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Choosing a Format
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Choosing a Format

Among the most basic decisions that face you in composing any photograph is whether to frame it horizontally or vertically. Because cameras are rectangular and are more comfortable to hold horizontally, that's exactly how most people compose their pictures. Turning the camera on end makes handling a bit awkward, but the effort will add power and desperately needed visual variety to your pictures. Imagine how boring it would be to go to an art gallery and see only horizontal paintings.

Many subjects cry out to be framed in a particular way. As a rule, tall subjects (like trees or people), or those in which you want to exaggerate near-to-far distance, stand more comfortably in a vertical frame. Framing a scene vertically forces the eye to scan the photograph from bottom to top (and vice versa), which exaggerates the impression of depth and distance. Wide scenes or long, squat subjects lie naturally in a horizontal composition. Horizontal compositions draw the eye from side to side across the frame, reinforcing the sense of width and spaciousness.

For many subjects, either format will work; choosing the best framing is then largely a matter of instinct. If deciding which format looks best becomes difficult, photograph it both ways and decide later; it's often easier to grasp the full impact from a print than it is when you're looking through the viewfinder.

Though we may not always be aware of it, format also deeply affects the psychological content of a scene. Subjects framed vertically, for instance, often seem more aggressive and less stable: Skyscrapers loom overhead and trees totter in the wind. Conversely, horizontally framed subjects offer a sense of equilibrium and stability.

Next: "Placing the Horizon Line"