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How to Choose Horizon Placement in Composition

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 6 min read
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When it comes to photography composition, the horizon placement is one of the most important elements. But where you place it can make a big difference in the overall look and feel of your photos.

So how do you choose the right placement? Read on to find out.

Why Horizon Placement Is Important

When a frame is divided by a single, dominant line, chances are it’s the horizon. They’re fairly common in outdoor photography—landscapes in particular.

If the photo isn’t particularly interesting, this line can become the dominant part of the photo because of the way it separates the frame.

Where to Place the Horizon and Why?

Firstly, it’s important to realize where you don’t want to place the line. And that’s directly in the middle of the frame. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever do it.

However, this placement tends to divide the photo in half, resulting in an unnatural-looking photo. The contrast between the two halves makes it look more like two separate photos.

Exactly where you place the horizon is completely up to you. But it helps to remember that if a feature doesn’t improve the picture, it has no place in the photo to begin with.

Here’s a photo where the horizon divides the frame in two. Notice that it doesn’t really favor either half.A cityscape to show correct Horizon Placement
If you take the horizon and place it slightly lower in the frame, you regain a feeling of stability which balances the photo better.

You also remove the feeling of division. The whole photo comes together as a single image made up of multiple elements rather than just two photos stuck together. Take a look at the photo below to see what I mean.
Sometimes the top half of the frame is more interesting than the bottom. If that’s the case, you may want to adjust your composition so the horizon is lower in the frame.

The photo below was taken from a tower in London on a rainy day with emphasis on the sky. The cityscape adds an interesting texture to the photo, but it holds less visual weight. It serves to make the man-made city look small in comparison to the powerful sky.

This is one of the many interesting, extra feelings that can be evoked. But you need to consider the importance of different aspects of a photo and adjust your composition accordingly.A cityscape to show an interesting Horizon Placement
The photo below was taken directly after the photo above and focuses largely on the ground rather than the sky. This photo contrasts greatly with the one above because it doesn’t evoke the same feelings. Instead, it focuses more on the color and lines in the city.

Your eyes are naturally drawn up in the photo. The color of the trees and houses at the bottom attract your eyes first. Then they go up to the sharp and jagged nature of the buildings by the sky at the top.

It’s an equally interesting photo but for different reasons—mainly because of the placement of the horizon. Importantly though, you’ll see that both images are stronger than the original image which cut the photo in half.A cityscape to show an unusual Horizon Placement
If you want to include both the sky and the ground but don’t want to cut the photo in half, I recommend changing the orientation to portrait. 
Again, you’ll probably want to avoid placing the horizon in the middle of the frame, but the decision is up to you.

I personally feel that the composition in the photo below is stronger than any of the photos above. That’s because it includes the most interesting parts of both photos.

The weather had changed slightly between photos, and there was less interesting sky in the photo. This certainly helped find the perfect balance between sky and ground. It’s all about thinking it through and experimenting with what works for you.A cityscape to show correct Horizon Placement in portrait

Examples of a High Horizon Composition

Now that we’ve covered why you want to include a high or a low horizon, let’s have a look at some examples.
The high horizon in this photo was an obvious choice as the sky was particularly plain and uninteresting on the evening that I took this photo.

Realizing this, I made a special effort to include the foreground a little bit more to strengthen my photo. I found these strong, jagged rocks that contrasted nicely with the sky while blending in with the color of the photo.A beach scene to show correct Horizon Placement
Below is an extreme example of a high horizon – I chose to include it because it focuses the interest onto the subject and foreground below.
It makes it look as though the visual weight of the subject forces the camera down, at the same time keeping the photo stable by remaining straight across the top of the frame. There’s a lot going on in the lower half of this photo and the inclusion of the sky would have distracted from this.A girl in a beach setting to show A cityscape to show Horizon Placement

Examples of a Low Horizon Composition

Photos of clouds from below can be pretty boring and rely heavily on being “pretty.” If you raise your shooting angle, the clouds rely more on their shape and form to attract viewers.

For this photo, I had a higher vantage point and the shape of the clouds was particularly interesting. I chose to include as many of them as possible, which meant using a lower horizon.

I included just enough of the ground to make the color interesting and complement the color of the sky. This focuses most of the viewer’s attention on the subject: the clouds.A portrait of Horizon Placement
This is an example of a very low horizon. I chose to take the photo this way because I wanted to focus on the dominance of the building.

With the horizon that low, the feeling of balance is lost. This draws your attention towards the bold building standing on top of it.

By removing many other potential features from the frame, you focus the attention on one specific point. In this photo, it’s the building.An image of an obelisk to show horizon placement

Conclusion—How to Choose Your Horizon Placement

Many beginner photographers think putting the horizon in the middle of the photo makes the most sense. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth is you have a few options for where you place the horizon. But you need to know when to use what placement in your specific frame. But when you get the composition right, your photos will stand out from the crowd.