When I listen to the debate whether it is better to shoot mobile video in portrait mode or landscape mode, I cringe. Creators argue for how they want to acquire and present their video and how they want it to be seen, and that is all wrong. It should not be about how you want to shoot and share as much as how your audience wants to consume.
Figure 1. A church steeple is one obvious example of video that works well in portrait mode.
Despite the image choice above, full disclosure requires I state that my sympathies lie with the landscape camp. The human visage was designed to take in more visual information along the horizontal axis. Our left-right peripheral vision is phenomenal, and for good reason. Humans weren’t always at the top of the food chain, so the ability to perceive a predator rustling in the grass to the left of right to our primary focus came in handy.
Figure 2 The author’s preferred canvas is landscape mode.
As visual storytellers in the mobile era, we must put aside our preferences somewhat and consider audience preferences. How do you expect people to view your video? Much, if not most of what we shoot on a mobile device is consumed on mobile devices. There’s a better than even chance your audience will be holding their phones vertically. It’s the default for most of us, so landscape video requires the viewer to make a physical adjustment to avert a diminished experience and view at full resolution.
Certain activities and objects simply demand a specific mode. For example, baseball should be shot in landscape mode in order to show the trail the pitch takes to the batter. Skyscrapers… you get the point.
Beyond the obvious aesthetic requirements, how you select the optimal orientation? You cannot know each viewer’s preferences and the context of their experience – are they commuting, waiting in line at a coffee shop, or at a baseball game between innings? All those things determine their willingness to invest the effort in flipping to the horizontal position to watch your video. While you can make assumptions, without hard data it’s hard to know how well those assumptions will hold when your video is published.
5 easy steps to choosing the best orientation for your video
Going through this checklist in order will make the orientation decision easier. Once you have a definitive answer to one of these questions, there’s no need to finish the checklist. It’s time to start shooting.
1. Does your subject demand a specific orientation?
Landscape mode nearly always shows sweeping vistas and panoramas in their best light. A tilt down from the osprey’s nest on the ledge to the water before begs to be shot with a vertical orientation. If the subject doesn’t demand a specific orientation, other factors should be considered.
2. Does most of your audience watch you video on YouTube?
YouTube has settled on the HD 16:9 (H:V) aspect ratio. Everything you post , no matter its actual aspect ratio is placed in the 16:9 player, even on mobile devices. The viewer has to go to the extra step of clicking on full screen mode to get rid of the landscape player when holding the phone vertically. If YouTube is your most important platform, shoot landscape.
Figure 3 YouTube just doesn’t seem to like portrait video.
3. Is either Facebook or Twitter your primary channel?
Both these networks are majority mobile experiences. Most of their users are on a mobile device most of the time. A surprising 56% of users access Facebook exclusively through the mobile app. A number of fascinating Facebook user stats are here. And an absolutely staggering 86% of Twitter activity originates and is consumed on a mobile device.
The call on the ideal orientation for these two social juggernauts is a little more nuanced. Both apps allow video to be viewed in full screen in full resolution at the original orientation. Unless there is a compelling reason to ask the viewer to flip their phones, portrait mode is a good choice to maximize engagement. For both Facebook and Twitter, even on the desktop, portrait mode renders a surprisingly good viewing experience due the vertical emphasis of the browser UI design.
Figure 4 Facebook’s mobile app displays portrait mode videos very nicely.
4. What about Instagram?
You would think that a nearly 100% mobile experience platform would favor portrait video. It doesn’t. Portrait video uploaded to Instagram are cropped to display at a 1:1 ratio. I guess Instagram just loves its squares. Yet landscape videos have orientation and aspect ratios preserved. If Instagram is your primary distribution platform, shoot landscape.
5. Still don’t have a decision?
Flip a coin, experiment a little, explore composing and shooting outside your comfort zone. If it looks good to you on your mobile device, it will look good to your audience.
If none of the questions above have a definitive answer, you have the freedom to do what you like. Mobile video is still a relatively new art form. Enjoy the lax rules.