Orientations and Horizons

Composition is a big, and sometimes complicated, subject in photography.  You'll find lots of technical reading and opinions on what is "correct."  We haven't talked about composition for almost a year, so I thought I'd touch on a couple of composition components.  Let's break it into smaller chunks that are easier to digest.  Tonight, we'll just concentrate on photograph orientation and horizon lines. So we have our definitions straight, there are two basic orientations: vertical and horizontal.  Yes, there are squares and lots of other shapes, but vertical and horizontal are the ones most frequently used.  If you use their alternate names, portrait and landscape, you can quickly guess their most frequent subject matter.  Usually - nothing is "always" - there is an orientation that works best for certain subjects.

This isn't complicated, right?  Long and tall subjects are usually put into a vertical format, and wide subjects into horizontal.

Falcon and handler

Split-rail fencing at the Manassas Battlefield, Manassas, VA

You need to look at the scene to determine which orientation will look better.  If you aren't sure, shoot it in both formats; these are guidelines, not concrete rules.  Sometimes, the same subject can fit in either format.  For example, a horse is wide and made for horizontal.

Prancing horse at Medieval Times

But if you put the same horse in a different position, it may look better in vertical.

Horse leaping in air

Horizon lines can be found in either format, but the general consensus is you don't want them in the middle of the photograph.  If you put it in the middle, it is considered less pleasing to the eye.

boring horizon shot

Yeah, I know, it's more than the horizon in the middle that makes the above photograph less pleasing.  To make things more confusing, a horizon line doesn't always have to be an actual horizon; it might just be a prominent division that bisects your photograph.  Here is an example photograph with a little more to look at.  It has the line in the middle.  Some people still like this.

Glacier in Alaska with a center line

I prefer to move the line so that it is about one third up from the bottom of the image.  This will divide the photo into three areas, each occupying about a third of the space: water; glacier; and clouds.

Glacier in Alaska. Rule of thirds.

Let's combine these two ideas.  In the photo below, I wanted a vertical orientation.  It seems obvious because the bugler is standing; the tombstones are vertical; and the tree is tall.  I put the bugler in the bottom left and created a framing with the tombstones and the tree.  I intentionally made the bugler a small part of the image.  But I should have paid closer attention to the "horizon line" being created by the tree.

Bugler in Arlington Cemetery with distracting line

The photo loses much of its impact because of the horizon line.  When I shifted to a landscape orientation, with a crop, it was easy to eliminate the distraction of the horizon line.  I kept the bugler one third of the way into the photo, and he is still framed by the tree and tombstones.  He also becomes a larger component of the composition, but it is a better photo.

Bugler in Arlington Cemetery in landscape orientation

Composition can be a complicated, esoteric subject, but you shouldn't avoid learning about it.  Some photographers love to argue and debate for hours about the true meaning of everything they do.  I believe you should understand the basics and use them to improve the quality of your work, but make the photographs you want to make while the pointy heads are having their debates.  The conventions and "rules" of composition shouldn't intimidate you into putting your camera on shelf.

And with that, I'll close with a bow and a suggestion to go out and have some fun.

Horse and trainer, taking a bow, at Medieval Times.