Level horizons and the bull’s red rag

Level horizons are really just the tip of a critical iceberg. Here’s why you should consider going straight.

Why your pictures should have level horizons, or, how squint horizons are really just the tip of a critical iceberg.

One of the things photographers are conditioned to do from an early stage is to ensure the horizons (or any other obvious lines) in their pictures are level and parallel with the edge of the frame. For many critics, it’s a complete deal breaker. A horizon out of true is enough for them to dismiss the picture out of hand as entirely worthless.

As that photographer, it can be frustrating to see one’s work dismissed so quickly without spending time looking at the many redeeming features of an otherwise crooked view.

Leaning towards the constructive

Kevin and Diana, 2007

So, how do we approach the tilted horizon more constructively? And what are the implications for photographic critique as a whole?

It’s very easy for a critique to traverse a whole range of accusations, tending towards the more personal as it proceeds:

Level expectations

“We see horizons as level so our natural expectation is that pictures also should be level”.

Well, maybe so but photography has created a set of expectations, amongst them the treatment of horizons. Levelling out your horizons is just “how it is”.

Leaving aside considerations of creativity, there is a justifiable reason for expecting straightness in our distant vistas. Since our eyes are placed side by side, horizontal lines perform a useful role in keeping us upright. So if we encounter a picture, particularly a landscape, where our balance feels subverted by an out of kilter perspective, we tend to feel a little uncomfortable.

If we notice, of course. It is noticeable that less experienced viewers of images may not even spot the diversion from the level. Or if they do, they discount it somewhat. But for the time being, let’s roll with the”Level Horizon Rule”. We can add it to that other spurious requirement, the Rule of Thirds.

But is that sufficient to get our slopey photographer to change the way they do things? Can we help them out a bit more to fit in with the flat crowd?

Skewed impact

If pressed, the reviewer of your photographs might expand on the “just get it level” message:

“Horizon lines are an obvious line to match the picture edge. If the horizon droops, it looks wrong and loses impact. Once you notice it you can’t stop looking at it and not at the rest of the picture”.

And arguably, this is undeniable. After all, I’d been looking at that picture of Kevin and Diana above for over 12 years. Only this year have I considered straightening it out even more than I already had. (Oh yes, it was really squint to start with. On purpose, or course.) People who have seen the picture comment more about the angle and less about the subject matter, the lighting, the location and so on. Maybe something had to change.

Tilting the table

What really triggered my change of heart about a picture I had already created was this further consideration:

“If the photographer hasn’t taken care to spot a sloping horizon, how carefully has he looked at the rest of the picture?”

And this swung it for me. The risk was that obvious “failing” in one image would affect how my other pictures were viewed. The fact that the image was already a considered creation didn’t matter. I really didn’t want viewers of my images to concentrate on searching for flaws in other pictures of mine.

Making the adjustment

Kevin and Diana, 2007

Here’s a more conventionally angled image. It still looks a little strange to me. Twelve years is a long time to get used to a picture. However, does it still work? I left the original somewhat tilted on purpose. I wanted to exaggerate the the awkwardness of the subjects. Good friends of mine, they clearly wanted to co-operate with the photographer, but they’d really rather I didn’t bother! Hence the strange angle, the distance between them, their “wrong” position in the frame, the misty background, the matching sunglasses, the mildly amused looks, even the way they are standing – all adding up to a gently uncomfortable but affectionate portrait.

Now, the straightened horizon removes one of the disconcerting elements, but not so much as to ruin the atmosphere. Viewers no longer worry about me flouting convention. They start considering all those other elements.

Level horizons: implications for critique

OK, so level horizons are mostly a photographic convention. If we’re helping a photographer see for themselves how to improve their images, we need to be careful how we provide feedback. Especially if we think that a spirit level could be a handy addition to their kit.

We need as ever to consider the intentions behind the image. Whether expressed explicitly by the photographer or implicitly by our reading of the picture, we need to restate them before offering suggestions.

Most importantly, we must frame our suggestions in the context of those intentions. You could have told me many times over that my horizon (and the houses and the sea wall) were all over the place. But until you tell me that my overall intention would be greatly improved by straightening it out, the message simply would not have got through.


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