I know you’ve heard a lot about diagonal lines, and how they can be used to add depth and dimension to a photograph. Diagonal lines are wonderful because they act as arrows, drawing your viewer’s eye into a scene and encouraging it to spend some time looking around. But what about vertical lines? What do they do for your photographs? Keep reading to find out.
What vertical lines mean
Would you believe that all lines have meaning? Sure, it’s hidden meaning—no one looks at a series of vertical lines and has the same idea about what that photograph might mean. But you can impart some subliminal meaning to a photograph just by including vertical lines, even though the interpretation might not be exactly the same for everyone.
When you separate it from its context, a vertical line has a very strong implied meaning. Vertical lines are strong and dignified. They can represent height or even infinity, especially if you can’t see the top of them (for this reason they can also be associated with religion). Vertical lines are rigid—they don’t represent movement (unlike a horizontal line). A thicker vertical line can suggest stability but there is also potential for disaster in a vertical line. Unlike a horizontal line, a vertical line could fall over.
The perceived strength of a vertical line varies according to width. Thin lines seem more vulnerable or fragile than thick lines do. This is why a photograph of an old growth forest might seem more majestic and strong than a photograph of a young forest might seem.
How to photograph vertical lines
You may have heard that you should always photograph vertical lines with your camera in a vertical orientation. There's a reason why this is usually true. If you're shooting that vertical line and you want to give your viewer a sense of height, a vertical orientation is going to do a much better job of capturing that height than a horizontal orientation. When you shoot vertically, you visually lengthen your subject, which can emphasize how tall it is, or even make it appear taller. So in other words, if you're shooting that image of a redwood forest with a horizontal orientation, you're making your photo more about the circumference of the base of those trees than you are about height. That's OK if that's what your goal is, but with a horizontal composition your viewer is not going to get a very good idea about how tall your subject or subjects are.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule. Maybe height is not the important message of your photograph. Maybe it is more important for you to convey to your viewer just how vast that forest is, and how many trees there are in it. If this is the case, you may want to keep your camera in a horizontal orientation. When you shoot a lot of vertical lines in that landscape orientation, that's going to give your viewer a greater sense that that forest goes on forever, outside the mere boundaries of the photographic frame. Because you're filling the frame with individual trees in the horizontal orientation, you're giving your viewer a greater sense of just how many trees there are in the forest.
Chequamegon Forest by Flickr user Citizen 4474
If your goal is to capture height, you may not always want those perfect vertical lines. Try standing at the base of one of those giant redwood trees, and shooting up towards the sky. Now those vertical lines are going to start to converge, in much the same way that the horizontal lines of a set of railroad tracks will converge as they approach the horizon. Converging lines suggest distance, and those lines rising up the sky will do exactly the same thing, but in a vertical sort of way, giving your viewer a sense of just how far into the sky that tree actually goes.
Tall by Flickr user Capt' Gorgeous
If, however, you want to keep your vertical lines vertical, you need to make sure that you hold your camera so that your lens is parallel to your subject. If your camera is even slightly tilted, you'll get some vertical distortion in your image--or lines that start to become diagonal as they approach the top or bottom of the frame. If your camera gives you the option to turn on a grid in the viewfinder, you’ll find this enormously helpful for shooting vertical lines. Try to match one line up with one of the grid lines—you’ll need to tilt your camera as well as rotate it to get a perfect vertical line.
Since we're on the subject of photographing trees, you can also change the way your viewer perceives all those vertical lines by using a different focal length. You may think that you need to use a wide-angle lens in order to capture as many trees as you can and to give your viewer a great sense of the size of the forest, but what if you want him instead to look at that forest and think about how dark and thick it is. If you use a telephoto lens instead of a wide angle lens, you decrease the amount of perceived space between the trees. The result is that all of those vertical lines will appear to be closer together, and the forest will look much more dense.
Where to find vertical lines
The forest is the most obvious place to find vertical lines—trees grow vertically, after all. But you can find vertical lines in other natural places, too. Most types of plant life grow vertically, for example blades of grass always grow towards the sun, and so do stalks of corn and wheat. You can also find vertical lines in the bodies of animals — if you photograph the legs only of a herd of horses, you have a series of vertical lines that closely resembles what you might find in that forest.
Nature tends to be more or less irregular—horses legs have knees, for example, and trees are almost vertical but often broken up by branches, knots and other irregularities. If you want completely straight vertical lines, you need to venture into the man-made jungle. Cities and other habited places are full of vertical lines, from fences to buildings to telephone poles. Almost everywhere you look in the man-made world, you will find vertical lines. The challenge is to separate them from, or use them alongside the other lines that you will find in those man made places. For example, a staircase will have both vertical lines as well as horizontal lines. It will also have diagonal lines. You can photograph the whole set of lines as an exercise in geometry, or you can focus only on the verticals and create a strong visual message with a sense of order and strength.
Unless your subject is very symmetrical, it’s usually not a good idea to put the most prominent vertical line in the photo smack in the middle of the frame. You can view that line almost as a divider—a pair of scissors slicing your photograph in two. When you put a vertical line right in the middle of the frame you’ve separated the image into two equal portions, and you’ve also created a static image that has no movement in it. In other words, your viewer’s eye will go right to that central line and stay there, because it has no reason to move elsewhere. Instead, keep the rule of thirds in mind and try to place the most prominent line on either the right or left 1/3rd vertical (or the imaginary line that divides the frame up into three equal sized vertical portions).
And besides looking for strong vertical lines in a scene, also look for objects that will compliment those vertical lines. You can break up series of vertical lines by adding an irregular element to it—for example a deer standing in that forest at the base of a tree will make a great focal point and will help break up the regularity of the scene and provide interest. Look for patterns, too—a series of irregular vertical lines is going to be interesting but if you can find repeating patterns then that gives your viewer’s eye a reason to move around the frame.
Red bench by Flickr user tanakawho
We often think diagonal lines are the types of line we should be seeking out when we take photos, and there are certainly some great arguments for that. But vertical lines can give your images strong impact as well, and they provide meaning that is completely different than the meaning that a viewer might glean from an image that contains only diagonals. So keep an eye out for those strong vertical lines and think about what you might be able to add to your image by including them, especially what you might be able to add that goes beyond the obvious. And try orienting your images in a few different ways, too, to see how that changes the impact. I think you’ll be pleased with your results.
- The meaning of vertical lines
- Strength and dignity
- Vertical orientation
- Emphasizes height
- Horizontal orientation
- Implies the infinite
- Keep your lens parallel to your subject
- Except when you want your vertical lines to converge
- Where to find vertical lines
- Natural verticals tend to be irregular
- Look for perfect verticals in the man made world
- Remember the rule of thirds
- Look for objects that will compliment the vertical lines
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