When a frame is being divided by a single, dominant line, it’s more often than not, a Horizon, as they’re fairly common in outdoor photography, particularly landscapes. If the photo is of nothing particularly interesting, then usually this line becomes be the dominant part of the photo for the way in which it separates the frame.
Where to Place the Horizon and Why?
Firstly, I think it’s important to realise where you probably don’t want to place the line, and that’s directly in the middle of the frame. That’s not to say that you should definitely not do it, but it does have a tendency to divide the photo in half and create an uneven photo, with the contrast between the two halves making it look more like two separate photos. Exactly where you place the horizon is completely up to you, but it helps to remember that if a feature of the photo does nothing to improve it, then it has no place in the photo to begin with. Here’s a photo where the horizon has divided the frame in two. Notice that it doesn’t really favour either half.
If you take the horizon and place it slightly lower in the frame, you regain a feeling of stability, which balances out the photo better. You also remove the feeling of division and the whole photo starts to come together as a single image, made up of multiple elements, rather then just two photos stuck together. Have a look at the photo below to see what I mean.
If you were to decide that the top half of the frame was much more interesting than the bottom, then you may want to adjust your composition so that the horizon is a lot lower in the frame. The photo below was taken from a tower in London on a rainy day, with empahsis on the sky. The cityscape adds an interesing texture to photo, but holds much less visual weight. It serves to make the man made city look small in comparison to the powerful sky and weather. This is one of the many interesting, extra feelings which can be evoked when you consider the importance of different aspects of a photo, and asjust your composition accordingly.
The photo below was taken directly after the photo above and focuses largely on the ground, rather than the sky. This photo contrasts greatly with the one above because it no longer evokes the same feelings, and instead focuses more on the colour and lines in the city. Your eyes are naturally drawn up the photo from the colour of the trees and houses at the bottom of the frame to the sharp and jagged nature of the buildings by the sky at the top. An equally interesting photo, but for different reasons, all because of the decisions made over the placement of the horizon. Importantly though, you’ll see that both images are stronger than the original image which cut the photo in half.
If you want to include both the sky and the ground, but don’t want to cut the photo in half then I recommend changing the orientation to portrait. Again, you’re going to probably want to avoid placing the horizon in the middle of the frame, but the decision is up to you. I personally feel that the composition in the photo below is stronger than any of the photos above as it includes the most interesting parts of each photo. The weather had changed slightly between photos, meaning that there was less uninteresting sky in the photo, and that certainly helped towards finding the perfect balance between sky and ground. It’s all about thinking it through and experimenting with what works for you.
Now that we’ve discovered why you may want to include a high or a low horizon, let’s have a look at some examples. The high horizon in this photo was an obvious choice as the sky was particularly plain and uninteresting during the evening in which I took this photo. Realising this, I made a special effort to find somewhere that I could include the foreground a little bit more to strengthen my photo. I found these strong and jagged rocks, which contrasted nicely with the sky, while blending in with the colour of the photo.
Below is an extreme example of a high horizon and I chose to include it because it focused the interest onto the subject and foreground below. It made it look as if the visual weight of the subject forces the camera down, while at the same time, kept the photo stable by remaining straight across the top of the frame. There’s a lot going on in the lower half of this photo and the inclusion of the sky would have distracted from this.
Photos of clouds from below can be pretty boring and rely heavily on being ‘pretty’ for getting attention, but when you raise your angle, the clouds rely more on their shape and form to attract viewers. Because I had a higher vantage point and shape of the clouds were particularly interesting, I wanted to include as much of them as possible and this meant using a lower horizon. I included just enough of the ground to make the colour interesting and complimentary to the colour of the sky, while focusing most of the viewers attention towards the subject, which were the clouds.
This is an example of a very low horizon this time, and I chose to take the photo this way, not because I wanted to emphasis the rather uninteresting sky, but because I wanted to focus on the dominance of the building. With the horizon that low, the feeling of balance is lost and that draws your attention towards the bold building which stands on top of it. By removing many other potential features from the frame, you focus the attention onto one specific point – the building.