Seeing life through vertical (portrait) orientation

by Nick Kelsh

posted Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at 11:10 AM EDT

200,000 photographs and they had to “digitally manipulate” a horizontal into a vertical to fit the cover.

It’s a horizontal world—the horizon is, well, horizontal—and our cameras, when held upright, shoot horizontal pictures. It’s one more step, one more thing to think about, when you turn your camera on its side to shoot a picture that’s taller than it is wide. It’s not a natural thing to do. If nothing else it’s more comfortable to hold your camera horizontally than it is vertically.

I’m suggesting that you have a vertical day. Go for a walk with your camera or spend a day on vacation and shoot nothing but vertical pictures. Think in terms of making everything you photograph work in a vertical format. Do it for a day. Shoot lots of vertical pictures.

I do believe that for many of you vertically-challenged people, there will be some kind of breakthrough. Spending a day making nothing but verticals could permanently change you relationship with your viewfinder and the way you see the world through it.

Amateurs are not the only people who have trouble making the shift to vertical thinking. A very successful photo book called A Day in the Life of America was published in 1986. Two-hundred of the world’s best photographers — I was not among them — shot hundreds of thousands of pictures in one day and the editors distilled it down to less than two hundred final shots for use in the book. The cover photograph was a silhouette of a cowboy riding up a hill.

The ultimately successful book was published to a big blast of negative publicity when it was revealed that the cover shot had been “digitally manipulated.” The original picture was a horizontal and the editors decided to rearrange a tree, the hill, the moon, and the cowboy and turn into a vertical to accommodate the shape of the cover.

Sometimes shooting a vertical is obviously the best thing to do, sometimes it just feels better, and sometimes you need to poke yourself into thinking vertically.

Years later—after the dust had settled—one of the editors told me that when they went into the editing room with all of the photographs they were absolutely shocked how few of these good photographers—when confronted with a wonderful photo opportunity—shot verticals. The photographers, it seemed, had all been a little greedy.

They shot horizontals hoping that their greatest photos would run across two pages inside the book. (Two-page photos in big photo books make photographers drool.) None, apparently had the foresight to turn the camera over on it’s side and knock off a few vertical shots just in case the book designers would need them for all of those single-page photos. Hundreds of thousands of professional photos and they had to resort to Photoshop to make a vertical. Ouch.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)