Real and “Apparent” Horizons

and Other Composition Thoughts….

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Yesterday I made a regular visit to Shenandoah National Park where I’m a volunteer photographer. While there I went to Big Meadows, one of my regular stops, and visited “my pine” (told my wife long ago to scatter my ashes here).

Big Meadows is an large open area perched atop the heavily forested Blue Ridge mountains. It provides numerous photo ops and also poses a composition issue dealing with horizons. We know (or should) that unless you’re trying to make an “artistic statement” horizons should be level. There is nothing that screams MISTAKE louder than a slightly off-level horizon. So what does that have to do with Big Meadows?

Since the meadows are on a mountain, they are not level – we’re not talking the great plains of the mid-west that are as flat as the proverbial pancake. No matter which direction you point your camera in the meadows, you’re looking at a slope on the horizon. The worst slopes compositionally are the ones that slope only a few degrees. The decision you’re faced with is –

  • Do I keep my camera level and risk having the result look like the mistake of a careless photographer?, or
  • Do I align my camera with the apparent horizon?

I no longer agonize over this decision. Unless there is a compelling reason to use the “real” horizon, I line up my viewfinder with the horizon that I see, the apparent one. (Note, one compelling reason might be a situation where there is an obvious vertical reference in the picture frame such as a building, pole, person,…..)

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Here’s an illustration of the situation I faced yesterday. The top image uses the true horizon as measured with a bubble-level attached to the camera’s hot shoe (a permanent fixture on my camera when doing landscapes;  there’s a level built into my tripod, too, but that simply tells me the tripod is level;  the camera is on a ball head at the top of the tripod and could just as easily be skewed 45 degrees to the side). The slope isn’t large – just enough to be problematical. The vertical references (trees) are ambiguous – but they do provide enough of a clue to allow you to get away with the upper image. The bottom image shows how I prefer to shoot the scene. If you’re not standing right there and thus know the meadow slopes down to the right, who cares that you rotated your camera.

Please ignore the poor exposure (blown clouds) of the top image. I was so engrossed in showing the horizon accurately that I forgot to check the resulting exposure. Images are infrared made with a Nikon D70 converted for infrared. Go here for more on digital IR photography.

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I preach “work the subject” and made quite few from this spot – horizontal, vertical, varying horizon locations, color, IR – before moving to another angle and starting over. What I was looking for at each spot was some foreground interest as well as the cloud formations that were building in advance of late day thunderstorms. Related to the clouds, the angle of the sun played a role in selecting a spot from which to shoot – I wanted an angle to the sun where my polarizer would have near maximum effect to “pop the clouds”.

I stopped at the spot of the above images because of a deer trail that gave a nice leading line, as well as interest of its own. Also there were a few vibrant pink wildflowers at the lower right which would capture the viewer’s eye in the color version (but was of little value in the IR). Similar points of interest dictated other shooting spots as I circled “my pine”. The camera is about 18 inches above the ground – I wanted to be looking through the grass and not down on it.

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Here are three more images from the same vantage point as above. The next one shows a further “level” issue as the horizon isn’t actually straight – it levels near the upper left and then starts down to the left. Life is full of compromises 😉

The above image is my preferred IR taken at this spot – it’s intentionally underexposed to heighten the notion of an impending storm (click to enlarge although the detail at this web-resolution isn’t great in any case).

The above image emphasizes the meadow and especially the deer trail leading us to the pine and beyond (to where?, some mystery to enable the viewer’s imagination is good). While the horizontals could be said to do the same there’s too much meadow in them, for my taste, which detracts from the story of the trail. The next vertical, because of the lower placement of the horizon, is more about the sky than the meadow.  Had my intended story been about the impending storm this image may have been the better choice, but it wasn’t.

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To round out the example images taken at this spot, here’s a color version – pretty (maybe) but without the drama of the black & white. It might be the image of choice for the park service when they use my work in newsletters and brochures, but for a personal exhibit I’d pick the IR. Different strokes…… and that’s why shooting many versions of the same subject is important.

3 thoughts on “Real and “Apparent” Horizons

  1. I really enjoyed your discussion. I have found myself in the same dilemma as you where the horizon is not straight, and often just enough to notice, and tried to sort out what to do. This article gives some good advice. Thanks!

  2. I’m going to tatoo “Work The Subject” on my shooting hand. It’s that improtant.
    Each shot is unique in it’s own way.
    Thanks, Travis

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