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When I first started out in landscape photography, I took most of my shots with the camera in ‘landscape’ (or horizontal) format. The clue was in the name, after all. It ain’t called landscape photography for nothing, you know! If fact, in the early days, I was a massive fan of multi-shot panoramas. Before our phones could easily take such pictures, I loved being able to capture something of the expanse of a landscape before me in a single image. And indeed I still enjoy taking panoramic shots to this day.
But, over time, I have also come to love taking landscape photos – with a portrait orientation! The vertical composition is something that very often appeals to me and I find myself taking these kind of shots more and more. In this blog, I want to reflect a bit on some tips that I have embraced on this vertical orientation journey.
1. Vertical orientation allows you to explore planes of depth really well
Any landscape photo, whether horizontal or vertical, should consider planes of depth: the foreground interest, the mid-ground and the background. But I’m increasingly finding that the vertical orientation allows me to explore the relationships between these three in very interesting ways. Given the orientation of the picture, the foreground element tends to dominate more in the shot. So, when you find that right foreground for your picture, it can lead to a stronger composition. The sense of scale this allows as the eye travels back into the picture can be very strong too.
2. Vertical orientation can give the viewer a new perspective
Photos that are more interesting and compelling – those that cause you to stop and linger with them a while – often do so because they offer you a new perspective on the landscape. The point of view of the photographer can really help with this. Less experienced photographers will shoot from a standing position. But this is the normal way in which we are used to seeing the world. There is nothing fresh about it – and perhaps it may be less compelling as a result.
On the other hand, getting just that little bit lower (or indeed higher) than the usual point of view automatically brings a different perspective which, if used effectively, can help your photo be that bit more compelling.
This is where I find my ultra wide lenses very helpful indeed. Whether it’s my Samyang 12mm lens of on Fuji or my Tokina 11-66mm lens for my Nikon, these ultra wide lenses are great for getting a fresh view on a scene. Due to their very wide field of view, they do interesting things with scale and perspective. Things close to the lenses appear very large; moving just a few centimetres can make a big difference on their shape and position in the shot. This tends to make foreground elements pop and take on a place of prominence in the composition. At the same time, they tend to make the mid and backgrounds seem further away, again doing interesting things with the perspectives.
And, when you frame your shot vertically, this feature means that you can include a foreground that is only a few centimetres away from you, whilst at the same time including those elements far off. Our eyes tend not to be able to keep such a wide field of view in focus, so this means that the vertical shots can appear a bit more unusual and therefore more interesting.
3. Making the most of the ‘brutal cop’
Photographers sometimes talk of the brutal crop – this is the non-negotiable hard edge of a photo. Anything not properly framed will be brutally cropped, chopped and cut by this definite boundary. It’s why you need to pay careful attention to the edges of your framed pictures before you press the shutter.
Sometimes, the brutal crop can be a frustration. But, often, in vertical orientation photos, I like the fact that the horizontal field of view is so constrained. Another common photography saying is that painters add to their pictures whilst photographers take away for ours. In other words, painters start with a blank canvas onto which they choose to add elements. In contrast, photographers are faced with the chaos of the landscape around us, with all these various elements vying for our attention. And our job is to make choices about subject matter and framing to try to remove the extraneous as much as is possible.
However, when your picture is vertically orientated, this can be used to your advantage. Most of what you will see as you look at the landscape in front of you is about to be cropped out. So you can select the elements that will remain carefully, arranging them pleasingly in this narrow vertical band which is left. If done skilfully, this can help with the job of removing the distractions from a photo.
4. Lines that weave around your photo
Another top tip for effective compositions relates to the use of leading lines. A compelling photo will often create a healthy tension between different elements – for example a small foreground detail (such as a rock) set against a large background element (such as a mountain). The eye tends to flit between these two elements. But as the eye travels up and down a vertical photo, you can guide and smooth that transition with the aid of leading lines. These are important in horizontal shots too, of course. But, given that the foreground element in vertical shots can be stronger and bigger (especially if you are using an ultra wide lens), then these lines become even more important in the vertical shots.
5. The smart phone big reveal
These days, most of us consume a large proportion of our online material via smart phones. These are normally held in vertical orientation as people scroll down through news feeds. This plays well to the strength of the vertical orientation picture. As the photo begins to be revealed from the top down, at first the viewer sees the background and the mid-ground. This may produce a favourable reaction from them if these elements look well and if the light is right. But as they keep scrolling, to their surprise, there’s something else unexpectedly revealed: that compelling foreground you worked so hard to build in to your shot!
I know the photos that draw my attention most as I scroll down my phone are often these vertical orientation shots. The big reveal at the bottom unveils the unexpected and makes me go, ‘Oh!’ in surprise.
So next time you're out and about looking for compositions, why not turn your camera around throught 90 degrees. You never know what you might find when you view the world side on.