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Placement of Horizon and Shore Lines

There are so many rules when it comes to Landscape photography. The fact is, these are really not rules at all. It is better to think of them as compositional aids that may work for some images but not for others. The point is, we need to be concerned with the message that we want to convey, and what our main subject is.

How much foreground is needed?

I enjoy speaking at and visiting camera club meetings. I always make a point of hanging around to watch their salon competitions. Judging salons in a very difficult task, and I give the judges a lot of credit. That being said, most judges base their scoring on a set of rules. One of those rules is that if the horizon in a landscape image is right at the center line of the photo, then it loses points.

In many cases this makes sense, since having the horizon in the center can cause the image to lose depth. In fact, it can almost give the foreground the appearance of being a big giant wall. Sometimes, however, the point isn't about depth. Sometimes, it is about the main subject, or the feeling that we want to convey. If we look at the following example, we will see that the shore line is about 40% up from the bottom.

The reason this works is that we have interesting elements in the water. In fact, the reflections make up part of the story. The reflections, fall colors, and the stormy sky all work together to present the story. You are probably thinking, sure but your example does not have the horizon in the center. Let's look at an example where the horizon is in the center.

In this example, the horizon line is in the center of the image. Yet there is still plenty of depth. Why is this? It really comes down to the banks of the water, and the river providing a nice leading line into the image on a diagonal. In fact, if that diagonal was not there, the reflection would give this image that very flat look that was mentioned earlier.

Setting the Horizon to Direct the Viewer

This past year, I started experimenting more and more with moving the horizon line around. My goal was to break out of the rut of minimizing the sky. The result was photos that were much more atmospheric in nature.

In these examples, the limited foreground is used to give a sense of place and context to the image. I also enjoy doing just the opposite. Here are some examples where I put the horizon way up at the top of the image.

In both of these images, had I followed the rule of thirds, or golden ratio rules, the effect would not have been the same.

To Summarize

When placing the horizon in the frame of your image, always ask yourself, what is the message I am trying to convey. Quite often, the answer will provide the guidance as to where the horizon should be placed.

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