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Shooting Vertical: A Different Frame of Mind

Shooting portrait orientation opens up a new way of looking at the world, and all it takes is a slight flip of the wrist to rotate your camera to the vertical. So, stop waiting. You may just like how things turn out.

Cameras are made to be comfortably held in the horizontal aspect ratio. The viewfinder sits on top and all the markings and displays written horizontally. The camera can easily be gripped by the sides or mounted on a tripod from the bottom. When shooting horizontally, the rectangular shape of the image frame feels comfortable, too, as it closely matches the orientation of human vision. Turning a camera to the vertical seems almost unnatural at first. It puts you in a different frame of mind, so to speak.,

Here, then, are some tips to help you work on photographing things on the vertical.

Look for subjects that naturally fit the vertical frame. That's not to say you can't make a good vertical shot with an overtly horizontal subject, but making use of the full-frame wouldn't be easy. For some subjects, it can be worthwhile attempting to shoot compositions in both horizontal and vertical orientations, just to see if you can and explore the different moods each creates.

To create a vertical composition where none jumps out at you, try to stack a visually striking background scene with a strong foreground object. With a wide-angle lens, you can get fill the frame width with even a modest-sized foreground. A clump of flowers, an interesting rock or branch — the possibilities abound once you get into the zone. If I'm walking down a trail with a beautiful valley and mountain peak off to one side, I'll generally have my eye out for something interesting that I can build a composition around. That's where I'll set up my camera gear. I could have shot essentially that same view for perhaps the last hundred yards, but to round out an engaging vertical composition, I needed a foreground. Once you make a habit of it, there's no telling what shots you can find.

See if you can find something to serve as a leading line to guide viewers into the frame, either from the top, flowing on down, or from the bottom, reaching upward into the image. Using the rule of thirds as a guide, start with your subject vertically on a thirds-line. Avoid the temptation to position subjects right down the middle of the frame unless you are consciously working to mirror elements left and right. You can think of this as being similar to recommendations regarding the horizon line when shooting horizontal. A predominant line down the middle in either orientation effectively divides the frame in two, leaving the viewer unsure as to which was considered relevant to the photographer.

Because of the narrower frame, vertical compositions work well for isolated subjects that are shot in close-up. Horizontal framing lends itself more to group compositions. That is, unless the elements of that group are stacked atop one another. I once had quite the afternoon on the Pacific coast. Someone earlier in the day had made countless stacks of balanced rocks in an area. It must have taken them hours, so I felt justified investing a few myself, recording what I saw before the high tide returned it all to ordinary randomness. But they were everywhere, cairns marking every part of the beach before me as being unique and noteworthy. A horizontal image showed the expanse of their ingenious labors, but a vertical let me get in close on a single to one side, and the remainder arrayed behind.

I freely admit that I'm a strong advocate for the use of tripods. But even those who are tripod-averse would be well served to use one for vertical compositions. Achieving sufficient depth of field for most verticals can lead to the use of smaller apertures and slower shutter speeds. I've also found a tripod helpful when orienting the horizon line and any vertical elements with the edges of the frame. Nature doesn't always come perfectly square and true, and a slightly skewed horizon can sometimes look better than one positioned solely utilizing a spirit level. Start with what a bubble level tells you, but don't be afraid to tweak things from there if need be.

If you don't have one already, invest in an L-bracket for your camera and tripod system. Traditional mounting plates sit only underneath the camera body, while L-brackets wrap across the bottom and up one side at a perfect right angle. Using one, you can switch from horizontal to vertical just by remounting your camera on the upright side of the bracket. While the camera would thereby rotate ninety degrees, the shooting position would remain relatively unchanged, with the camera atop the tripod head where it should be. Without an L-bracket, you would need to flop your tripod head over to a less stable configuration and recompose to account for the attendant shift in shooting position.

I've heard from some photographers that they never shoot vertical compositions, perceiving it as too much bother. The argument goes that it's far easier to crop later if a vertical result seems warranted. While this is true as far as it goes, it ignores the fact that doing so would cost you fully fifty percent of the resolution built into your camera. Cropping that severe may be convenient, but it will cost you.

So, try looking at life with a vertical frame of mind. Things just may take a turn for the better.

Date posted: April 26, 2020


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Camera L Plates ("L" is for "Liberating")
Horizontal or Vertical
Why Don't We Shoot Square Format and Crop Later?

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