One question that comes up in just about every workshop is, where do I put the horizon (or in more general terms, where do I break my frame)? Behind these questions seems to be a feeling (fear?) that there’s one “best” way to treat a scene. And I’ve noticed that many beginning photographers are constrained by two “rules” they’ve heard at their camera club or online:
In general, when someone tells you that you should “always” do this, or “never” do that, run (don’t walk) to the nearest exit: If you’re not breaking rules, you’re not being creative. While well-intended advice like this might benefit the person who automatically puts everything in the center, most people who have owned a camera for more than a day are way beyond that point. And this 1/3 from the top or bottom of the frame thing? Forget about it. I have no problem giving 80 percent, 90 percent, or even more of my frame to my sky or foreground, and neither should you.
Here’s my (comprehensive) list of guidelines for how to split your frame:
That’s it. If your scene is all about the clouds, put the horizon in the bottom half and celebrate the clouds—the better the sky (or the less interesting the foreground), the lower the horizon can go. Conversely, if the sky is boring, by all means, minimize it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a sky and foreground of equal beauty, feel free to split the frame.
It’s important not to overthink these creative choices. Freeing yourself from rules creates more room for your instincts to take over. (And by all means, feel free to deviate from my frame splitting guideline to.) We all the see the world a little differently, and where I choose to put my horizon may be completely different from where you put yours. Just trust your instincts (and if you’re not sure, shoot it different ways and decide later).
About this image
I just returned from Kauai, where I helped my friend Don Smith with his workshop there. For our penultimate sunrise we were at Lydgate Beach, between Lihue and Kapaa. I like to find relationships between the elements in my frame and often struggle at Lydgate because there’s just so much going on here: rocks in the surf, driftwood on the beach, and a point of land that juts in on the left (I have a thing about stuff sticking into my frame). But the sky this morning was so beautiful that I forced myself to find something that worked.
Avoiding the driftwood because it was just a pile of logs to my eye (though others in the group found nice images there), I set up in front of a group of rocks protruding from the surf just up the beach. Orienting my camera vertically, I was able to avoid the intruding point on the left, and the heap of logs on the right.
The clouds that morning wouldn’t stay still, but just as the color started to kick in a large cumulus cloud aligned perfectly with my foreground. Wanting to smooth the surf, I dialed my ISO to 50 and stopped down to f/16, then used my Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to subdue the bright sky and brighten the surf with a 5-second shutter speed. I oriented my polarizer to maximize the color reflecting on the water.
Just as I avoid having objects intrude from outside my frame, I avoid (as much as possible) cutting objects off at the borders as well. To include all of my cumulus cloud and as much colorful sky and surf as possible, I went as wide as possible (16mm) and put the horizon in the middle. Over the next minute or so I clicked about a half dozen frames before recomposing, monitoring the waves and timing my clicks to capture a variety of wave action. I chose this frame for the way the diagonal line of spreading surf (more or less) mirrors the clouds.
(Note how many of these scenes break the “rule” of thirds)