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Horizontal Lines in Composition

Introduction

Horizontal lines are.. Everywhere. Yes, you read it right. Look at the photo above, or at any other photo you prefer: now look at the upper and lower edges. Do you see them? Even those two borders of any photo ever taken are horizontal lines. Photos are literally framed between two horizontal (and well, two vertical) lines.
Without a decent knowledge about how to properly use this type of compositional lines in your pictures, you might end up with some uninteresting shots. Horizontal lines generally give a static look to your pictures, and unless that’s exactly what you are looking for, you probably want to keep reading and look for our suggestions when it comes to place horizontal lines in your frame wisely.
In this article I’ll try to give you a few honest and hopefully helpful tips about how to correctly place horizontal lines in your pictures and make them more interesting.

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1. What is a Horizontal Line in Photography?

Unsurprisingly, the most commonly used horizontal line (often unconsciously used) is the horizon, mostly in photography genres that are practiced outdoor. You can find horizontal lines also in buildings when shooting architecture/cityscape photographs, or even in studio sessions by setting up your subject accordingly.
In many of the landscape photos you see everywhere the horizon is the main horizontal line of the frame; that is quite recognizable, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Sometimes, in order to give more dynamicity to the picture, you can try to hide a bit the horizontal lines of the composition.

Federa lake at sunrise in autumn

2. What are Horizontal Lines Used for?

Since we are so used to see horizontal lines everywhere, it’s not easy to make them stand out in photos: if not used in the right way, they look pretty much uninteresting and dull if you ask me.
There’s a reason though if we decide to include horizontal lines in our pictures, something that has to do with the feelings they evoke when we see them. An horizontal line will give a static look to the picture, like there’s nothing moving inside it: if that’s what you are looking for, go for it. If well done, the use of horizontal lines to create static pictures can take to straordinary results. The viewer will feel a sense of stability and peace when looking at pictures with horizontal lines in them.
Problem is that the line between a well-thought picture with the aim to create a static atmosphere and a dull one is incredibly thin: the point is that when you compose using some noticeable horizontal lines in the frame, remember to think about what kind of feelings you want to transmit with that image and if it’s better to remove them (or make them less important) or enhance them even more if possible.

3. How to Use Horizontal Lines in Photography

So, here we are at the juicy chapter of the article - the one where we’ll see together a few case studies about the use of horizontal lines in photography. I’ll use some of my pictures to show you how horizontal lines are affecting the overall look of the image.

#1 Case Study: Broken Horizon with a Leading Line

Let’s start with the assumption that generally, unbroken horizon can appear quite boring to the viewer. Now, one of more common ways to create more interest in an otherwise dull picture is to intersect some elements from other parts of the image over the horizon.
Take as an example the picture here, made in Tuscany. To start, try to imagine the picture without the curvy road: it would be a classic twilight shot, without anything that would lead the eyes of the viewer to the main subject (the building). It may still be a decent photo, sure, since the lights and the night atmosphere would partially fill the lack of any leading line, but it would definitely not have the same visual power of the photo here. And why is that? It’s not just about the leading line that creates depth in the image, it’s also about the fact that I managed to broke the horizon line by adding some elements that comes from another part of the frame, which in this case is the car light.

#2 Case Study: Broken Horizon with Perpendicular Lines

In the first case we saw how to “break” the horizon line with the help of a leading line; it’s not the only case in which you can break the horizon though. In fact, through vertical lines intersecting the horizon you’ll manage to create a much more interesting result. Attention though: you’ll have to be really careful not to create a chaotic composition, with too many things to look at and a general confusion going on all over the frame. It’s easy to mess things up when using vertical lines to interrupt the flat horizon line; that’s why I told you to play with care, otherwise you may end up making things worse than before.
Let’s take a look at the picture above: as for the previous case, try at first to imagine it without the wood poles in the water. The result would be a much cleaner and more static image. The function of those poles in the water, between the gondolas, is to add depth of field and create some sort of tension (and instability) in an otherwise calm and peaceful frame; most of the people who will observe the photo won’t even know that those annoying poles have such an important function, but as a photographer, you should!

#3 Case Study: Leading Lines Blending into the Horizon

You can create more interest in horizontal lines by converging all the other leading lines present in the frame to them. Check out the photo here: with a precise game of symmetries and light, I managed to use the horizon as the anchor point of the image, together with the trees in the background. What is pleasing the eye of the viewer here is the perfect symmetry starting in the foreground and the converging vertical lines that lead to the horizon in the background.
The final result is a static yet peaceful atmosphere; if you aim to create some kind of drama or tension in the photo though, I would recommend to opt for a “broken” horizon, like we’ve previously seen above in the other examples.

#4 Case Study: Horizontal Lines to Frame the Subject

As I wrote in the introduction of the article, we are “forced” to see horizontal lines in every photograph since they all come out from cameras framed as rectangles; regardless of this proposition, you can even decide to enforce those two horizontal lines by framing your main subject between them, like I’ve done in the picture here.
When I was framing this photo, I precisely regulated my altitude to frame the small tree in between the two horizontal lines created by the hills. Then, to enforce once more the concept (but this time I hadn't no power in the decision) the fog in the lower part of the frame created another horizontal line to frame the composition even better.

#5 Case Study: Horizontal Lines as the Division Point of the Image

I’ll be honest, most of the times you’ll find yourself in a similar condition is because you are shooting reflections. Let’s say that the reflection by itself is so beautiful and composition-wise strong enough to “hold” the photo without any help of whatsoever leading lines, unlike we saw in the first case of the chapter.
In this specific case, all you’ll have to do is to make sure you placed the horizontal line where it should be: should it stand right in the middle of the frame or rather on the lower/upper third? Question yourself about this and choose accordingly.

gondolas in venice photo tour
Twilight reflection in the Dolomites in autumn
Want to know more about composition?

Check out this article where we discuss balance in composition!

4. Tips for Using Horizontal Lines in Photography

Now that we saw a few examples of the correct use you can do of horizontal lines, it’s time to share a few tips about how you can reach the results you saw up here, but mostly what are the things you should absolutely avoid when shooting horizontal lines!

4.1 Set Your Goal before Taking the Shot

I already hinted at this a couple of times along the article, but let me be clear: to make horizontal lines work in your frame, you’ll need to know what you want to achieve with that specific picture. Are you looking for a serene, peaceful atmosphere or rather for a more dramatic, chaotic one? This is a crucial point when you are working with horizontal lines, since a small change in terms of composition can result in a huge difference in the final image.
So, the tip is: think about what kind of look and atmosphere you want your shot to assume, before actually taking it.

4.2 Choose the Right Focal Length

In terms of lines, different lenses mean different amounts of distortion. So, how does it translate in practical terms? On the field, by changing your focal length you’ll be able to give more importance (or reduce it) to the horizontal lines present in your frame.
With a super wide angle lens, unless we are talking about a far away horizon, all the horizontal lines (as well as the vertical ones) will be stretched and consequently affected by the lens distortion; on the other side, with a telephoto lens all the lines will be enhanced by the lack of (almost) any distortion. Which one is the best option? Well, there’s not a better and worse option; it all depends on how much do you want to empathise the horizontal lines of your frame.

4.3 Try Different Perspectives

This tip is directly related to the case study #2 we’ve seen above; I’m not some sort of magician that already knows which one is the composition that works better in each possible situation - I need to snap at least a few different shots to understand which one is the best. In the case I just mentioned, the one we saw together, I started from a higher perspective, one where the wood poles in the water weren’t breaking the horizon line, then I moved really low and close to the gondolas to see if it was working better - spoiler, it wasn’t. The composition got too messy and there was too much going on around, the viewer wouldn’t have managed to focus on a single thing; then I finally found this composition which in that case was the best.
My recommendation here is to always try different perspectives, as you may find new horizontal lines to add in your frame or to hide some of the one that are currently present in it.

Don't forget this.

Check out our photo tours in many Italy locations!

Conclusion

Horizontal lines are often an underestimated argument to consider and to think about when composing pictures, but truth is that they are a seriously important part of the image. If you pay attention to them, you may be surprised by how many there are in most of the images.
Horizontal lines must be taken into consideration in order to improve the composition, the look and the atmosphere of your images, and I hope that this article, at least partially, helped you in increasing your knowledge about them!

Leonardo Papèra

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