Vertical Video Won


Not that it needs to be repeated for the one-billionth time, but mobile devices are big. They are where people, for lack of a less stodgy term, consume content nowadays. Not just traditional formats like film and television, but also YouTube videos, and Snapchats, and Vines, and the like.

This week, Digiday is reporting that National Geographic, known worldwide for Good Video, has “caved to vertical video.” Camerapeople “are now shooting videos with the understanding that the footage might be used either horizontally or vertically.”

For years, video snobs have been waging a futile war against vertical video — that is, video that is taller than it is wide. It’s footage shot by someone holding a phone … vertically, the way phones in nearly all cases are meant to be held.

The impulse against vertical video made sense a half decade ago, when most web users viewed content via the desktop, but as mobile has become increasingly dominant, every argument against vertical video has been invalidated.

In 2010, Gizmodo wrote this about vertical video:

See how much of the screen is wasted on black bars? See what you subject the world to when you don’t bother to flip your phone a mere ninety degrees to either side? What would it be like if every time someone gave you a dollar to spend, you spent 33 cents and threw the other 67 cents in the trash?

Those black bars don’t exist on mobile, which, to reiterate, is how most people now watch online video.

Or consider this bad argument from written in December 2014 (just 18 months ago!), pleading for horizontal video:

As humans, we see the world as a horizontal panorama. Most of us have binocular sight: two eyes, side-by-side, gathering light from a wide field of view. Accordingly, it only makes sense that human visual media favors horizontal display.

Okay, this argument makes a little more sense when you’re staring at an IMAX screen that’s eight stories tall. But try this: Hold your phone horizontally in front of you. Can you see the entire screen? You can. Okay, now turn your phone vertically. Can you still see the entire screen? You can. The binocular sight argument is irrelevant for small screens.

Along with that, let’s consider selfies. The human form, generally speaking, is taller than it is wide. It’s easier to capture more of the subject when the lens is aligned with the vertical axis of its subject, not perpendicular to it. So it would make sense that vertical is the way to go.

Mobile devices, and Snapchat in particular, are to be credited for the rise of vertical video, and in his own defense of the form last year, New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo reported that “[u]ploads of tall videos have grown 50 percent [on YouTube] in 2015.” The battle is over.

The most unexpected by-product of this shift is that it has reframed (pun intended) what the big black spaces surrounding vertical video mean. They used to immediately signal that the person filming was an amateur, or that they were lazy, or that they had no respect for the filmic arts. Now those black bars represent the minority — if you see them, it means that you’re not experiencing the video as it was truly meant to be seen (and also that you’re old as hell).