Best Position For The Horizon

‘Beach’, Bamburgh, Northumberland
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, EF17-40mm f/4 L USM @ 40mm, 25 seconds @ f/22 ISO 50
LEE 3-stop Pro-Glass ND + 2-stop ND Grad filters.
Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 tripod, Manfrotto 405 Pro Geared Head.
Adobe Lightroom.

“We can be forgiven for feeling a little indecisive when framing an image when there are so many options available.”

Best Position For The Horizon

I made this pre-dawn image on the beach at Bamburgh on a dull and dreary morning. Relatively overcast conditions lend themselves beautifully to more minimalist imagery. The absence of direct sunlight reduces contrast and subdues saturation, allowing otherwise subtle elements like the textural detail in the sand to take ‘centre-stage’. One lovely consequence of emphasising simplicity is that the stark lines created by the tide and the horizon assume major compositional roles. The placement of the horizon therefore becomes more critical in images like this.

Landscape photographers have long debated where we should best place our horizons. Received wisdom is that we should always avoid positioning the horizon half-way up the image, but there are no rules and bisection can often work well depending on the aspect ratio of an image. The visual geometry of a square  image can be strengthened and 2:1 images can also benefit from the symmetry of a half-way horizon. Decisions relating to positioning of the horizon are also affected by other elements in the frame. For example, in this image, placement at 50% would actually work quite well, because the visual weight provided by the anchoring beach and the strong line created by the tide, would mitigate an otherwise uncomfortable composition.

‘Rule-of-thirds’ is perhaps the best known guideline for positioning of horizons, suggesting that we position the horizon one-third of the way up or down an image, as I have done here. The current fashion is to deride ‘rule-of-thirds’ as being overly formulaic and simplistic, but it works very well for some photographs, especially those with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Some photographers suggest the most natural placement is achieved by use of Phi, the ‘golden ratio’, with the horizon dividing our image in a 1 : 1.618 ratio.

Moving closer to the periphery of our frame and placing horizons at 20% from the top or bottom can emphasise compelling foreground detail or a dramatic cloudscape: a more extreme 5 – 10% placement can also work well, creating a degree of visual tension or emphasis. Lower placements usually appear more stable because they visually anchor images and avoid the imbalance suggested by a more top-heavy design.

We can be forgiven for feeling a little indecisive when framing an image when there are so many options available. In the final analysis, perhaps the best approach is actually the intuitive one: to simply place our horizon where it feels ‘right’.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.