One can make a simple experiment: to stand on a plain or at a shore and to look out on the horizon. The question is: where within the field of view is the horizon? Right, it is close to smack in the middle. But this exercise is not quite straightforward. When looking straight out, everything close to us becomes blurry and we tend to ignore, or only half-see, the foreground. The angle of view of sharpest focus is much smaller than the overall angle of view our eyes can cover. This influences where we see the horizon and we really have to concentrate in order to see it in the middle of our overall field of view.
The above experiment also only works on a flat plain like the open sea. As soon as our position is elevated or depressed our perception of where the horizon lies changes. Where is then a good position for the horizon in a photograph? That is an excellent question and thanks for asking. Let’s think about it.
Common photographic wisdom tells us that the horizon should be put at about one third from the bottom or top of a photograph. This wisdom is derived from the rule of thirds and allows to place objects on one of the major points of interest, that means one of the crossing points of the horizontal and vertical thirds. Some reknown photographers, like Ansel Adams, have followed this rule quite thoroughly in their landscape work. The results look, for lack of a better word, “stable” and balanced, especially if the horzon is on the lower third. I am speculating here, but a reason for this stability might be that if we ignore the blurry lower parts of our field of view the horizon lowers towards the rule-of-third-line.
But then there are other photographers. The first in whose work I noticed a rather different treatment of the horizon was German-English photographer Bill Brandt (1904-1983). He could place the horizon about anywhere: right in the middle but also in the upper or lower 20% of the picture. When studying these photographs I realised how powerful a tool the placement of the horizon is. Objects on the horizon placed very high up in a photograph become emphasised. Is this because we read from top to bottom or because we don’t expect anything up there? I can’t say. Maybe it is simply the implied low point of view which makes this perspective interesting. At the same time the foreground in such pictures, as it is close to the lens, can be emphasised as well. Finally, leading lines pointing towards the horizon have space to unfold.
The opposite, very low placement of the horizon goes back to the paintings of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui in the 12th century, which I have mentioned in earlier posts. Such a low point for the horizon implies an elevated point of view and often leaves larger parts of the picture empty except for the clouds. Ma Yuan, it has been said, used that emptiness to express wistfulness and as a pointer to the mystery of existence. Pictures with a very low horizon can indeed have a rather unsettling effect.
Both ways to treat the horizon, very high up and very low, have in common that they create a certain tension in the picture. The calm balance created by using the rule of thirds is lost. The question is, is this a good or a bad thing? Of course, taste and opinions differ also on this point. My personal view is that especially tranquil pictures actually benefit from a certain amount of tension or, actually, they need a certain visual tension to avoid looking stale after a while. Placement of the horizon is not the only means to create visual tension, but I noticed for myself that I tend to find pictures that deviate from the rule-of-third-placement of the horizon more interesting in the long run.