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Design & Style

How to Use Linear Perspective With Horizon Lines

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

The horizon line in a photograph is the visual boundary at which the skyline intersects with a flat surface of the earth, like the ocean. The horizon line can be used to emphasize different parts of a photograph. For example, placing a horizon line in the lower third of a photograph guides the viewer’s eye above the horizon, and can be used to emphasize something like a dramatic sky. A high horizon line tells the viewer to pay attention to the foreground of the image.

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What Is a Horizon Line in Photography?

A horizon line in photography is the literal line in a photograph across which the horizon travels. Horizons are the vanishing point where water or land meets sky, forming a natural line that anchors and divides a photograph.

  • Horizon lines in outdoor photography are natural and obvious: they are the point at which the sky intersects the ocean or land.
  • In indoor photography, horizon lines become “eye lines,” or dividing lines, parallel to the ground. These lines intersect with perpendicular objects. For example, the path of an apartment building’s hallway will ultimately intersect with the wall that forms its boundary.

What Is the Difference Between a Horizon Line and an Eye-Level Line?

A horizon line is a type of eye-level line. Eye-level lines refer to the natural point of perspective drawing a viewer’s eye into a photograph. Horizon lines are a natural type of line to guide the viewer’s eye level. As a rule of thumb, outdoor photographs utilize horizon lines, while indoor photographs utilize another type of eye-level line, often based on ceilings, floors, and walls.

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2 Ways to Use Horizon Lines in Photography

Horizon lines have two principal functions in a photograph: acting as a dividing point, and helping draw the viewer’s eye by emphasizing certain subjects or sections of the photograph.

  1. Horizon lines as dividing points. A horizon line helps communicate depth and point of view in a photograph by utilizing the natural visual boundary between the sky and the surface of the earth.
  2. Horizon lines to emphasize subjects. Photographers can intentionally place horizon lines in different locations in a photograph to emphasize different things. A photograph of a dramatic sky or storm, for example, will have a low horizon line in order to draw the viewer’s eye to what is happening above it. A high horizon line emphasizes what is happening in the foreground of the image.

How to Determine Horizon Lines

The earth’s true horizon line is a straight line. The actual horizon is the point at which the skyline appears to intersect with a flat surface of the earth, be it over the ocean or on solid ground. However, it is possible to present the horizon line askew, to show it as not the absolute straight, flat line that it is. This is part of the artistic choices that a photographer must make. For example, war photography often depicts the horizon line askew: this captures the real-world perspective of individuals in trenches whose bodies are positioned in ways that do not allow them to see the horizon as a straight line.

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3 Different Horizon Line Placements in Photographs

Where you choose to position the horizon line in a photograph is important. For example, photographs of the exact same sunset over the exact same point on the coast will appear very different depending on where a photographer chooses to position the horizon line.

  1. If the horizon line is at the very top of the frame, or the upper third of the photograph, the emphasis is on the ocean and its expanse.
  2. If the horizon line is at the very bottom of the frame, or the lower third of the photograph, the emphasis is on the sky and any objects visible (like birds or clouds).
  3. If the horizon line is positioned in the middle of the frame, or the middle third of the photograph, the emphasis is on the intersection of the ocean and sky. This can be used for various artistic effects: for example, showing a balance between the earthly and the celestial.

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