EXERCISE – POSITIONING THE HORIZON
Whilst I was visiting the coast at Strumble Head, I took a few photographs of the sea / sky horizon. The otherwise blank horizon was made more interesting by the presence of a distant island and also a dark band of shadow. I framed the shots through the viewfinder to place the horizon at different levels between the top and bottom of the frame. My natural inclination was to place the horizon towards the top and bottom edges rather than towards the middle of the frame because this appeared at the time to make for a more interesting image.
Image 1. Horizon placed towards bottom of frame
I find that this image works well. The main interest is concentrated towards the bottom of the frame which provides a strong base to the image which is otherwise taken up largely by the grey and featureless sky. The island is a significant element in the shot and gives a real sense of space and distance.
Image 2. Horizon placed just below the centre line of the frame
Interestingly, although the horizon in this shot is approximately 1/3rd from the bottom of the frame and 2/3rds from the top thereby roughly following the Rule of Thirds, it has a very traditional feel to it and lacks any great sense of energy or interest for me. It is restful on the eye but as there is not a lot of detail in the picture to keep the eye moving around it does not generate interest to hold the viewer. The image is not helped by the fact that the horizon is not quite horizontal – something I need to watch when taking these sort of shots clearly!
Image 3 Horizon placed just above the mid line of the frame
Again this shot roughly follows the Rule of Thirds composition, but for me the same comments apply as for Image 2 above. It lacks a sense of tension and does not hold the viewer’s attention. The island, whilst helping to create some interest, does not overcome the fact that the viewer tends to concentrate on the horizon in the picture rather than moving above and below it. This tends to make the image appear static for the viewer.
Image 4 Horizon placed towards the top of the frame
The sea dominates this shot with only a small area of lighter sky within the frame. This draws attention to the island on the horizon as it is of similar colour and tone to the sea in the bottom half of the image and has much more significance in the picture than in Images 2 and 3 above. The eye is drawn from the sea to the island and back again so that the viewer’s attention is constantly kept moving around the frame from the top to the bottom.
Having now had a chance to look at the photos at my leisure and in detail I can see that my initial thoughts on looking at the scene through the viewfinder were confirmed. Whereas I might automatically have assumed that placing the horizon in the 1/3rd to 2/3rds horizontal format would have created the most attractive image, the image became more interesting and dynamic by placing the horizon much closer to the top or bottom of the frame. This is a compositional style used by many landscape photographers including Ansel Adams, Charlie Waite and Joe Cornish. Examples can be found in ‘Seeing the Landscapes’ by Charlie Waite ISBN 1-85585-748-0 and ‘Developing Vision & Style – A Landscape Photography Masterclass’ by Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite and David Ward ISBN 978-1-9025 38495.
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Because the frame can be divided vertically as well as horizontally I also took some shots of a vertical wall with the sea behind with the interface at different positions. These are shown below.
Again, as for the images showing horizontal division of the frame, in my view the most interesting and effective images are those where the division is towards the margins of the frame (see Images 1 and 5). My least favourite image is Image 3 where the division is around the vertical mid line of the frame. Interestingly, I will have to watch the angle that I hold the camera more carefully as some of the wall / sea division lines are not quite vertical. Another lesson to learn!
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This exercise has demonstrated for me that, whereas rules of composition can be useful, they are not hard and fast and different situations and subjects can require different approaches to give the best results. It has highlighted the value of careful use of the viewfinder, experimentation and planning where time allows and being clear about what image the photographer wants to create. It has also shown me that gut instinct can be a valuable guide to follow.
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