Using Horizontal Lines in Your Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Using Horizontal Lines in Your Photography

by David Peterson 2 comments

Diagonal lines lead the eye, vertical lines imply strength, height and majesty, now what about horizontal lines? We use horizontal lines in our photography probably more than we even realize. Almost every landscape photograph has a horizontal line, or at least an implied horizontal line—and that’s the horizon. But you can find horizontal lines in other places too, and you can use them to create different moods and emotions in your photos. Keep reading to find out how.

[ Top image a storm is coming... by Flickr user milena mihaylova]

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ18
  • 100
  • f/6.3
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 82.8 mm

A March Day by Flickr user WherezJeff

What horizontal lines mean

Because the horizon is something steadfast in our world, it also has a very deep emotional meaning for pretty much everyone who looks at it. The horizon is stable, dependable and immovable, and because it is the ultimate in horizontal lines, all lesser horizontal lines take on that meaning, too.

Horizontal lines are also relaxing and quiet. Think of it like this: when you lay down at night to go to sleep, what sort of line does your body resemble? No one sleeps vertically—we sleep horizontally, and so those horizontal lines can make us feel calm and comfortable, even sleepy.

Unlike vertical lines, horizontal lines aren’t vulnerable. They can never tip or fall over. Like the horizon, they’re stable and dependable.

Like a vertical line, the meaning behind a horizontal line is somewhat dependent on its thickness—thinner lines seem more fragile than thicker lines do, so while you still get a sense of stability there is also a fragility to any image of very fine horizontal lines.

  • Kodak EasyShare Camera, M583
  • 200
  • 5.7
  • 1/5
  • 40.6 mm

Untitled by Flickr user dno1967b

How to photograph horizontal lines

Regardless of where you actually place them in the frame, horizontal lines act as dividers, breaking an image apart into separate portions. In a landscape, this is generally the sky in the top portion and the land in the bottom portion, with the horizon acting as that divider. But a similar thing will happen even in a non-landscape photo, with that strong horizontal line dividing the image in two parts, and with any additional horizontal lines dividing it into smaller sections.

To emphasize a horizontal line or to lengthen it, you should shoot your photograph in a horizontal or “landscape” orientation. You can always break this rule, of course—horizontals shot in a vertical or “portrait” orientation will look more numerous; in other words, you’ll be emphasizing quantity over any other qualities those lines may have. That vertical orientation can also give your viewer the impression that the horizontal lines are so long that you simply couldn’t capture the entire length within the frame.

One thing that it’s really important to get right with horizontal lines—especially the horizon itself—is how straight they are. The horizon is always straight. Yes, it can be broken apart or disrupted by things that are in front of it (trees, mountains etc.) but the horizon itself is always a perfectly straight line—look out at the ocean for confirmation of that fact. Humans feel uncomfortable when we view crooked horizontal lines, for the simple reason that the ultimate horizontal line (the horizon) is never, ever going to be crooked unless something is horribly wrong with the universe.

So you need to make sure that your horizontal lines are just as straight as the horizon—many cameras have a grid system that you can turn on or off in the viewfinder—if yours does, make sure it’s switched on and use those lines to ensure that your horizons (and all other horizontal lines) are dead straight. You can also use a tripod with a built-in bubble level to get this right.

If you don’t get it exactly straight, don’t worry too much—it’s an easy correction to make in post processing but the reason why it’s a good idea to strive for straight horizontals in-camera is because you’ll lose some of your image after rotating (you need to crop off the crooked edges that are an unavoidable result of rotating a photo in post processing). So just in case there are details there you’d rather not lose, it’s important to try to get the image straight while you are on-scene.


    Urban Scenery : Quite Horizontal by Flickr user I LIKE IT SIMPLE

    Where to find horizontal lines

    We’ve already discussed the ultimate in horizontal lines—the horizon, which is going to be steadfastly present no matter where you are, though you may have any number of mountains or other objects obscuring it. You can always find a perfect horizontal line on the surface of water, or the edge of a pond, lake or the ocean. You can find them in other parts of the landscape, too. But if you want a less organic type of horizontal line, you can look to the manmade world. Fences, buildings, roads—these manmade objects will all contain strong horizontals, but I do want to caution you against shooting horizontals just for their own sake. A road, for example, almost always looks better when shot as a diagonal because diagonal and converging lines give an image a sense of depth and dimension.

    If you’re going to shoot horizontals alone, you need to have a good reason for doing so—strong geometric patterns, for example, or multiple horizontal lines that give your image a sense of layering. Layering different parts of a scene can help add a sense of depth to the photograph, and it can also give the shot a sense of rhythm. Think about how the different horizontal lines might work on a beach scene, for example—you can capture the beach itself, followed by several rows of surf, followed by the horizon between sky and water. Depending on the weather you may even find horizontal lines in the clouds. All those different layers make for an image that appears three-dimensional and also has its own kind of organic geometry.

    Remember that you can also add other lines to your composition—breaking apart those horizontals with a few verticals or diagonals can add interest to your scene, but beware of too many lines traveling in too many different directions, as you could end up with an image that looks complicated and chaotic instead of soothing and relaxing.


    The Stairs | Barcelona, Spain by Flickr user traveliphonephotography

    And you can include non-geometric objects in the composition as well—adding a human being to an image composed mostly of geometric lines, for example, is a great way to break up the regularity of those lines and give your viewer’s eye a focus point.

    Composition

    Make sure you remember the rule of thirds, especially when you are photographing the horizon. Most of the time, you’re going to want to place your horizon on either the top 1/3rd horizontal or the bottom one (divide your scene up into three imaginary horizontal portions of equal size, and place your horizon along one of those dividers). Which one you choose depends on the scene itself—if you have a very strong, dramatic sky with lots of clouds and colors, you might want to place the horizon on the bottom line; if you have a foreground that has more impact (with a plain, blue sky or one with few clouds) it might be better to place your horizon on the top line. An exception to this rule would be a scene that has a very strong symmetrical composition—if there’s a reflection of a mountain in a lake, for example, you might want to put that dividing line between the surface of the lake and the mountain in the center of the frame instead of on a 1/3rd line.

    When shooting photos in which the horizon is not present, look for pattern and a strong sense of geometry—lines that repeat or that become increasingly small or large all make for interesting compositions. Again, we think of diagonal lines as the gold standard for leading a viewer’s eye into the photograph, but you can do the same thing with a series of horizontal lines—if those horizontal lines increase in thickness towards the front of the image and decrease in thickness as they disappear into the distance, even an image that contains nothing but horizontals can still have a very strong sense of depth and dimension.

    • Olympus E-M5
    • 200
    • f/4.0
    • 0.003 sec (1/400)
    • 17 mm

    On The Stairs by Flickr user EJP Photo

    And don’t forget that line can be implied, too—a row of people, for example, isn’t exactly a perfect horizontal line, but it can successfully imply a horizontal line even when the tops of all those heads don’t line up precisely. So you don’t have to use horizontals in the strict sense of the word, if you spend some time looking around you’ll also find implied, temporary horizontal lines as well.

    Conclusion

    Spend some time walking around with your camera and looking only for horizontal lines—you’ll likely start to notice them in places you ordinarily would have overlooked. Now ask yourself how you can create an image that not only makes the best use out of those horizontals, but also incorporates other lines and elements in a way that doesn’t mar the meaning of the horizontal lines. If the image starts to become too chaotic, you’re getting away from the relaxed and stable feeling that those horizontal lines have naturally, so as with nearly every subject some minimalism is going to help your composition. Keep it simple and try to take some photos that are about line first, with other elements coming in as supporting characters. If you spend some time thinking this way on purpose, it won’t be very long before those wonderful horizontals will present themselves to you when you’re not even looking for them.

    Summary

    1. The meaning of horizontal lines
      • Stability
      • Relaxation and peace
    2. Horizontal orientation
      • Emphasizes length
    3. Vertical orientation
      • Implies the infinite
    4. Composition
      • Keep horizontals straight
      • Use the rule of thirds, especially for the natural horizon
      • Use other lines an objects to add interest
      • Look for patterns and a sense of geometry
    5. Where to find horizontals
      • The horizon
      • Perfect horizontals can be found in the man made world
      • Look for implied horizontal lines

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    Comments

    1. Joe Dexter says:

      Hi David
      Always good. Your articles frequently get me back to applying the basics. Thats a good thing. Often when a horizontal line is not quite "true" I just tweak the picture in LR and that leaves me with a vague concern that I might have actually lost some detail because of the frame rotation. Have never noticed this, but just wonder......
      Kind Regard
      j

      • David Peterson says:

        Yes, technically you'll lose a bit of sharpness when rotating small amounts. However, if you have a 6 megapixel camera, you won't see the difference in the final printout (or on the screen).

        David.

    2. Anna says:

      Thanks so much for this article. I have naturally done this in a lot of my photos but now I understand what I have instinctively done! I'm looking forward to getting to know my Nikon.

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