When to Choose Between Horizontal, Vertical and the Square Crop

In photography, the simplest decision can sometimes help or weaken the impression of an image. How we choose to frame or crop our subject affects the overall composition and the effect it has on the viewer.  Horizontal and vertical formats are the two most common ways to frame an image although interest in the square crop seems to be on the rise.

 Horizontal framing (landscape format) is ideal when:

          the subject is wider than it is taller, such as boats, bridges, or rows of houses.

          there is implied movement from side to side, such as a motion blur shot of a ball rolling from the left to the right of the frame.

          landscape (or seascape) panoramas, especially those that show horizon lines.

 Vertical framing (portrait format) is ideal when:

          the subject is taller rather than it is wider.

          the subject is not just tall but also singular or few, such as a solitary lamppost, a skyscraper or a person standing. A line of people or a row of skyscrapers could benefit from a horizontal framing instead.

          implied movement is going upwards or downwards.

          you want focus to just be on the subject since this orientation removes peripheral vision

For budding photographers, horizontal framing (a.k.a landscape format) is more often used than vertical (probably because it’s just more convenient to hold the camera in its horizontal position rather than having to tilt it sideways.)  However, using vertical framing can alter the impression of the same scene. Although the final framing can be decided in post processing by cropping or rotating the image, try to make your decision before you press that shutter button so you will not end up having to cut off large unnecessary areas in the image.

The Square Crop

The most common aspect ratio is a rectangle but there is also the square, and square crops are fast becoming popular again (it was a common format in the 50’s during the era of the medium format cameras which used film with a square aspect ratio). Square crops are often used for online avatars (the image that represents you in the internet) and image thumbnails, and they look great when you want to make a photo collage in your portfolio since they provide consistency.

There are some compositional elements that seem to work especially well with a square crop:

Symmetry – symmetrical subjects are commonly cropped square with its central point at the center as well of the frame. But asymmetry can be just as attractive when shown in a square crop as long as you pay close attention to the composition. Common principles such as the rule of thirds and perspective are often applied and can be very effective.

Diagonals – since the square crop is neutral and does not really lead your line of vision from side to side or up to down, showing a diagonal allows the eye to be lead to where you want them to linger.

Abstract and minimal style – there is something to be said for a minimal image in a simple square crop.  The clean and spare lines and shapes that form a minimal composition work very well with the square aspect ratio. So too with abstract images which may emphasize purely colors and indefinable shapes.

There is no hard and fast rule when to use a square crop over the more conventional rectangle. One way to find out if the image would look better that way is to crop a copy of it in post processing. If you’re using Photoshop, simply keep the Shift key pressed as you drag your crop tool over the selected image area and the crop will be a perfect square. You can always undo the crop action if you do not like how the composition flows in this format. 

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