You Cannot Argue With The Horizon

on July 14, 2022

It has been here a lot longer than you, knows what it is doing, and will easily outlast you. Make friends with it, and treat it with some respect.

We have all seen the seascape or landscape photo with the tilted horizon - often in our own photographs. The landscape ones are harmless enough, but if you tilt the ocean, a lot of water rushes off one way or the other. That's how you get tidal waves. Take care.

The thing about the horizon in a photograph is that, like cockroaches, it is always there - even if you cannot see it. You may see the seascape with the edge of the ocean out there in the sun and think that the horizon is something that only happens outdoors. Not so - it is there in every indoor photo you take, no matter what the subject is. You might not see the curved straight line that is the edge of the Earth, but it is there and it sees you.

Think. Every scene you see - and we'll put the camera down and just look now - has objects that are level - or would be level if they were not fiddled with. Your breakfast table has cups, saucers, bowels, and plates. Breakfast food too, if you're lucky - but even if the containers are empty they all have a top and bottom surface that is on the level. And each level points to one thing - the horizon. It can be totally imaginary, but still be there - and where it is depends upon whether you are low down in a hole or high up in a tower.

If you tilt it - even if you cannot see it - something inside you says " no ". If the objects on the table are pointing to a false position for the horizon - perhaps you put lumps of sugar under the plates and bowls to tilt them more or less - the inner voice still says " no ".

The successful shot harmonises the position of the horizon - seen or unseen - for all elements in the image. Past that - with the deliberate distortions of drawing or painting - you pass into the realm of the comic book or constructivist Dada. You will be aided in your efforts by both the designers of modern digital cameras and makers of tinky little accessories. In the case of the first group, the major camera makers all seem to incorporate some form of artificial horizon indicator somewhere in the camera menu. You opt to turn it on and a coloured line appears in the centre of the viewfinder or LCD display that tilts like an aircraft instrument to indicate where the real horizon lies. When you get it right it rewards you by changing colour. Fancier camera makers incorporate a similar indication - rather like the dash of a light plane - that indicates also when the camera is dipped forward or tilted back. Very, very useful, and well worth the attention you may pay it when framing your shot. Users of wide-angle lenses in particular benefit from the fore-and-aft indicator as it allows them to avoid the keystone effect with product and architecture. Note: I have yet to see a scientific study of perception that determines the limit to which an average viewer will accept the keystone effect in a portrait or group shot before they notice it - and reject it from the proofs. Paper for a photography student to research and write? Would careful attention here up your strike rate for picture orders? As a person who takes pictures of the fronts of cars, tanks, airplanes, and camera boxes, I would also welcome some way to know that the subject is flat square to the camera axis, as well as being good with tilt and dive. And an auto measurement of the subject that beeped me when I got it right would be nice. Heck, the makers claim to base exposures on thousands of in-built patterns that the cameras use to judge the light...why not the same looking at building fronts and cornflake packets? I do miss the back of the 4 x 5 Linhof and the cosy dark cloth... Note: This post was originally written for my free photographic column, but is good enough to get paid for. Second Note: The studio has hot water again. Superb job by local plumbers. Anyone needing their name, just message me.