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Placing the Horizon Line
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Placing the Horizon Line

In outdoor photography, where you place the horizon line in your frame has a powerful effect on how your compositions are interpreted. Shifting horizon placement by tilting the camera up or down can alter the entire balance of a scene.

Placing the horizon high in the frame, for example, accents foreground details and enhances the sense of distance. Take care when using expansive foregrounds to get as much depth of field as possible. If your camera has an aperture-priority or landscape mode, use it to set a small aperture (f/11 or smaller) to ensure maximum near-to-far sharpness. Shooting from a high vantage point and tilting the camera down so it is more parallel to the plane of the foreground also helps extend the range of sharp focus.

Horizons placed very low in the frame heighten the isolation of subjects at the horizon. In isolating a lone person at the bottom edge of the frame at right, the photographer has created an atmosphere of emptiness by contrasting it with the vastness of the sky. Low horizons are effective, too, for capturing dramatic skies: colorful sunset-illuminated clouds, for instance.

Dividing a composition in half by placing the horizon across the middle of the frame is often considered breaking a sacrosanct design rule, but it isn't quite as serious as cheating on your income taxes. Try it. If it works—as it sometimes does in catching mirror reflections in pond or lake scenes—use it without shame.

Often not including a horizon at all is what works best. Instead of struggling to find the best placement, zoom in on a main subject and eliminate the horizon. Finally, no matter where you place the horizon, keep it level unless you're intentionally trying to rock your viewers' visual boats.

Next: "The Rule of Thirds"