Top tips for taking vertical photos for the smartphone era

First published:
September 4, 2022
February 6, 2024

Top tips for taking vertical photos for the smartphone era

First published:
September 4, 2022
February 6, 2024

Live video at festival by Sorapop Udomsri

5 top tips for exploring the world from a new smartphone-friendly perspective

Are you shooting in vertical or horizontal? Once known as videos that had been “shot the wrong way” by supposedly naive smartphone users, the way people hold and therefore view their devices naturally lends itself to vertical rather than horizontal videos and photos. Although they can look clunky and awkward when eyewitness videos are used in TV news broadcasts, think about shooting videos and photos vertically not as “wrong”, but as the chance to explore the world from a new perspective. Vertical videos and photos are easy to shoot, but nevertheless require some extra thought. Here are some of our top tips to get you started … 

1 Know the market

Mobile photography on Plaza Espana square in Barcelona. Photo by Carlos Sanchez Pereyra - f/7.1 | ISO 50 | 1/100s

Has the world of media gone vertical? In some ways, absolutely. About three-quarters of all video viewing online is on a smartphone rather than a laptop or desktop computer, which is why if you are shooting video you should abandon thinking only about the traditional horizontal widescreen shape. The latter is not going away, of course, if for no other reason than the shape of flatscreen TVs (is anyone ready for a vertical TV in the living room?), but for short videos consumed on the go the default should now be vertical. TikTok wants it and so does Instagram and Facebook.

There is, of course, one exception – YouTube, which retains the horizontal format largely because videos tend to be longer. It’s a reminder that vertical videos are only on-trend for videos shorter than a minute or so. Anything longer and smartphone users appear happier to re-orientate their devices to landscape mode to watch in widescreen. So the vertical trend is essentially a video trend that is limited to specific social media platforms. After all, artists and photographers have always photographed in the vertical a.k.a. portrait orientation.

Author tip: You don't have to use a smartphone to take vertical video that looks good on smartphones. You can just as easily use a mirrorless or DSLR camera, a compact camera or an action camera. Just make sure you dive into the settings and switch to 16:9 mode before reorienting your device. You may have to swap the orientation of the video later, but you can do that in most post processing video software. 

2 Understanding aspect ratios

Male hands making frame. Photo by Antonio Gravante - f/11 | ISO 50 | 1/100s

The vertical trend is often referred to as the 9:16 trend. Why? Although we're talking here about a general trend for vertical as opposed to horizontal video and photos, it's all part of a larger and more nuanced story about aspect ratios. The aspect ratio of a video or photo refers to its proportional width and height. For example, 1:1 refers to a square shape while a regular widescreen TV has an aspect ratio 16:9, which for vertical video is essentially turned on its side to be 9:16.

The dominant aspect ratio used by the entertainment industry, artists and photographers is constantly changing. Old TVs used to be 4:3, which can also be expressed as 1.33:1. Go to the movies and you'll likely encounter aspect ratios of 1.85:1 (slightly wider than widescreen) and 2.39:1 (much wider, with black bars at the top and bottom). So what aspect ratio is a smartphone? That depends on the brand. The iPhone 13 Pro has an aspect ratio of 19.5:9, while for the Samsung Galaxy  s22 ultra it’s 19.3:9. So the dominant smartphones are actually even wider than widescreen and there's no telling what aspect ratio smartphones of the future will use. Circular smartphones, anyone?

Author tip: Go look in the settings of your DSLR or Mirrorless camera and you'll see a plethora of aspect ratios on offer. Most cameras will give you a default of 3:2, but there are usually options to swap to 4:3, 16:9 (the best choice for vertical images that look good on social media) and 1:1. 

3 Use a tripod or ball-head

Photographer on the Cliffs. Photo by Howard Double - f/14 | ISO 400 | 1/40s

Although most vertical videos are shot handheld that’s not always the best way. From a piece to camera to panoramas, to produce more professional-looking results requires a tripod, gimbal or ball-head. Most universal clamps for smartphones are designed to be kept horizontal, but you can find examples that allow for vertical orientation. However, do check before you purchase.

An easy alternative is to use a tripod with flexible legs, which can be wrapped around something vertical, such as a post or tree. Another technique, whatever the device you use, is to use a tilting ball-head on a tripod that tilts to one side. However, with a heavy camera that can cause droop, something that is solved by using an L-bracket, which fits around the bottom and side of a mirrorless or DSLR camera and allows you to quickly swap the orientation. A composition grid overlaid on the preview is useful to make sure your device is balanced (for iPhone users the little-known native app called Measure acts like a spirit or bubble level). 

Author tip: Think about audio. Although many flagship smartphones have excellent built-in microphones, there are many models of add-on shotgun-style microphones that clip-on to the top of a smartphone and improve the sound quality. However, the best way to record audio if someone is doing a piece to camera is to use a wireless laden microphone (though wired versions are much cheaper … just make sure it has a very long cable!). 

4 Shoot handheld or get a gimbal

Woman takes selfie on holiday. Photo by A454 - f/7.1 | ISO 100 | 1/200s

The image stabilisation tech for video on modern smartphones and cameras is excellent. It’s a direct response to the way people tend to use smartphones to take video. So take advantage of it. It’s a lot easier than having to think about tripods. If you have an action camera then it’s even more of an option. If you’ve ever used a GoPro or Insta360 action camera you’ll know about their buttery-smooth motion. Known as HyperSmoth and FlowState, respectively, these action cameras’ clever motion compensation modes easily gloss over the juddery movement of extreme sports, so they cope with almost anything you can throw at them.

Another way of shooting a sequence on the move that stays looking smooth is to use a gimbal, which will allow you to film perfectly stabilised and smooth-looking footage thanks to your camera being balanced through three axes (with yaw, pitch and roll counteracting each other). They may seem complicated, but gimbals are incredibly easy to use and usually allow you to shoot vertically. 

Author tip: Vertical video comes with a few composition challenges. Camera pans can be uncomfortable to watch in vertical mode, so abandon horizontal movements and look for more vertical action. Look for tall, narrow subjects such as people, buildings, waterfalls and the leading lines of roads taking the view as you gaze into the distance. All will naturally suit a vertical composition. 

5 Change the point of view

Short city break tourist essentials. Photo by Tommy Lee Walker - f/5.6 | ISO 200 | 1/160s

A lot of vertical videos are shot by people who are not thinking about what they're doing. They're just holding their smartphone as they always do and pressing record. That lack of thought has consequences. Not only do all vertical videos generally lack stability, but they are very often also all shot from chest height, giving them all a very similar point of view. In some regards that's a stylistic characteristic of vertical video, but if you want to produce something that looks a little different all you really have to do is change where you hold your smartphone. The easiest way to do that is to vary the height. Try some vertical video from ground level, which immediately looks unusual (and can also mimic how an animal sees the world). Ditto raising the height of your phone, which can give you a bird’s eye view. Both techniques are incredibly simple but will give your vertical videos an unusual look. 

Author tip: Once you've got yourself a smartphone clamp that can cope with the phone in vertical orientation try using a selfie stick to vary point of view. An extendable selfie stick can be really useful for getting your smartphone higher than crowds or merely to create a bird’s eye view.

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