The truth is that most artworks sell because they match the ottoman, or the curtains, or fit the blank spaces on the wall. To be sure, artistic composition and technical execution come into play. But, by and large, art is purchased as decoration and needs to fit in with the surrounding decor. And there are no blank spaces on the wall more wanting of art than the tall and narrow spaces between the large windows of contemporary homes, a perfect place for vertical panoramas.
But… human eyes have a field of view that is distinctly horizontal, presumably because we had no evolutionary predators that hunted us from above. Perhaps if Hatzegopteryx had made it to the Pleistocene era, things would be different. But as it is, a healthy pair of human eyes can see about 180 degrees horizontally and 130 degrees vertically without eye or head movement. This field of view has an aspect ratio somewhere between 3:2 and 4:3, which are conspicuously the two most common aspect ratios of digital cameras. But human vision is not static, rather our eyes are constantly scanning our surroundings and the visual cortex of the brain continuously builds an image that is broader than our static field of view. This field of vision can encompass a horizontal view as great as 270 degrees without head movement, giving our field of vision an aspect ratio of about 2:1, the same proportion as some panoramas. Horizontal panoramas are appealing precisely because they emulate our natural field of vision. We are horizontal creatures and as a consequence, vertical panoramas tend to be the last composition that occurs to landscape photographers.
Art as decoration aside, vertical panoramas can be very compelling compositions in their own right. They can add a sense of scale to vertical subjects that is often lost in horizontal compositions. Tall trees, narrow slot canyons, wispy waterfalls and soaring summits all lend themselves to tall and narrow compositions. Indeed, vertical panoramas are often the best way to isolate and showcase some subjects. The rules of composition for vertical panoramas can be slightly different than for their more squat counterparts. The rule of thirds (dividing a composition vertically into thirds) doesn’t apply as well here. The rule of fourths or fifths works better for vertical panoramas. The sky and corresponding reflection in “Alpine Glow of the Winds” both occupy about a fifth of the composition. If I had used the rule of thirds, there would have been too much empty space and the scale of the subject would have been diminished. As a general rule, the closer your subject reaches to the top edge of the frame, the taller your subject appears. The strongest composition is, of course, your artistic choice to make.
Just as with horizontal panoramas, vertical panoramas can be created in one of two ways, cropping or stitching. Cropping a single image to emphasize the vertical scale of your subject is a simple task that can be explored in your image editing program. Image editors provide the luxury of experimenting in real time and changing the crops until you’re satisfied. The disadvantage of cropping is the loss of megapixels. And megapixels determine how large you can print. “Alpine Glow of the Winds” was cropped from a high resolution scan of medium format, 6x7cm Fuji Velvia film. The cropped file in this case is 4800×12000 pixels, or about 57mp, enough to print a panorama about 4 feet tall. Making the same crop of an image from a 24mp DSLR, however, would leave only about 12mp to work with, and result in a significantly smaller print. Whether cropping is right for you depends on your camera’s resolution and how large you’d like to print.
If you want to go big, stitching is the answer. Since the quality of the stitched image depends on careful composition and image alignment, you won’t be surprised that I recommend using a tripod. There are a few basic rules to follow when shooting multiple frames for any panorama, horizontal or vertical. First, level your tripod so that the panning motion of the tripod head isn’t tilted. Tilted frames will require more cropping and some of the resolution advantage of shooting multiple frames will be lost. Second, lock your exposure so that adjacent frames have the same exposure. You want all the frames for a panorama stitch to have the same exposure so that the finished image is consistent and looks like it was from a single frame. And finally, overlap your frames at least 25% so that there are enough common elements between frames for good alignment. This usually requires doing a dry run from the start to the end of your composition to see how many frames are needed for good overlap. These basic rules apply to panoramas created from multiple frames, regardless of orientation.
Creating a set of images to stitch a vertical panorama, however, presents some unique challenges. The panning bases on most tripod ball heads, the most common type used in the field, are designed to pan horizontally, not vertically. In their normal orientation, you cannot isolate the vertical axis and panning vertically is no more accurate than hand holding. Aside from buying a specially designed ball or gimbal head (read expensive – Arca Swiss Monoball Z1dp) for vertical panning, there are thankfully some other options. Many ball heads allow you to unscrew the camera attachment plate, remove the ball head from the tripod, reattach it upside down, and attach the camera plate directly to the underside of the panning base. Operating a ball head upside down puts the panning base on top and allows you to pan vertically by tilting the panning base perpendicular to your leveled tripod. An upside down ball head also functions as a leveler for the panning base, allowing you to create perfectly aligned horizontal panoramas without leveling your tripod. The only drawback to this method is that the camera can only be in a vertical orientation while panning vertically and a horizontal orientation when panning horizontally.