There are many sources of information that tell the photographer that the best place for the horizon is on one of the two imaginary horizontal lines that divide the picture into thirds. It is true that many photographs I have taken do seem to conform to this convention such as the picture of Scarborough seafront below.
In the Scarborough photograph the horizon is placed on the imaginary line that defines the upper third of the picture (two-thirds from the bottom) and all is well. This picture was not taken with this explicitly in mind at the time, it just felt natural for this compostion.
Adding more interest
The ‘comfort’ of having the horizon on the two-thirds line is balanced by the dynamic diagonal lead-in formed by the railings and walkway that takes the viewer to the extreme left of the picture before the eye is led back across to the bottom of the cliff where it meets the sea.
A subconscious emotional journey is taken through the picture with the viewer being led right out of the frame by the diagonal before being brought back to rest on the horizon line where order is restored at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical thirds.
It is my belief that we all share an understanding of the ‘rightness’ of this placement because we are surrounded by images and designed objects that use this composition element.
This immersion has given us all a visual literacy so we may respond positively to a picture that employs this technique without being aware of why.
Lead-ins are a composition technique I use a great deal. For me the purpose of a lead-in is to draw the viewer into the picture by guiding the eye. In a landscape context our eyes look to the ground so we know where it is safe to walk. Placing a lead-in in the bottom foreground of the picture plays to this fact and is a strong cue for the viewer to start to examine the image from a familiar perspective and you are led into the picture.
This structure feels familiar and allows the viewer to navigate the rest of the picture. Composition is therefore about understanding and evolving patterns that help guide the viewer through the image and engaging the viewer’s attention.
Let’s look at a picture that seems completely different:
I still think of this as a landscape picture, (I’m interested in what you think so please do leave a comment). This is a less conventional image, the only familiar reference point is the sky. There is nowhere to imagine yourself walking in this picture so I felt less constrained to have the lead-in in just one place. Now the lead-in lines dominate the picture radiating inwards from all the edges and command the attention to the crown in the middle top. Once the eye has lingered there it moves to the background and the familiarity provided by the blue sky and white clouds. The interpretation then moves from abstract pattern to some structure that is in the open air, a construction in the landscape.