Most of the time, a landscape photo will show the horizon. The best position of that horizon depends on what's important in the photo. Do you place the horizon at the top, the bottom, or somewhere else in the frame? If you struggle with that decision, this article may give a helping hand.
The horizon is an important element in a landscape photo. It’s by no means mandatory, but in a lot of instances, a horizon is incorporated in the frame. Have you ever looked at the landscape photos in your archive to check how you placed the horizon? It might be interesting to do so. Perhaps there’s a pattern to be found. On a lot of occasions, becoming aware of that pattern can help you to determine the best position of the horizon in various circumstances.
The location of the horizon has everything to do with the subject in your photo. What is it that you want to show? Just photographing a landscape without any subject often leads to a boring photo. After all, there is nothing interesting to see. Also, too many potential subjects will make it difficult to focus attention. The position of the horizon can play an important role.
I wrote about the origin of the rule of thirds in a previous article. It was originally meant to describe the division of light and dark in a painting, but it ended up being a description of the division of every single element in the frame. The location of the horizon is one of those things.
On most occasions, the horizon will be positioned according to the rule of thirds. Even the photographers that despise the rule of thirds will probably have the horizon somewhere near one third from the top or one third from the bottom.
The Horizon at One Third From the Bottom of the Frame
When I look at a lot of landscape photos that can be found online, a horizon at one third from the bottom of the frame is most common. The reason is easy to explain, because a sky is often an important element of a landscape photo, which is reason enough to have lots of it in the frame.
Sunrise and sunset are one of the most popular subjects for a landscape photographer, preferably with an amazing sky full of colorful clouds. The sky with the clouds becomes the subject in the photo. That’s what you want to show.
In that case, placing a horizon at one third from the bottom of the frame is the most obvious choice, not necessarily because of the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio for that matter, but because this often feels like a perfect balance.
The Horizon at One Third From the Top of the Frame
If you want to show the foreground under a nice sky, the foreground becomes the subject in the frame. Perhaps there’s a nice flowing stream, flowers, rocks, or something else. In that case, the sky is not the most important thing. Often, the location of the horizon will be at one third from the top. Although it may still be important for the composition, it isn't the main subject. It's an addition. It will act as the finishing touch.
The Horizon in the Middle of the Frame
There are occasions when the horizon right at the middle of the frame works well. Most photographers will avoid this, but when chosen in the right situation, this can be the best choice, especially with a symmetrical composition.
You have to be careful, though. There is the risk of dividing the image into two parts. If that happens, the viewer will be forced to choose between the sky or the foreground. Both ask a similar amount of attention, which results in a restless photo. The visual flow is disrupted, and the eye will go back and forth. The photo will be less pleasing to look at.
The Horizon in a Totally Different Location
You are not forced to place the horizon according to the rule of thirds or in the middle. The horizon can be placed at any location in the frame. The most important thing about choosing the location for a horizon is the division in the frame. Everything needs to be in balance.
If there are a lot of objects rising above the horizon, it may be placed just at the edge of the frame. In that case, the horizon is not that important, but the objects that rise above the horizon are.
Even a horizon just below the top of the frame is a possibility. Again, as long as there is a sense of balance in the photo, it will work. Be careful, though, as a small band of sky can also feel oppressive. If that happens, you might consider leaving the sky completely out of the frame.
No Horizon in the Frame
There are a lot of situations when you can leave the horizon completely out of the frame. The most obvious one is a boring sky. The sky may not add anything to the composition, for instance. Another situation is photographing a forest or something similar, where there is no horizon at all. There is absolutely no rule that says a horizon and sky have to be visible in a landscape photo.
A Guideline For Placing a Horizon in a Landscape Photo
There is a guideline that can help you decide where to place a horizon in the frame. This guideline will sound simple and perhaps even obvious. But I notice how a lot of beginning photographers aren’t necessarily aware of this. Or they don't pay that much attention to the horizon when making a composition. Let's have a look at the guideline.
If the foreground is the most important part of the composition, place the horizon at the top of the frame. This can be at one third from the top or somewhere close to that.
If the sky is the most important part of the composition, place the horizon at the bottom of the frame, somewhere at one third from the bottom or close to that.
When you think both foreground and sky are important, you might try to find a good connection between both. This can be a symmetrical composition, for instance. If that connection isn’t possible, then you need to make a decision about what it is you want to show.
And last but not least, if the sky doesn’t add anything interesting to the image at all, leave it out completely. It’s that simple.
These are guidelines, nothing more. Perhaps you know another good way of finding the best place for a horizon in a landscape photo. If you do, please let me know in the comments below.
My only inviolable rule regarding the horizon is that it be absolutely horizontal. Once that has been established, the remaining composition work is totally flexible, and not locked to the Rule of Thirds.
I just watched The Fabelmans last night. I found it funny. The young aspiring filmmaker gets some caustic advice from director, John Ford, “When the horizon is at the top, it's interesting. When it's on the bottom, it's interesting. When it's in the middle, it's boring as sh*t! Got it?”.
The position of the horizon line is absolutely up to photographer. There are no rules in art, unless we hurt viewers in a way of twisting the reality. The horizon line is a very important BRUSH in artist’s arsenal. I’m my humble opinion, of course
It is probably the same as thinking of mine subject of the photo should be on left, right or middle...
Thanks for the interesting article! I feel that one additional guideline is to consider the emotional impact of the placement of the horizon. A low horizon has a very different feel from a high one, and that should definitely be considered as you decide how to best capture your chosen subject!
Thank you for the addition, Adam.