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Positioning The Horizon In Photographs

Many of the photos that we take feature a visible horizon line. It poses just about the first question that needs answering as you peer through the viewfinder: how to divide the scene? The horizon is such a dominant compositional element that it's important to get it right. So let's take a look at the key considerations...


Why not stick it in the middle?

It's a natural tendency of beginner photographers to place horizon lines in the middle of the frame. It seems logical, allowing you to show equal amounts above and below it. It also seems balanced and symmetrical. So what's the problem?

Well, instead of creating a pleasing sense of balance, central horizon lines actually tend to result in a very boring, static feel. We much prefer to look at things that are off-centre and lead our eye on a journey through the rest of the scene.


The Rule Of Thirds/Golden Mean

You've doubtless heard about the rule of thirds, whether in the context of drawing, painting or photography. It's a rough and ready compositional guide (a simplification of the golden mean) that can be useful to keep in the back of your mind.

Imagine a grid of thirds overlaying the scene in your viewfinder, with 4 evenly spaced lines, 2 horizontal and 2 vertical. Dividing the scene around these proportions, with important elements placed at the intersections of the lines often ensures a nicely balanced image. (Here's a full guide to the rule of thirds and the golden mean)

So you'll often notice landscape photographs with the horizon line roughly 1/3 from the bottom, or 1/3 from the top of the frame. This is a much better approach than just slapping it dead centre. But equally, never be afraid to trust your instincts if you feel this 'rule' could be broken in a given situation.

by Sang Trinh


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High Or Low?

by Lewis Argerich

So, how to decide whether to place the horizon line towards the top of the frame or towards the bottom? It really boils down to why you're taking the photograph. What grabbed you most? Was it the compelling foreground, or perhaps a dramatic sky?

If the foreground is where the key interest lies, then devote more space to that. Coastal scenes like the one above are often composed in this way. Using a portrait format (a vertically aligned frame), can be a good way of emphasizing the area in the bottom of the frame. The image below is a good example:

by Patrick Merritt

In fact, the above image is a great example of how 'rules' are only there to guide you. Generally speaking it's best to avoid squashing the horizon line too close to the edge of the frame, as it can become fussy and cluttered. But in this case, because the rest of the shot is so sparce, it looks brilliant.

So, the same things apply, when the major interest is in the upper part of the frame. Bring the horizon line down towards the lower third. In landscape photography, dramatic weather can often be a brilliant subject, so skies end up being the main subject of a shot. The example below illustrates the point:

by Gilles Chiroleu


The Wonky Option

Learning photography is often about trial and error. It doesn't usually take much trialling of wonky horizons to realize that the are very much an error! So deliberately tilting the camera for some kind of vague 'creative' effect is a no-no the majority of the time (especially for landscapes).

It's also very easy to accidentally create a slight gradient by not being careful enough when taking the shot. But a wonky horizon is a massive distraction, so be super aware of the need for your camera to be level when shooting.

A quick caveat: there are some situations in which a deliberately unstraight horizon can be very effective. I'm sure we've all seen those newspaper photo essays, sent back by some brave photographer in the midst of a chaotic warzone.

You'll often see an image with a wonky horizon thrown in, to give the sense that it was taken in a hurry, adding to the feeling of panic. The irony is that these pictures are usually very deliberately composed! But, used sparingly, they can be great.

After all, the implied position of the photographer is something that makes a lot of pictures so interesting. So a wonky horizon, in scenes that are full of action, can really enhance the feeling of being there.

Photo Nuts and Shots helped me to think more creatively about things like composition, light, emotion, colour and perspective. Well worth a look if you're interested in this kind of thing.

Where Next?

Photography composition: the golden mean and rule of thirds

Using lines and curves for better landscape photos

4 key things to consider when choosing a DSLR lens

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