about it. I’m also trying to educate myself about licensing and things like that because if this works out it will sort of be my first photography job

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  1. all the great people stumble upon a great idea, as if the God itself wanted them to be somebody else than what they have been doing, your wrenches may come handy for somebody else, sooner you put them away

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    1. Thank you for the confidence. I would put the wrenches down for the last time in a second if the income from print sales was enough to make up for it. 😀

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    2. PANKAJBHARATDWAJ,And that is what happened to me. At the age of 70 I took a look around and decided I needed a new career. I had read that art history is being dropped from the high schools in the United States and decided I could do something about that. What I have done to create a website arthistoryworlds.org the site is in progress I’ve made it from prehistoric art all the way to Egypt and have a long way to go. This is to say that there is no way to know when something absolutely fabulous will show up. I did not even think I wanted a new career until it hit me in the head. Take a lookat arthistoryworlds.org, write down the answers to the questions you will find in each unit and discover how much you learn by writing down the answers. I will keep plugging along on the site and may get to where you are sometime.

      Katherine Bolman I hope you enjoy.

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  2. Its great that WordPress shows some love for photography. Would be nice if photographs on portrait were not so much smaller in the wordpress reader than landscape and if galleries were not arbitrarily cropped. As a result I try to post only landscapes.

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  3. I’m contemplating working on my photography skills before I drop the money on a better/bigger/more expensive camera. This series has been helpful- if I can remember everything when it comes time to click the shutter. However, I wouldn’t mind some advice on catching quick moments when you don’t have time to sit and look for the photograph. That is a post I would very much look forward to reading, as I’m usually using my phone camera or my banged up old digital to capture fleeting moments in the outdoors.

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    1. As cliche as this is going to sound, all it takes is practice. I can only speak about “fleeting” moments outdoors when it comes to landscape photos, as in how fleeting the best light can be, but eventually, after you’ve been out at sunrise/set enough trying to capture the best light, you start to know what’s about to happen before it does, so you’re ready for it. Of course you’re going to miss a lot of great shots along the way. But that’s what I love about being a landscape photographer, I know that if I miss the shot, there’s always next time. That mountain isn’t going anywhere, and the sun will always rise and set, at least once a day. 😀

      Lastly, that first comment is one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard an aspiring photographer say. So many people just assume that buying the most expensive pro model camera is a sure-fire ticket to photographic stardom. The fact you actually want to learn how to get the most out of what you have before throwing buckets of money into this very expensive hobby, is very refreshing.

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  4. Super article Jeff! I also find it best to study the subject a bit before pressing the shutter…at the same time I say…when should one shoot a vertical…right after a horizontal.

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    1. Always a good idea David. I learned the hard way, usually after I’ve already left a location, or after the light’s gone. Then the thought would hit me, “THAT’S the shot I should have made!

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  5. Very interesting, usually I took panorama of portrait shot and combine it in PS to make a wider landscape. Or crop portrait from a landscape picture and sacrifice the MP. Your article helps me thinking about my aproach to take photograph

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  6. Thanks so much for sharing your photos and expertise …the more I take (photos that is) and then read other peoples experience of photography, the more I learn and the ‘better’ I get. Oh and I love your photos….those mountains look awesome!

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  7. Nice article Cheri! I love your landscape pictures. But to be honest there is not such a thing like a ” portrait-oriented landscape pictures” (just if you have a human in the picture ;).
    Portrait is a picture of person and landscape well it is landscape picture.
    I get what you mean (use both formats) but first time I was reading your article I was a little confused.

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    1. Hi Portrait Photographer! To clarify, these lovely photographs are from Jeff Sinon, our guest photographer, not me 🙂

      Thanks for the comment — I could see how “portrait-oriented landscape picture” could be confusing, but I think Jeff does a good job offering a bit more context and what he means — glad you enjoyed his images here.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your work and thoughts. It won’t be long before you put your wrench down for good 🙂

    Magnificent photography! Good luck in realising your dream 🙂

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  9. Excellent tips! Thank you. Though I try to shoot both landscape and portrait orientations, I always seem to prefer the landscape version. But I like the idea of using the portrait shot to convey depth. Am going to do some experimenting…

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  10. This is a very useful piece! I used to shoot portraits all the time, and I don’t know why, but then I stopped (so much) 😀 Mt Avalon photo is breathtakingly beautiful.

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