Where to Position that Horizon?

Where to Position that Horizon?

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 low horizon

A low horizon gives dominance to the sky to help emphasise the movement of the clouds

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.

A horizon high in the frame

An empty sky and a foreground full of detail made the choice of where to place the horizon in this composition very easy

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.

Horizon in the centre of the frame

A centred horizon can work very well with reflections

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.

horizon - centre but broen

The two posts that break the horizon here ensure that the sky and foreground are linked, and are not seen as two separate elements

No horizon

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.

No horizon

You can choose to omit the horizon entirely and focus in on detail within the landscape

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

Some Older Comments

  • Bill Pearl June 13, 2013 10:41 am

    Not all horizons are horizontal. Any comments about handling such a situation? Do you think positioning will follow much the same rules, i.e. does it help compostion?

    What about deliberately tilting the horizon? When would that be appropriate?

  • Vivian Bedoya June 3, 2013 10:39 am

    Excellent article - thank you!

  • Asokan June 3, 2013 05:42 am

    Hi Chris, First of all Thank you....Omitting the horizon was a beautiful point. I will try it. Thank you. During the film days(when I was young) they taught me.....never place the horizon in the center vertical vise & to place it in a position so that the brighter side of the picture looks longer. for example, a long street......so horizontal wise to it as to anywhere on the center two vertical lines of rule of three!!!! Were they right?

  • Kirtu Riba June 2, 2013 02:39 am

    The article is very informative and interesting.Thanks to the writer!

  • Mr kirtu riba June 2, 2013 02:16 am

    The article is very vivid and informative.Thanks to the writer !

  • Rachel June 1, 2013 12:29 pm

    I really enjoyed this article. Great tips to keep in mind, thanks Elliot! :-)

  • Kees Beeuwkes June 1, 2013 02:02 am

    Thanks for the suggestions.
    It is sometimes difficult but I want my horizon horizontal.
    This sounds normal, but you find in so many photos that its just not level.
    In photoshop I always use the angle definer to keep any doubt away.

    With (super) wide angle, it is advisable to keep the horizon in the centre; I agree to have something interesting in the foreground and interesting clouds in the sky. Sometimes I create extra beautiful skies and photoshop them into the existing.

    I am still finding out where to keep the horizon when working with a fisheye lens; this is a total different ballgame.

  • Guigphotography June 1, 2013 01:22 am

    The low horizon/dramatic sky is one of my preferences (see attached), though I really like the tips on the centred horizon as that really can be a pain. Using objects to connect the two halves will definitely help me. Thanks!

  • Viraj May 31, 2013 05:37 pm

    Really enjoyed images. Keeping more foreground in front and less horizon is interesting tip, I will surely try this out in my next trip.. :)

  • marius2die4 May 31, 2013 05:26 pm

    It is a art to place the orizont in the corect place in a photo. Very good advice!

    Some of my pics:

  • Ratkellar May 31, 2013 09:20 am

    Reflections in the water do not necessarily require the horizon in the center, but centering works well.

  • mason May 31, 2013 04:40 am

    A few pictures says it all

  • Rob B May 31, 2013 03:48 am

    This is, as you said, divisive at best. Allof your points are dead on. I want to note that you kit on a topic I talk about regularly. When to break the rules. I always tell new photographers to learn the basic rules, the rule of 3rds, horizon out of the center, sunny 16 etc. Then to learn them well enough, that when you do break them, it looks intentional, and not just like sloppy photography.

  • Ruth Drews May 31, 2013 03:17 am

    I enjoy all the different tips and help aides. I would have enjoyed this segment even more if the other essentials such as Fstop, SSpeed, exposures were included.....this way we could go out and practice the entire setup....but, great stuff to put in the photography arsenal....thanks!

  • Steve W May 31, 2013 01:48 am

    Not to be argumentative but in the reflection example the horizon was actually not in the center of the picture but was very near the top. The dividing line between the scene and it's reflection was actually the center of the picture.

  • rd May 31, 2013 01:47 am

    Great article. The only thing that is always super important - unless you are deliberately skewing it - water is level - if it's not parallel to the top and bottom - it will run off the page. After that - the other horizon will generally take care of itself.

  • Chris Johnston May 31, 2013 01:38 am

    Wow, fast response!! Thanks for the tips, I'll give it a try as soon as it stops raining in UK..

  • Diana May 31, 2013 01:31 am

    Hi Chris. I suppose there isn't truly a "proper way" really, but the two things you should look at to line things up are the horizontal focus points in your viewfinder and the top and bottom edge of the viewfinder. You can adjust the camera body (or your own stance) so that the horizon line is as evenly parallel as possible to the focus points and the top and bottom edge (which will be the edges of your shot).

    I've seen suggested that you use a tiny level attached to the top of your camera, too. That seems like it would be most helpful in situations where you're using a tripod, but I've never tried it.

  • Chris Johnston May 31, 2013 01:23 am

    Hi Diana,

    Regarding lining up the horizon, what is the "proper way" you refer to as I'm just looking through the viewfinder?

  • Diana May 31, 2013 12:54 am

    Excellent point, Cramer Imagining. I have struggled with getting the hang of lining up the horizon line (or other horizontal lines) the proper way instead of eyeballing it because, with glasses on and looking through a viewfinder, it almost guarantees those lines will be crooked unless I pay close attention to focus points.

    You can use software to straighten, but then you lose some of your image...

  • Jeff E Jensen May 30, 2013 02:59 pm

    Always fun to try to place your horizon in the "right" spot!


  • Satesh R May 30, 2013 12:49 am


  • Mridula May 30, 2013 12:20 am

    The tip makes sense and beautiful pictures!


  • ScottC May 29, 2013 08:14 am

    There's certainly no rule about where a horizon should be.


  • Steve May 29, 2013 06:48 am

    I am glad that this not just another stick to the rules and do not put the horizon in the middle article.
    The positioning of the horizon should be based on wherever it is best to make the overall composition. As stated if it is a mirror reflection it most likely should be in the middle.


  • Cramer Imaging May 29, 2013 05:14 am

    Those are some excellent examples of what to do to get it right. The other thing to point out is that a crooked horizon line can destroy an otherwise picturesque landscape. That is more of a beginner's mistake but it does good to remind others of this point too. Thanks for the article.

  • Shannon May 29, 2013 03:11 am

    I really enjoyed the images that you included and I like the bit below each image that reinforces the point. I've never really thought about why I put my horizon line where I put it, this has made me think and I plan to make a point to think about the 'why' when I'm composing my next assignment.