Upping Your Vertical Game

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite

Moonrise and Clouds, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R IV
Sony 24-105 G
1 second
F/11
ISO 100

Greetings from Iceland. Perhaps you noticed that this picture is in fact not Iceland, but that’s only because I simply haven’t had a chance to process my images from the past week. There are many reasons to visit Iceland in winter, and I will very enthusiastically share examples in future posts (northern lights, anyone?), but today I’m sharing one more image from last month’s Yosemite workshop. And because I’m fully immersed in a workshop that occupies me day and night (chasing the low light by day, and the aurora by night), I’m dusting off (and polishing up) a post on a topic that is as important to me today as it was when I wrote it 12 years ago.

Let’s Get Vertical

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 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 possesses an implicit visual flow that’s independent of the eyes’ movement between the scene’s elements. Understanding that the long side of an image subtly encourages the visual motion through the frame—left/right in a horizontal image, up/down in a vertical image—photographers can choose visual symmetry or tension with the visual movement between the scene’s visible elements.

For example, because a waterfall flows down, orienting a waterfall image vertically complements the water’s motion, instilling a feeling of calm. Conversely, a waterfall image that’s oriented horizontally can possess more visual tension because of the natural inclination for the eye to move laterally in a horizontally oriented image. While there’s no absolute best way to orient a waterfall image (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 can enhance the illusion of depth so important in a two-dimensional photo. Even though a still image lacks the depth dimension, there’s a sense that distance increases from the bottom up in its 2-dimensional world. The viewer’s eye is drawn first to a strong visual element in the foreground, then naturally flows up, and away, from there. The left/right tug of a horizontal image conflicts with this. (Many factors go into creating the illusion of depth, so I’m not saying that horizontal images inherently lack depth.)

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, dramatic clouds and color, or (as I was reminded earlier this week) an aurora that rockets skyward.

In these scenes with especially dramatic skies, not only do I orient them vertically, I put the horizon near the bottom of the frame to further underscore the drama. When the sky is dull and all the visual action is in the landscape, I’ll put the horizon at the top of my frame. And when the landscape and sky are equally compelling, I have no problem splitting the frame in the middle (regardless of what the photo club rule “experts” might proclaim).

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 too-wide Tunnel View images that shrink this trio to include (relatively) nondescript granite that can’t hold a candle to the main scene.

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 below demand attention, vertical is my go-to orientation because it frees me to celebrate the scene’s drama without diluting it.

When I composed the scene in this image, the moon had just popped out of the clouds. Knowing when and where it was supposed to arrive, I’d been set up with my Sony a7R IV mounted with my Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter, hoping to capture the moon BIG as it edged up from behind El Capitan. When the clouds threatened to completely wipe out the moonrise, I’d have been thrilled with any lunar appearance. By the time this wish was fulfilled, I’d long since abandoned my big moon plan and switched to my Sony 24-105 lens.

Because the clouds and color stretched across the sky, and Bridalveil Fall was flowing nicely, I naturally did a horizontal composition of this scene wide enough to include all the good stuff. But that composition shrunk the moon to more of a strong accent, and I wanted something with the moon more front-and-center.

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise and Clouds, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Moonrise and Clouds, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Flipping my camera to vertical, I increased my focal length to limit my terrestrial subjects the business end of El Capitan, with an incognito Half Dome lurking in the background. The longer focal length enlarged the moon enough that, while not the BIG moon I’d once imagined, it stands out far more prominently than it does in my horizontal version.

Breaking News

The night before last, my Iceland workshop group was treated to what may have been the most spectacular northern lights display I’ve ever witnessed. Until last night, when we topped it. Stay tuned to this channel for images (as soon as I get a chance to process them and write some—by my next blog, I hope).


Let’s Get Vertical

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