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Now where did I put that Horizon?

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Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.

 Ansel Adams.

Over the last couple of weeks, on some of the forums that I belong to, I have seen a number of landscapes and seascapes posted by folks looking for comments and critique.  One of the more frequent comments on my part has been to note that the horizon is not flat.  The response has often been – Thanks, I didn’t notice that.  So, it occurred to me to ask the obvious question – Why did they not notice it?.  I do not pretend to know the answer, but I do know that I have seen very little reference to this aspect of photography in a lot of the landscape books I have read.  This aspect of landscape composition is seldom mentioned on web sites that cover the subject.  I also know from my own experience that I often do not pay attention to the flatness of the horizon – don’t know why – I just don’t do it!  Well, maybe because the horizon is not seen to be part of the image, even though it is there– maybe the intent was to capture a shot of an elephant walking across the grasslands, or a deer feeding on the grass in a field.  I do know that if my intent is to capture a landscape with its horizon, then I do my best to make sure that it is flat.  Nevertheless, I do end up straightening a number of my images in post-processing.

Types of horizons

Here the pseudo horizon of a frozen lake is tilted to the left.

Here the pseudo horizon of a frozen lake is tilted to the left.

With the image rotated in software, the horizontal aspect of the lake shoreline is re-established.

With the image rotated in software, the horizontal aspect of the lake shoreline is re-established.

Did you know that there are two types of horizons – maybe more, but only two that I can think of  now.  The first is the real horizon – the one that you see when watching the sun set over the ocean, or the sunrise over the land on the prairies.  The second is the pseudo-horizon that you get in your images when you take pictures across a body of water such as a lake or a river, a situation where the viewer expects the shoreline to be flat and not tilted one way or the other.  Regardless, any viewer of your images expects a horizon which is flat.

Horizon at sunset, slightly tilted to the right.

Horizon at sunset, slightly tilted to the right.

This is the image with a straight, flat horizon.

This is the image with a straight, flat horizon.

Lines and more lines

One of the many design elements in image composition are lines – vertical lines, horizontal lines, curved lines and diagonal lines – are all obvious examples of lines.  The horizon in an image is just a special case of a horizontal line.  Horizontal lines in an image tend to convey a feeling of peace and stability.  As the name implies, the horizon should be horizontal, otherwise it is just another diagonal line in your image. You would think that this would be obvious, but from the number of images that I see where the horizon is a diagonal line and not a horizontal line, it would not appear to be obvious.

Where do I put it – the horizon that is?

There are only really three places to put the horizon in an image.  Where you put it depends on what part of the image you are trying to emphasize.  Remember though, that its position has a definite effect on how the scene is interpreted by your viewers.  If you put it in the middle, then you are dividing the image in half and telling the reader that you can’t decide on which part of the image is more important, the top part or the bottom part.  Middle placement produces a static image that can be boring to the viewer.  There is one exception and that is when you have a perfect reflection of the top part in the lower part.  For example, this is the type of scene that appears when you photograph a mountain and its reflection across a calm, pristine lake at sunrise, or buildings along a waterfront.

If you are not supposed to place it in the centre, then this leaves the upper part of the image and the lower part – obvious eh?  This brings into consideration, another design guideline referred to as the rule of thirds.  Details of its origin can be found at Rule of thirds and a more detailed treatment can be found at Rule of thirds in Composition.  This guideline suggests that the best placement of the horizon is either one third of the way down from the top of the image, or one third of the way up from the bottom of the image.

If you want to emphasize the landscape below the horizon, i.e., the foreground part of the image, then the best placement is in the upper third position of the image.  Putting the horizon in this position tends to emphasize the sense of distance in the image. The key here is to make sure that you have set an aperture on your camera that will ensure all of your image is in focus.  If you cannot set an aperture on your camera, then be sure to dial in the landscape icon on the mode selector.  This is often indicated by a small icon that shows a mountain symbol.

If you want to emphasize the sky, for example, a brilliantly coloured sunset, then you probably will want to place the horizon in the lower third position of the image.  As well, pictures of cloud formations and summer storms will also benefit from placing the horizon along the lower thirds line.  Again, you need to ensure that your aperture is set so that all of your image is in focus.  If you can’t set the aperture, then look for the landscape icon on your camera’s mode dial.

In this image, the horizon is placed at the lower thirds level because the clouds are the more important aspect of this scenic shot.

In this image, the horizon is placed at the lower thirds level because the clouds are the more important aspect of this scenic shot.

In this image, the horizon is placed at the upper thirds level because the fields were considered the more important aspect of this scenic.

In this image, the horizon is placed at the upper thirds level because the fields were considered the more important aspect of this scenic.

How do I get it level?

There are a few ways to ensure a level horizon.  Many cameras have various types of markers in the view finder that can be used to line up the horizon to ensure it is not tilted.  Others have some type of monitor or screen that provides the ability to see the image and focus it before you actually push the shutter button.  These screens often have marks on them that can be used to align the horizon.  Some cameras even have a “rule of thirds” display that allows more control over where the horizon is placed.  Some photographers, me included, have a small spirit level that fits into the hot shoe of your camera, providing you have a hot shoe.  These levels act just like a carpenter’s level and tell you when your camera is level.  The one I have works in all three dimensions so that no matter how my camera is oriented, I can tell if it is level.  Ones that work in two dimensions are also available.

Failing all of the above devices, most photo editing software comes with the ability to rotate images so that the horizon is level.  The only problem with this approach is that you often lose some of your image around the edges as the rotation requires a crop to restore the rectangular shape of the original image.

What else should I remember about the horizon?

There may be other things about placing the horizon in your images that you should consider.  One of the main ones is not to dissect a key element of your image with the horizon line.  For example, If you are taking a picture of someone standing on a boat dock and the horizon is in the image, try and place the person so that the horizon doesn’t cut him or her in half.  There are probably other considerations as well, but I hope I have managed to give you some ideas to think about the next time you are shooting a picture that has an horizon line in it.

This is an illustration of how the horizon can disect an element in your image.  This is not necessarily a good example, but it is sufficient to convey the idea.  Watch your horizon relative to the images in the foreground.

This is an illustration of how the horizon can disect an element in your image. This is not necessarily a good example, but it is sufficient to convey the idea. Watch your horizon relative to the images in the foreground.

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3 Comments

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