How to use horizontal lines in photography composition

What’s more timeless, stable and certain than the horizon? Nothing. This is why horizontal lines in photography composition create a feeling of stability, rest and dependability in an image.

So let’s look at how to make the most of horizontal lines as a composition technique for better photos.

Examples of horizontal lines in photography

Aside from the ultimate and most obvious horizontal line, the horizon, they can be found everywhere in nature and in manmade objects. Here are just a few:

  • Water
  • Buildings
  • Railings
  • Hedges

How to use horizontal lines in photography

Horizontal lines in photography don’t have to be actual lines. They can be implied lines, such as a row of flowers, or people or fruit

You don’t need to use an exact, uninterrupted line horizontal line either. Objects can break up the line and, in fact, can add to the composition and emphasize the horizontal line just by breaking it.

Which leads me to the next point.


Why do we use horizontal lines?

Even though a thin horizontal line is more fragile in appearance and feeling than a thick horizontal line, it’s still restful and offers stability. 

We know that if something is in a horizontal position it won’t fall over. Hence the secure feeling we get from horizontal lines in photography.

How to use horizontal lines in photography

There are many ways we can use horizontal lines in photography composition to add interest to an image. These include:

  1. Layers
  2. Depth
  3. Dividers

1. Layers

Have you ever looked down on rows of vines or wheat with the rows running horizontally in front of you?

It’s a very compelling site and you find your eye skipping from one row to the next until the end. It works well in a photo, because the multiple horizontal lines of color layer the image, and layers add a three dimensional depth to a two dimensional photo.

Further reading: Use layers in composition for immediately awesome photos

The vine rows closest to you are thicker and as they disappear into the background they become thinner and closer together.

If a person were in between those lines of vines, your eye would go straight to them. This is because when we use other objects or lines to break the pattern, it adds interest and draws the eye to the object.

Horizontal lines of tulips with woman breaking the pattern

What about birds between three lines of telephone wires? The fact that they’re interrupting the lines draws your eye straight to them and makes the lines more interesting. Likewise ships on the distant horizon.

Further reading: Pattern in photography composition makes photos interesting

2. Depth

The diminishing horizontal lines of the vines I mentioned earlier, give depth to the image, while the repetition of the lines forms a pattern pleasing to the eye.

Now imagine several farmworkers working in different rows of the vines. There’s an added layer of depth, because of the additional rows created by the workers. This added layer makes the image more interesting for the viewer.

It also emphasizes the stable feeling.

3. Dividers

Horizontal lines act as dividers in an image.

The most obvious one that springs to mind, again, is the horizon. It divides earth from sky, or sea from sky.

Because the horizon line breaks up your image, you need to be aware of where you place it in the photo. It’s important to consider the rule of thirds when deciding on horizon placement in an image.

If your sky is dramatic and more interesting than the earth or sea, use the bottom rule of thirds line. If the foreground is the most important part of the image, place the horizon on the top rule of thirds line.

Placing the horizon in the centre of an image reduces interest and makes the composition dull.

Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds – and how easy it is

That said, a horizontal line does work in the centre of the image with reflections. But even then, just because you have a row of trees reflected in a lake, you don’t have to make your image symmetrical. Symmetry is a conscious photography composition decision.

Further reading: Using symmetry in photography composition for great results

How to photograph horizontal lines

There are a couple of really important things to watch out for when photographing horizontal lines. One is essential and the other is a composition decision:

  1. Keeping it straight
  2. Camera orientation

1. Keeping it straight

The most important thing to remember with horizontal lines in photography is to ensure that the lines are level. When horizontals are not straight, the image feels unbalanced and unsettling. It has a feeling of tipping over.

When looking through the viewfinder of your camera, use the gridlines to make sure you’re holding your camera level. If you don’t have this feature set up, I highly recommend it. It’s really easy and you’ll find instructions in your manual on how to do it.

I find gridlines particularly handy when I’m in some sort of crazy position. I might think that I’m holding the camera straight, but because I’m not level, I often get it wrong if I don’t line up the grid with horizontals in the image.

Also, I have an annoying tendency to over-rotate the camera when holding it in portrait orientation. So I rely on the grid a lot.

If you find that you’ve not held your camera straight, you can easily fix it in post production by rotating the image slightly. Obviously, you want to avoid this though, as when you rotate the image, you crop out and lose some of the scene.

Further reading: Cropping photos for maximum impact and better composition

2. Camera orientation

Speaking of camera orientation, photographing a scene with horizontal lines in a landscape orientation emphasizes the horizontal lines and makes them appear longer.

On the other hand, photographing horizontal lines in portrait orientation, makes it appear as if there are more lines.

Further reading: Portrait vs landscape – which is better?

Repeating horizontal lines frames the dogs' noses

Practicing horizontal lines in photography composition

Getting out to practice photographing horizontal lines is also a great exercise in becoming aware of how you’re holding your camera. When you’re aware of horizontal lines in photography composition, you pay more attention to keeping your camera level.

Further reading: How to hold a camera correctly for sharp photos

When photographing horizontal lines, think about what you’re emphasizing with lines in composition:

  • Foreground
  • Background
  • Layers
  • Depth
  • Pattern
  • Length of lines
  • Number of lines

Further reading on using lines in photography composition:

7 types of lines in photography composition and how to use them

Using vertical lines in photography composition

How to use diagonal lines in photography composition

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If you have any questions or suggestions about using horizontal lines in photography composition, let us know in the comments. I love to hear your ideas!

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