Horizons can be quite divisive, both in terms of composition and opinion. If used correctly, a horizon will either add to a composition or go unnoticed, however, if positioned poorly, it can become a competing element, distracting attention away from the main areas of interest.
One of the main ‘rules’ you often see written regarding horizons is that they should never be placed in the centre of the frame, but positioned closer to a ‘third’. As with most rules, there are plenty of times when this can be completely disregarded, so here are a few guidelines to help you to decide where to position the horizon when composing your shot.
A low horizon
Placing the horizon towards the bottom of the frame is a great way of emphasising a dramatic sky. By placing the horizon low in the frame, you are giving dominance to the upper portion of the image and so, ideally, you want to have something there to keep the attention of the viewer, i.e. don’t do this if the sky is completely clear, as you will be dedicating over half of the frame to an empty blue sky, and that will not hold interest for long.
A high horizon
Conversely to above, placing the horizon towards the top of the frame gives dominance to the lower portion of the image, allowing you to emphasise foreground detail to draw the viewer through to a sky.
In both of the above cases, if you tilt the camera either forwards or back to adjust the position of the horizon, be aware of distortion of any vertical lines at the edge of the frame, e.g. trees, buildings etc. You will find they will either lean into or out of the frame, and may need to be corrected during post processing.
Horizon in the centre of the frame
This is probably the most difficult horizon to handle, compositionally, as it is very easy for a scene to appear unbalanced when the horizon is so close to the centre of the frame. If you are going to take this approach, it is a good idea to ensure that the horizon is bang in the middle as positioning slightly above/below may look as if you were intending for central positioning but were sloppy in either composition or crop.
A centred horizon works very well when dealing with reflections as, by default, the composition is easily balanced.
Also, given that the frame is going to be split in half by the horizon, it is wise to ensure that there is something that breaks the horizon line, from land to sky, to ensure there is a relationship between the two halves of the image.
Whilst discussing horizon placement, it is worth considering the option of omitting the horizon entirely. If the sky doesn’t add anything to the scene in front of you, consider leaving it out and focussing on the detail of the landscape alone.
So there you go, a few things to help you consider what it is you want to capture about the landscape in front of you, and how that can help you determine where to position the horizon within the frame.