On August 27, 2015, Instagram finally abandoned their enforced square format. (A format that largely prevented me from posting to Instagram since I crop in camera and have no interest in an app making further cropping decisions for me.) In trying to solve their square problem, however, Instagram gets egg on their portrait.
The problem started with Instagram's post announcing the change. The title of the post was: "Thinking Outside the Square: Support for Landscape and Portrait Formats on Instagram." Landscape and Portrait? Huh? Imprecise word choices, especially for the makers of an app for photographs. But the worst was yet to come.
Picking up on the Instagram language, every major media outlet and the vast majority of the blogosphere repeated the same wrong language: "Portrait and Landscape."
The purpose of any communication is to transmit an idea from one person's consciousness to another's. Written and spoken words are symbolic. The communicator chooses words which the recipient will assemble to form an impression of the communicator's thoughts. The process of hearing and reading words creates emotional reactions and triggers associations, memories, and a chain of concepts unique to the recipient. Language is powerful and once the associations are triggered, it's difficult to undo them. With its awful choice of words, Instagram contributed more to visual illiteracy with one post than has a decade a bad television.
The cropping orientation of any image should be based on the elements in that image. If there are vertical elements in the image that support the subject, then a vertical orientation makes sense because it supports the subject—not because the subject is a person.
In colloquial use, "portrait" means an image with a person as the subject, while a "landscape" is nature or architecture. The orientation of the image is irrelevant to its subject matter, but painters often put people in a vertical orientation, while nature and architecture were in a horizontal orientation. The power of language being what it is, people conflated the term with the selection of orientation, and thus came the mistaken belief that people pictures should be vertical and nature pictures horizontal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Horizontal or vertical orientation of an image is a subset of the concept of cropping: it's about controlling the gestalt of the image and the spectator's visual involvement with the image. An artist has a message to convey, and excluding things from the frame is no less important than what's included. Ideally, nothing should be in an image that doesn't support or inform the main subject. That goal is easier to achieve in the graphic arts, where the artist can choose what to draw or paint into a scene. Photographers are limited to physically reorienting themselves and choosing angles which will limit the information in the image. Regardless of the method of achieving the goal, however, the point remains that vertical or horizontal orientation is about the content of the entire frame, and not about the subject.
Sadly, the language choice of "portrait" and "landscape" has distorted photographers' conceptions of how to approach certain subjects, and all too often we see images of a person with a vertical crop that deprives the spectator of important information and fails to provide gestalt, rather than enhancing the subject. Indeed, I would go so far to argue that vertically oriented images should be an exception.
The normal human binocular visual field is nearly 180-degrees horizontal, and around 135 degrees vertical. In other words, we see horizontally. Because of our anatomy, it requires fewer muscles to scan the eyes from left to right than vertically, and it's easier on the eye muscles to examine an image that's horizontal than it is to have to move our eyes up and down.
As a concrete example, think about how you read on a mobile device: most everyone will scroll the text to keep it at a relatively consistent horizontal level to scan the eyes across the sentence. It's easier to keep the head and eyes in a constant horizontal orientation than it is to move the eyes vertically.
The same is true about any visual media people can hold. When reading a book, the entire book will move up and down to accommodate the horizontal visual field. When people exam a photographic print, they'll move the picture with their hands rather than move their heads.
Vision is what our anatomy and brains make of it, but our experience of visual stimulation is dominated by our attention, which forms our emotional reactions. Intimate engagement and emotional involvement requires focused attention. Thus, when I sit across from someone and experience a moment with them, my attention is on them as a person. My thoughts and emotions are confined to their person, which takes on a vertical form because the human body is vertical-ish. (Orientation matters, and someone sitting is more of a square, but even the orientation of just the face (eyes up, mouth lower) compels vertical attention. Because my attention is on a particular subject, my brain concentrates on the foveal information from my eyes, excluding the background and other irrelevant information. Even my sense of hearing will single out my subject's voice, enabling me to concentrate on what's being said despite the surrounding chatter of a restaurant or even a music festival.
The moment passes, but the memory that remains holds the emotional information for the person who experienced the moment, based upon the filtered sensory stimulation the brain used to form the memory. It's these emotional associations which create the "portrait = vertical" concept of images with a single person.
The emotional orientation we have person-to-person is poison to a photographer's composition, however. A photograph is a frozen moment, and there is no connection with a live person to trigger the vertical form of attention. Instead, the photographer must provide gestalt visual cues to create a sense of intimacy between the spectator and the subject of the image. That task is far easier in a horizontal format because there is more room to provide visual cues to orient the spectator. But whether the cropping is done vertical or horizontal, the key is that the photographer must do it with intention.
Be mindful of camera orientation as you would with any other in-camera cropping decision. Orientation should emphasize the subject. It should never be dictated by the assumptions contained in poorly chosen terms. Shame on you, Instagram.