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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. Looks like you hit a home run w this one Jeff! Altho I tend to shoot more in portrait, I try to “see” the scene I’m capturing both ways and to shoot both. Often the result is quite different and both approaches work but one or the other is usually a bit stronger. Good advice!

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  2. Great post! I’ve read somewhere that landscape is the best orientation for taking pictures, but your photographs prove that portrait is a good way to go too. Next time I take photos, I’ll definitely experiment with taking the same shot using both orientations.

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