While our eyes prefer horizontal frames, our hands prefer holding our phones vertically. And in the ongoing battle between the two, it seems our hands are winning.
So, let me get this out of the way first—
I love doing this:
I know it makes me look like a caricature of a circa-1972 director, complete with beret and side-tied cravat, and I endure mockery from the crew whenever my hands come up to form a frame. But it’s always given me the perspective I need to decide how I want a shot composed.
But my days of doing this, I believe, are numbered.
If you came to work on the Internet with a modicum of video or film or television under your belt, the early web hardly required much of a cognitive shift when it came to frame composition. YouTube, Vimeo and the like all stood by our 16:9 horizontal goodness, and still accommodated (for the throwbacks out there) the 4:3 TV of my youth.
The shift: from horizontal to vertical
Smartphones changed everything. I remember the first time I saw a vertical video floating in a sea of emptiness within YouTube’s player, wondering just what in the Sam Hill the photographer was thinking. Just turn that dang phone sideways and your production value will soar!
This guy probably didn’t think of himself as a photographer in technical terms. In fact, he was likely just a person having an experience and capturing it with a smartphone. He shot it in the way that felt the most natural and comfortable.
Maybe in a smartphone world, the experience of shooting the video is just as important as the video itself.
Nonetheless, the director in me remained completely baffled by people’s willingness to give up so much of the frame so easily! I cheered when the inimitable Glove and Boots declared Vertical Video Syndrome to be an epidemic and pointed out what we thought was self-evident: people’s eyes are horizontal. Your frame should be too.
We reached a tipping point in the vertical video wars sometime in late 2013 or early 2014, according to a completely unscientific metric that I stumbled upon while watching the videos compiled by Jimmy Kimmel Live! each year: parents are challenged to tell their kids that they ate all of their halloween candy and then upload the kids reaction to YouTube.
Kimmel has issued this challenge for the past six years, and it’s equal parts awful and hilarious, depending on where you come down on the “how okay is it to mess with your kid’s head?” spectrum.
*As Instagram gained popularity, a small number of square framed videos began to appear in the mix. Since these were likely filmed holding the mobile device vertically, I included them in the vertical column.
Vertical Video, Smartphone Ownership rise in tandem
Smartphones have made it ever easier ways to shoot and share videos—by text or app—and it simply feels natural to shoot a vertical video and send it out to other mobile viewers who would comfortably view it as such. In fact, one study suggests that smartphone users hold their phones vertically 94% of the time.
So it’s no surprise vertical videos overtook horizontal videos. In 2011, when Kimmel first issued his challenge, only 35% of adults owned smartphones.
By 2015, the number had nearly doubled and Pew indicated that smartphone ownership was nearing the saturation point in the US:
86% of those ages 18-29 have a smartphone, as do 83% of those ages 30-49 and 87% of those living in households earning $75,000 and up annually.
And while Google released a version of Android in 2014 that prompted you to shoot horizontally when in video mode, the battle was lost not through native camera functions but rather in the world of social apps, where billions of videos every day are rewiring our video preferences.
Just a few examples:
- Snapchat boasts more than 7 billion mostly vertical video views a day.
- Periscope and Meerkat brought livestreaming into the mainstream with apps that launched vertically.
- Facebook rolled out vertical ads last fall, and advertisers—especially those seeking millennial eyes—have jumped on board with vertical creative. Editorial is beginning to follow suit.
- YouTube has updated both its Android and iOS apps so that vertical videos play fullscreen on mobile devices. (Though on the desktop, they remain bounded by pillared letterboxing.)
- Vimeo, beloved by many video pros, has always supported a range of weird frame sizes. But now if you embed a vertical video hosted on Vimeo there’s no empty space on either side.
- New video startups are popping up and targeting vertical video exclusively—Vervid hopes to become “the YouTube of Vertical Video,” while Verly specializes in stock footage shot vertically.
And of course, there was an entire film festival dedicated to vertical films, aka “the tall screen.”
Rethinking the concept of the frame
As we enter the age of VR, 360-degree video and other innovative methods of video capture, it’s likely that our entire concept of the frame—whether vertical or horizontal—will be upended.
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of the frame as a rectangular canvas upon which we lay presentation, and instead think of it as the doorway to an immersive, visual exploration of your subject. It’s an exciting time to work in video, to be sure, but video pros need to be open to redefining their idea of framing in order to truly uncover the possibilities these new technologies present.
If you’re targeting mobile, you have to think vertical
In the interim, though, the data tells us this: if your content is intended to land on mobile, then you owe it to your audience to seriously consider the vertical frame as your starting point.
And if your approach to your subject is intended to be more casual, social and lightweight, the more sense vertical makes. It’s a huge shift for old-school video pros to make, but ultimately it’s critical if we want to remain relevant to the emerging audiences for whom we’re creating content.