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Horizon placement

1/3 from the top or 1/3 from the bottom


Placing the horizon a third of the way down (or up) generally looks better than across the middle of the frame. Photo courtesy of Karen Meeks.
Placing the horizon a third of the way down (or up) generally looks better than across the middle of the frame. Photo courtesy of Karen Meeks.

The rule of composition with respect to where the horizon line should be placed in the picture could be called the "1/3 placement" rule because it suggests that the horizon should be placed on an imaginary line that is either 1/3 from the top or 1/3 from the bottom of the frame. It is really an offshoot of the Rule of Thirds that deals with placement of the horizon rather than subject placement.

As with all so-called "rules" of composition, this one should be treated as a guideline. There are no hard and fast rules.


The 1/3 placement rule is a good one to keep in mind, however, since many photographers, especially beginners, tend to automatically compose an image with the horizon at mid-point in the frame, separating the image into halves. This arrangement is generally not the most pleasing to the eye. It gives equality to the sky and the ground, confusing the viewer as to where the center of interest is located in the image. The viewer asks "What is important here? The photographer has not made it clear." By keeping this simple rule in mind, the majority of your images will not have the horizon at mid-point.

Although the sky is interesting, the emphasis in this image is on the beach, mainly because of horizon placement. The emphasis would be unclear if the horizon had been placed in the middle.
Although the sky is interesting, the emphasis in this image is on the beach, mainly because of horizon placement. The emphasis would be unclear if the horizon had been placed in the middle.

Here is one instance where the horizon can be placed in the middle. The upwards slope of the desert sand ensures that emphasis is on the ground, with the sky being an area of secondary interest.
Here is one instance where the horizon can be placed in the middle. The upwards slope of the desert sand ensures that emphasis is on the ground, with the sky being an area of secondary interest.

Placing the horizon at mid-point may be best for a symmetrical composition (a reflection on the surface of a body of water, for example) or when you consciously seek a clear division of the image into two halves, but in most cases, the 1/3 placement rule makes a better composition.

In cases where you wish the viewer's eye to be drawn to the sky, the horizon can be placed on the lower 1/3 imaginary line, giving more space to the sky in the composition. When you want the viewer's attention to be directed to the ground, place the horizon on the image frame's upper 1/3 imaginary line, giving less space to the sky and more to the ground.

But this is tricky business, and sometimes the opposite occurs. Be sure when you place your horizon line high or low that there is something of interest either in the sky or on the ground that is worthy of the extra attention. If not, then the emphasis will go towards the image's center of attention, no matter where it is, and horizon placement will either add to or detract from the composition.


The horizon line placement in the mini-tugboat picture on the right clearly emphasizes the sky, giving it a lot of space in the picture, but there is nothing there to see -- just fog and cloud. So the viewer's eye moves quickly back to the real center of attention, the boat itself. So, you must ask the question: Does the large amount of space for the sky improve the picture? We think it does. We think it is a perfect horizon line placement for this particular subject.

When you have become accustomed to applying the 1/3 placement rule, you should keep in mind that the rules of composition (all of them) are meant to be broken when the composition will be improved by doing so. Follow the "rule" in all cases except when you think you will make a better picture by not following it. Seems contradictory, but it is not when you think of the rules simply as helpful, reliable guidelines, not as ironclad directives.

An object that breaks the horizon line attracts attention. In this case, though, you can't miss the boat, since there is nothing else to draw the eye away.
An object that breaks the horizon line attracts attention. In this case, though, you can't miss the boat, since there is nothing else to draw the eye away.

The blossom attracts the viewer's eye because of its bright color, but it definitely become the center of attention when it breaks the horizon.
The blossom attracts the viewer's eye because of its bright color, but it definitely become the center of attention when it breaks the horizon.

Any break in a line of vision will alert the eye that something is amiss. Try this. Draw a 10-inch long, straight line on a piece of white paper. Then make a small dot anywhere on the line, just large enough to be seen and no more. Where do you think the eye will stop when looking at your line? The minuscule dot, of course.

So, apply the same principle to your photography. If you wish to draw the viewer's attention to a particular object, compose the image so that the object breaks the horizon line. The eye is drawn immediately to it.


Not all pictures need or even have horizon lines. In fact, many benefit from not having a clear horizon at all. And, placement of the horizon very low or very high in the frame (or cutting it out of the picture altogether, as in the picture of Christ on the crucifix shown here) may be best to emphasize the center of interest or to deliver your image's message with emphasis.

Eliminating the horizon altogether is sometimes best when you want to emphasize the center of interest or to deliver a message with emphasis.
Eliminating the horizon altogether is sometimes best when you want to emphasize the center of interest or to deliver a message with emphasis.