These days, the sight of a 16:9 video player, which is carved into three, with only the middle section showing viewable content in vertical format, is common. So common in fact, that many viewers probably don’t consciously notice it any more. The tendency for amateur video makers to hold their mobile devices in portrait mode, with the record button conveniently beneath their thumb, while they capture the world around them, has driven vertical video almost unnoticed into mainstream use. Even the BBC, no doubt anxious to capitalise on the millions of unpaid content providers poised to supply footage from anywhere in the world, frequently uses vertical video; which it shows, complete with blurred side bars, on its website, news apps and in mainstream broadcasts. 

This footage of the 2018 Indonesian Tsunami is a typical example of vertical mobile phone video.

I ran a series of mobile-video workshops recently, in which the opposition/frustration/discomfort apparent among many of the young learners, when asked to turn their devices to landscape orientation, was clearly apparent. At first I took the approach of asking ‘when was the last time you watched a video that was in portrait aspect ratio?’, but soon realised that for many of them, vertical was fairly normal. I then considered modifying the same question to include the caveat ‘proper’, at which point I realised that this was a) highly subjective and b) possibly very alienating to the learners in front of me.

Afterwards, I began thinking about painting and still photography, both of which have always accepted portrait aspect ratio work as perfectly normal and certainly ‘proper’, so why should video be any different?

Historically, moving image media has almost always been produced in landscape orientation, with both cinema and TV adopting landscape aspect ratio from their outset. By the time any standards were established, there was no question as to the ‘correct’ orientation, with only the technical constraints of early Cathode Ray Tubes requiring a format closer to square than we’re used to in modern times. As technology developed, both cinema and TV tended towards widening their formats, with 2.35:1 CinemaScope and later 16:9 Widescreen TVs becoming the accepted norm. Are there reasons for this other than simply historical trends? This article on the Scientific American website states a reason that seems plausible, which is that evolution placed our eyes in a horizontal configuration, presumably because a wide horizontal field vision proved more relevant to survival than a high vertical field of vision. This makes our view of the world more ‘naturally’ horizontal. 

But where does that leave ‘vertical happy’ formats like still photography? Why is it comfortable to look at stills in portrait orientation, but not movies? Is it something to do with the time we have to process the visual information presented to us perhaps? Do moving images flash before us so quickly that we need to make sense of what we see as fast as possible, making vertical movies feel slightly more awkward to watch?

Clearly, the ergonomics of a smartphone lend themselves to speedy vertical capture with a conveniently positioned thumb button, but if this runs so completely contrary to our natural and comfortable physical preferences as viewers, why does it continue to proliferate? If viewing vertical video is so completely alien to our physiology, surely more amateur content makers would tolerate the minor inconvenience of reorienting their devices to film in landscape? After all, Its really not that difficult to do, right? 

A smart phone being held in portrait aspect ratio.
Is holding a smartphone vertically really all that much easier than holding it horizontally?

I frequently use my phone to shoot video, as I have a young family and my phone is always at hand to capture those special (read embarrassing and destined to emerge during wedding reception) moments. However, I invariably orient my phone horizontally, a) because it just looks right to me that way around, and b) because I can then use both hands to better stabilise the device. But wait….could the convenience of one handed operation be the deciding factor? After all, I’m also prone to turn my phone horizontally to view video full screen. However, according to the Scientific American article linked above, many viewers aren’t even willing to reorient their phones to view video, even though the vast majority of video viewed on mobile is still in landscape format. This means that they’re watching content on a considerably smaller player than is easily available. So perhaps the ergonomics of mobile really is the over riding factor for many, if not most mobile video viewers and shooters.

Whatever the reasons, there’s little doubt that mobile video audiences and creators have a strong preference for vertical orientation. In fact, the emergence of several vertical format platforms such as Snapchat and the consideration that video giants like YouTube and Vimeo are putting into the possible development of vertical players, reflects a growing market for portrait aspect ratio video. Several advertisers have also experimented with producing vertically oriented adverts, which OK, are targeted at specific, mainly younger audiences, but that obviously realise the potential in adopting rather than fighting a growing trend. So vertical is definitely establishing a foothold in professional production circles.

Which brings me to the question: After decades of improving standards for moving image Media, both technical and aesthetic, are we now simply being forced into forsaking quality, in order to accommodate lowest common denominator content in a ‘democratised’ media landscape; or, could we now be seeing a serious emerging challenge to the accepted norm, that will open up new creative possibilities in the future? Technology such as Samsung’s modular MicroLED screens, which could easily be reconfigured for vertical, square or whatever other configuration might suit, would certainly be more conducive to viewing new aspect ratio content on platforms other than mobile. So, perhaps the marmite format of vertical aspect ratio video is only beginning its journey? Or maybe not……?