Travel Photo Thursday: Horizon Lines

Travel Photo Thursday: Horizon Lines

Rule of Thirds DrawingIn photography parlance there is something called “The Rule of Thirds.”

Follow it and you’ll take better photos. Disregard it and you won’t.

Well, maybe. Here’s what “The Rule of Thirds” is all about, and when you should heed it.

The Rule Stated

Under “The Rule of Thirds,” the area “in the frame” of the photo is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, creating a grid like the one above. (Your digital camera, or the camera in your cell phone, probably has an option that lets you turn on a “Grid” overlaying the camera display or cell phone screen.)

“The Rule of Thirds” states that placing your main subject at one of the four intersecting points of the grid, or along one of its lines, will result in a more interesting photo than one in which the subject is placed  dead-center.

Applying “The Rule of Thirds” to Horizon Lines

Whenever you shoot photos outdoors you’ll find some kind of horizon line.

Often it will divide the land or sea below from the sky above. If you place the horizon line in the middle of the photo, you’ll be giving equal emphasis to what appears below and above the line, even if one half of the scene is far more compelling or dramatic than the other.

So, as a general rule, putting the horizon line on or close to the upper or lower grid line will give you a better result. Here are some examples.

Storm Watchers, Point Reyes National Seashore

This photo of members of my Tuesday hiking group was shot in mid-April near Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco. It had rained earlier that day, and storm clouds were still scudding over the land. Placing the horizon line and the hikers into the “lower third” played up the stormy “skyscape.”

There are two “horizon lines” in this shot of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. I wanted to El Capitan, Yosemite National Parkminimize the clear-blue sky since it had no  defining features. On the other hand, I didn’t want the details of the forest in the foreground to show up. I just wanted the viewer to focus on the massive, lined granite face of “El Cap.”

I put the top of El Capitan and the adjacent mountain ridge into the “upper third” of the frame, and the forest into the “lower third.” Using the light reflecting off the mountains to set the exposure caused the trees to be underexposed and “go dark,” leaving the outline of the tree tops to run, more or less, along the line demarcating the “lower third.”

Sunset over Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii Volcanoes NPSunset photos offer a great opportunity to employ “The Rule of Thirds.” The sky will be dramatic while the land or sea below may be featureless in the fading light of day.

I took this shot standing near the rim of the Kilauea Caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. The horizon line running roughly along the top edge of the “lower third” separates the totally dark landscape at the bottom of the shot from the crimson clouds above.

Breaking “The Rule of Thirds”

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park“The Rule of Thirds” isn’t a hard and fast rule of photography. It’s simply a “rule of thumb” or guideline. Deliberately breaking it, or simply ignoring it, doesn’t necessary mean that your photo won’t be worth looking at.

When the land raises above water, centering the horizon line puts the main subject of the photo into both the top and bottom half of the frame. The “original image” falls above the horizon, the “mirror image” below it, as in this photo of the Margerie Glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most photographed man-made structures on Planet Earth. In this shot, the horizon line dividing sky and sea is almost exactly dead-center. But it’s almost unnoticeable because of other elements in the composition.Sunset at the Golden Gate, San Francisco

The top of the bridge towers hit the bottom edge of the “upper third” of the image. The bridge deck has a slight upward curve and is much more prominent than the horizon line below it.

The “lower third” of the shot actually has four, more or less horizontal lines that catch the eye: The one between the dry and wet sand areas where people are walking, the line between the wet sand and breaking wave, and the line along the crest of the wave.

The horizon line divides the “pink” into two mirrored parts: The sunset-lit cloud cover and its reflection on the watery approach to San Francisco Bay.

Becalmed Sailboat, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,In this shot of a becalmed sailboat floating slowly downstream in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, the horizon line is just a bit below center.

There are clouds above the horizon, but you can’t quite make them out due to the haze scattering light in all directions, creating neither defining highlights nor shadows in the sky.

Fortunately, the tops of the skyward pointing sails touch or intrude into the “upper third.” While the hull of the boat remains above the “lower third,” the rippled reflection of the sails falls into that portion of the frame.

(Click on an image to enlarge to full-size. Visit Budget Travelers Sandbox for more of this week’s Travel Photo Thursday shots.)

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6 Replies to “Travel Photo Thursday: Horizon Lines”

  1. Although I’ve heard about the rule, I apply it instinctively. Sometimes just by looking at the scene I want to shoot, I can see where everything should be. Of course, sometimes I see other things after I take the photo.
    Thanks for this post, Dick, I enjoyed reading it. Will definitely remember it next time I whip out my camera to take a photo.

  2. You always have the BEST photo tips – I have heard of this rule but never fully understood it. Thanks!

    Please consider linking it up to Friday Daydreamin’ over on my blog today – I am sure other would love to hear this rule!

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