How do we choose to take a vertical photograph as opposed to a horizontal one? It seems instinctive. Things that are naturally tall call for vertical shots – for example, people, trees, etc. Landscapes work better with horizontal orientation.
As I am working with a set of photographs for my next book, designing the pages with horizontal and vertical photographs, a curious thought enters my head.
Does nature have a preference of one over the other? More precisely, how does the vertical and the horizontal play out in nature.
Take trees, for example. In a forest, the tallest trees get the most sunlight. And once an area is covered by tall trees, it is impossible for a new tree – late in the game – to grow to a great height because it gets no sunlight. In many forests, shorter plants can survive in the shade, but in other forests, such as Sal, nothing can survive underneath the tall trees.
Or take the case of humans. While most mammals rely on four feet, walking on two feet sets humans apart. The earliest humans walked and climbed trees, increasing their range. Standing upright freed up our hands for work, for caring for babies and for picking food. Vertical posture also made humans look more intimidating to other animals. (I have noticed when photographing birds that if I crouch down I am less likely to frighten them away.) It took millions of year for the shape of human hip and leg bones to evolve for walking. But vertical orientation comes at a price. Distributing all our weight on two limbs can have painful consequences, as anyone with back pain will attest.
But does taller necessarily mean better? The giraffe at eighteen feet survives. But has it proliferated? Dinosaurs reached heights of eighty feet, but that apparently did not help them. For trees, it is a different story. The coastal redwoods of California, the tallest trees in the world, exceed 350 feet in length – about the height of a 35-story building, for example – and they seem to be thriving. Compare that with the widest trees, whose girth does not exceed forty feet. It is clear which direction trees - stuck lifelong in one place - prefer.
How about the world of birds? Taller birds have a harder time surviving for many reasons. They have more meat for predators and are slower to fly in case of attack. They also need more food than shorter birds. Smaller size often helps adapt easily. Our tiny House Sparrow proliferates as the most populous bird in the world, but the tallest bird of Bangladesh, the Lesser Adjutant, has become endangered.
What about creatures of the sea? Marine creatures grow horizontally. I suppose it makes little sense to grow tall underwater. The largest whale, for example, can be 100 feet long. While diving, I have encountered tall underwater kelp forests, but they are trunk-less and can sway to either vertical or horizontal.
The most successful living beings on the planet, insects, seem oblivious to vertical and horizontal.
But... I have let my mind wander. Time to return to the task of designing that book!