How to choose horizon placement in your photos
While framing your photo or a 3d composition, there is a struggle within an artist/photographer's mind as to where the horizon should be placed. Most seasoned photographers shoot at least 3 variations of their photos where the landscape is qualifying; high, low and mid horizon. Before we talk about all 3 and of course the "no horizon" scenario, let's talk about exposure.
Exposure at different horizon levels: The most important yet an ignored topic in my opinion. Exposure changes dramatically between land and sky, while the sun is still up. Yes, magic light, cloudy overcast and other dramatic indirect lighting scenarios (volcanic ash backdrops, auroras etc.) provide a more stable exposure environment but nevertheless, most of the shots occur with either the sun or the moon in the sky. While the horizon is low, exposure has to be dialled down and dialled up when the horizon is high up in the frame.Snow is an exception and inverse is true while shooting snowfields. Exposure can be manipulated by shutter speed, size of aperture & ISO level. Pros will mostly manipulate expose using shutter speed first, aperture next and ISO at the end while shooting landscape to get the best picture. Yes there is the exposure button on our cameras, complete with exposure lock, auto exposure etc. One should not hesitate to use them where required. This automatically adjusts the settings I just talked about if you do not want to do it manually or while shooting in priority modes.
Filters & Horizons: Situations where you cannot avoid harsh sun demand you to use filters. UV and darkening filter (ND or neutral density filters). A neutral density filter blocks the amount of light entering the camera thus allowing a photographer to work beyond what he/she can do with ISO, Shutter and aperture settings. Example is a waterfall which you desire to shoot in silky smooth motion in full daylight. You dialled the smallest aperture, lowest ISO and now comes the question of shutter speed. You want it slow, but this will overexpose your shot. Hence you use a ND filter and block more light to allow for a slower shutter. Similarly a harsh sun requires agraduated neutral-density filter in most cases, that blocks the sky more than the ground. You can reverse the filter while using in snow or other desert conditions where the ground is reflecting more light than what the sky is refracting.
A word on composition: What is your subject while shooting a landscape? is it a bustling city you want to capture, then most probably you will use a high horizon or no horizon focusing from a high point, capturing the city life. Some rocks on the beach demand the same composition. If its a dramatic sunset, it can be a low horizon or something in the middle. Low and high horizon using the rule of thirds leads to some very ideal photography but not to say you should not experiment. In essence, your composition and subject will decide where your horizon sits. Most shots look distasteful where the horizon is tilted, but not to say that a curved horizon (especially sea scapes) does'nt look fabulous.
Low Horizon: While you want to focus on what's going on in the sky, you would best use a low horizon. If you want to show how a column of Nimbus is battering down the land below with rain and lightning, this is an ideal setting. So if your subject is up in the sky, like a jet buzzing past over a city or an eagle soaring over the cliffs, Low is where you place it. Some exceptions are where the subject is to be shown in relation to the background in view. A bird looking up at the clouds, a turtle crawling on the beach while lightning strikes the ground. In other words, the sky has to be interesting in order to choose a low horizon.
A low set horizon
High Horizon: Subjects down on earth are best appreciated with a high horizon although again there are exceptions. The question is what message you want the photo to convey and what story you want to tell through your composition. An uninteresting sky should almost always favour a high horizon. If you want to show details on the foreground, you would ideally choose a high horizon. An interesting beach arrangement with clouds just on the horizon is a common example.
Horizon set high
Mid horizon is almost never that interesting as it does not create an interesting composition, but again, some people are real good in making an attractive composition with the horizon sitting right in the middle. In any given scenario a low or high horizon always enhance the image further. My favourite photos for mid horizon are autumn lanes but then you can argue that the trees/foliage cover almost all of the sky and thus the question of horizon is nullified. I would take the visible end of the lane as the horizon in these cases.
Somewhere in the middle
No horizon: While your entire subject of interest is on the ground or up in the sky, you can do away with the horizon, leading to a more stable exposure and an easier to manage composition. These images hardly fit into the landscape category. Colourful pebbles on the beach with a beautiful coral reef can be shot all on its own without the sky. This is true especially on clear skies where you have nothing but a gradient blue yonder. Another example is a night sky filled with stars while the earth is dark and uninteresting.
What are your thoughts? I am sure there are a lot of creative people out there with a lot more ideas, please share in comments below.