Since the birth of the smartphone, a battle between horizontal and vertical video has been taking place. Instead of rooting for one side, however, I think it’s worth noting that both have its pros and cons and both have areas to live and thrive in in this video age.

Let's talk about vertical video. Before you criticize it, however, let me tell you that I used to hate when someone was recording a video on a smartphone holding it vertically (in most cases, I still hate it). But when I think about it now, it's not always a cliche. After a decade of using these devices, the vertical aspect ratio has its own style and feel to it.

I recently met with Kelsey Brannan (aka Premiere Gal) in Warsaw, Poland to get to record a few videos together. We ended up tossing a coin to see if either I would defend vertical video or if Kelsey would. Below is our discussion where we pinpoint some advantages and disadvantages of both video orientations. 

Some of these are obvious and some are a bit forced, but the whole point was to see that, like with any rule in filmmaking, if there's a reason behind a decision you may want to make, there's nothing wrong with shooting vertically. Here are the pros for the vertical and horizontal video we've talked about (and some additional ones I came up with).

Vertical Pros

  1. Mobile devices will be vertical for at least the foreseeable future.

  2. It's the best orientation for holding in one hand and there is nothing you can't do with it.

  3. Posters are usually vertical because it makes a better use of space in a crowded environment and vertical video makes better sense for the lifestyle most people have.

  4. Aspect ratios develop constantly. Who shoots in 4:3 aspect ratio nowadays? Vertical 9:16 is currently one of the leading standards and you just can't ignore it.

  5. Many vloggers will start to use vertical video and it's one of the factors that affects the evolution of film language.

  6. It can be a stylistic choice, just like the VHS look. Some people want to achieve that look on purpose because it conveys certain emotions, and such is the case with vertical video. It also conveys emotions and can therefore be used as a stylistic choice.

  7. A huge part of the video industry is consumed on mobile devices. I bet that for some niches, most of their audience watch content on mobile devices. Due to this, producing a video that has a vertical aspect ratio in mind from the beginning of the process makes perfect sense.

  8. It can be a great challenge to tell stories in this format. It’s a constraint that can make you more creative and that could help you develop new skills.

Horizontal Pros

  1. Our eyes are laid out horizontally and there is no way vertical can replace horizontal. The evolution equipped within our two eyes (and the best way to get a good use of them) is horizontal video.

  2. Cinema theaters will always be horizontal and so there is no way people will start to shoot in vertical only. I'd say vertical shooting cameras will always be the exception, not the rule.

  3. The next generation of devices that we use constantly could be digital glasses or something else that will use landscape orientation.

  4. Even though the aspect ratio develops like many aspects of a film language, the cinema aspect ratio is always horizontal. We have a lot of aspect ratios ranging from 1:1 to 2.39:1, but the latter seems to be what most of us relate to when we think about the cinematic look.

  5. For longer format video, the vertical aspect ratio doesn't make sense. We usually don't consume such content on the mobile devices and even if you do, you’re ready to flip the screen in this situation.

  6. The ground is horizontal and therefore it’s easier to control the composition of the image, especially when we talk about wide shots.

  7. It will always be the main distribution format for most video types.

If you were to decide to shoot a video project in a vertical aspect ratio, it would be a constraint you'd have to face. After we've had our chat, we headed to the old town in Warsaw to shoot some B-roll. We've put a constraint on ourselves because we both think that it can help with making creative decisions. Below are the limitations we chose:

  • 30 minutes of shooting using only a Removu K1 camera with very wide fixed focal length.
  • edit a 30-second long sequence using only the recorded footage.
  • 2.5 hours of maximum editing time.

The results? Probably not the best sequence in the Universe (oh really?) but we were forced to cope with these things and it was a great learning experience. See for yourself!

There are a number of reasons why putting constraints on your creativity may be actually the best idea. For example:

  1. Fewer variables mean that fewer things can overwhelm you when filming.

  2. Usually, it means things will be cheaper.

  3. Often this will result in a more interesting process.

  4. You will be innovative because when you need something, you will find a way to pull it off using what you already have.

  5. You're not dependent on someone saying "yes" if you act upon the rules you've set for yourself.

I used to say to myself that I needed to have a studio with great lighting, but it wasn't the truth. Eventually, I started in our living room and we have a small two-room apartment. I've been recording when my son would go out on a walk with my wife. This has been giving me some time to spare, but there are toys on the floor and so on. This should not stop you. Work with what you have!

Robert Rodriguez talks a lot about all of this in his book, Rebel Without a Crew, which I strongly recommend. He had put so many constraints on himself when he produced his first feature film for $7,000 and it was the only way he could do it. Even though he obviously worked on much bigger productions later on in his career, he still stresses the importance of keeping the crew as small as possible. Another example is Werner Herzog. I recently watched his Masterclass and he’s really one of the greatest filmmakers, in my opinion, and he loves constraints.

I really think this is a big lesson for us, to use what we have. There are no excuses. If you really have something to say, you can do it regardless of the gear, location, etc.

What do you think? Do you put constraints on yourself deliberately? Would you be willing to shoot your next project in only the vertical aspect ratio? Let us know down in the comments.