What is 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.
What types of horizontal lines are there?
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:
Horizontal lines don’t have to be actual lines. They can be implied lines, such as a row of flowers, or people or fruit
Horizontal lines need not be an exact, uninterrupted line. 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.
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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 is 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.
How to use horizontal lines
There are many ways we can use horizontal lines in composition to add interest to an image. These include:
Have you ever looked down on rows of vines or wheat with the rows running horizontally in front of you? It is a very compelling site and you find your eye skipping from one row to the next until the end. It works 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.
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.
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.
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 is 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.
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 lines break up your image, you need to be aware of placement. It’s important to consider the rule of thirds when deciding on where to place the horizon 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 when creating 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 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:
- Keeping it straight
- Camera orientation
1. Keeping it straight
The most important thing to remember when incorporating horizontal lines into an image 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 it 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 lose some of the scene.
2. Camera orientation
Speaking of camera orientation, photographing a scene with horizontal lines in landscape orientation emphasizes the horizontal lines and makes them appear long.
On the other hand, photographing horizontal lines in portrait orientation, makes it appear as if there are more lines.
Practicing horizontal lines
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.
Think about what it is you’re emphasizing with lines in composition:
- Length of lines
- Number of lines