Who had the bright idea to label horizontal images “landscape,” and vertical images “portrait”? To that person let me just say, “Huh?” As a landscape-only photographer, about half of my images use “portrait” orientation. I wonder if this arbitrary naming bias subconsciously encourages photographers to default to a horizontal orientation for their landscape images, even when a vertical orientation might be best.
Every image contains implicit visual motion that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the image’s elements. Following the frame’s long side, this flow provides photographers a tool not only for guiding viewers’ eyes, but also for conveying a mood.
For example, orienting a waterfall image vertically complements the water’s motion, instilling a feeling of calm. Conversely, a waterfall image that’s oriented horizontally often contains more visual tension. While there’s no absolute best way to orient a waterfall (or any other scene), you need to understand that there is a choice, and that choice matters.
By moving the eye from front to back, vertical images often enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo. I find that a foreground element that adds depth to whatever striking background has caught my attention is often lost in a horizontal image.
More than just guiding the eye through the frame, vertical orientation narrows the frame, enabling us to eliminate distractions or less compelling objects left and right of the prime subject(s). Vertical is also my preferred orientation when I want to emphasize a sky full of stars, or dramatic clouds and color.
Want to emphasize a beautiful sky? Go with a vertical image, putting the horizon near the bottom of the frame. When the sky is dull and all the visual action is in the landscape, put the horizon at the top of your frame. When the landscape and sky are equally compelling, go ahead and split the frame across the middle (regardless of what the “experts” at the photo club might say).
While a horizontally oriented scene is often the best way to convey the sweeping majesty of a broad landscape, I particularly enjoy guiding and focusing the eye with vertical compositions of traditionally horizontal scenes. Tunnel View in Yosemite, where I think photographers tend to compose too wide, is a great example. The scene left of El Capitan and right of Cathedral Rocks can’t compete with the El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall triumvirate, yet the world is full of Tunnel View images that shrink this trio to include (relatively) nondescript granite.
When the foreground and sky aren’t particularly interesting, I tend to shoot fairly tight horizontal compositions at Tunnel View. But when a spectacular Yosemite sky, snow-laden trees, or cloud-filled valley demand inclusion, vertical is my go-to orientation because it frees me to celebrate the drama without diluting it.
I captured this image last week, at the end of a one-day private tour. Leaving home at 6 a.m., my plan was to enjoy Yosemite Valley and save my photography for the next two days, when I’d be by myself and a storm was forecast. Indeed, my students and I spent the day beneath a layer of gray clouds that, while great for photography, were decidedly unspectacular. With occasional sprinkles to remind us of the looming storm, I was just happy that the serious rain held off until we finished, and that the ceiling never dropped far enough to obscure Yosemite’s icons.
Since my students had left their car at our Tunnel View meeting place, my plan was to wrap up with a “sunset” there. Of course, given the thickening clouds, we had no illusion that we’d be photographing an actual sunset, and were in no hurry to get there.
So imagine my surprise when, while photographing Bridalveil Fall from the turnout on Northside Drive, I saw hints of warmth on Leaning Tower—not direct sunlight, but indirect light that indicated there was sunlight somewhere nearby. I turned and peered through the trees behind me, and saw small patch of direct sunlight on El Capitan. “We need to go!” I barked this so suddenly that I’m surprised I didn’t frighten them. To their credit, we were packed, loaded, and back on the road in 30 seconds, and at Tunnel View in less than ten minutes.
For the next 30 minutes we enjoyed a lesson in Yosemite weather, one more chapter in my as yet unwritten book, “You Can’t Predict What Yosemite Will Be Like in Five Minutes Based On What It’s Like Right Now.” The sunlight started on El Capitan, pouring through an unseen hole in the clouds somewhere down the Merced River Canyon behind us. Once El Capitan was fully illuminated, the light went to work on Half Dome. Soon a formation of broken clouds moved into view overhead, then continued sliding above Yosemite Valley until the entire scene was more sky than cloud.
This image was captured toward the end of the show, after the clouds had moved well into the scene and just before the fading vestiges of warm light left El Capitan and Half Dome. It’s a real treat when the sky at Tunnel View can compete with the scene below, but in this case the sky deserved all the attention I gave it.
I can think of no single piece of equipment that will make vertical compositions easier than a Really Right Stuff L-plate (there are less expensive options, but I agree with the consensus that Really Right Stuff plates the best). An L-plate is, as its name implies, and L-shaped piece of metal that attaches to your camera’s tripod mount, replacing the standard quick-release plate. Unlike a flat quick-release plate, an L-plate wraps around one side of the body.
Each side fits the standard Arca-Swiss quick-release mount: for a horizontal image, the camera is mounted to the tripod head by part of the plate attached to the camera’s underside; for a vertical composition, you release the camera, rotate it 90 degrees, and attached the part of the plate that wraps the camera’s side. This detach/rotate/reattach can be done in about one second, even in complete darkness.
In addition to speed and convenience, and L-plate ensures maximum stability by keeping your center of gravity directly above the intersection of the tripod’s legs. It also keeps your eye-piece in nearly the same position regardless of the orientation, eliminating the need for you to dip your head or raise your center-post each time you go vertical.
Due to each camera’s unique dimensions, configuration of memory card and battery bays, and electronics ports, L-plates are camera-specific. That means when you get new camera, you’ll likely be getting a new L-plate—a small price to pay for the benefit you’ll get.
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