In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Where Should You Place the Horizon in Landscape Photographs?

Clouds and reflections, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite

(A) Clouds and reflections, Tenaya Lake, Yosemite

At Tenaya Lake last week my workshop student and I watched and photographed a spectacular, constantly-changing cloud display for over two hours. I made many images, including the one at the top of this post (you can see two more here and here). With the lake in the foreground every composition included a prominent horizon line, so I was often thinking about where to place the horizon in the frame.

It’s not always an easy decision. If you’ve ever read any books on composition you probably learned about the rule of thirds. And when applied to horizons this means you should place the horizon a third of the way from the top or bottom of the photograph. And you probably also read that you should, at all costs, avoid putting the horizon in the center of the frame.

As many of you already know, I’m not a big fan of the rule of thirds. It’s too restrictive, too limiting when applied to the infinite number of possible subjects and situations a photographer can encounter. It’s useful sometimes, but shouldn’t be taken as dogma.

I think this applies to horizons as well. Sometimes putting the horizon a third of the way from the top or bottom works. Sometimes it’s better to ignore the rule and put the horizon right in the middle, or near the top or bottom of the frame.


Embracing Uncertainty

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 1


The future is uncertain, so we try to control it by planning. We think that if we do A and B the result will be C. But sometimes there are too many variables that we can’t account for, so the result might not be C—it could be D, or E, or even Z.

Photographers often try to plan. We imagine that if we go to a certain location at a certain time we’ll capture a certain photograph. Sometimes this works, but frequently the weather doesn’t cooperate or conditions aren’t right.

I’ve been trying to embrace uncertainty lately, both in my day-to-day life and in my photography. Rather than attempting to control everything, I’m opening my mind to the possibility that unexpected events could be good—that on any day, or any moment, something surprising but wonderful could happen.

A few afternoons ago Claudia and I were in the Yosemite high country near Tuolumne Meadows. We had planned to meet up with a friend, but somehow we missed finding her, so we found ourselves in this beautiful area with no particular plans. And a thunderstorm rolled through. Interesting weather always makes my photographic antennae perk up.

We ended up following the storm, hoping to see a rainbow, and eventually we did. But if a rainbow can be unexciting, this one was. Or at least my photographs of it were. This spur-of-the-moment plan actually worked—I found a rainbow. But the resulting photograph didn’t work.

Letting Go of the Plan

So guided by whim and the thought that hey, the light looks interesting over there, we headed up to Tioga Pass. I remembered a small reed-lined pond I’d been to before with reflections of Tioga Peak. I walked down there and found the expected mountain-reflected-in-pond photo—nice, but nothing special by my (high) standards.

I continued walking around the shore and spotted some clumps of reeds with interesting shapes and lines. A light bulb went off: the clouds overhead were about to catch fire with sunset colors, and would be reflected in the water surrounding these reeds. Light, color, and design all packaged neatly together—perfect.

I spent the next 20 minutes quickly composing and recomposing photographs of two beautifully-designed clumps of reeds. The clouds were moving, so I had to keep changing the camera position to juxtapose a group of reeds with the most interesting cloud reflection at that moment.

I can’t tell you how much fun this was. Every time I looked through the viewfinder I saw another beautiful scene, and all I had to do was compose and press the shutter, and occasionally check my histogram. Years of photographic training kicked in, and decisions about compositions and settings were almost instinctive. I wasn’t thinking about the future, or the past; I was completely absorbed in the present, concentrating on the beauty in front of me.

I liked these photographs much better than the more standard views I had made earlier that day. These images of the reeds and cloud reflections are abstract, which I like. Even better, they’re a little surreal and disorienting, creating the possibility of a visual surprise—a view of the world most people haven’t seen before.

I hadn’t planned to go to this spot. I just thought, hey, it might be interesting down there. I embraced uncertainty and something unexpected yet wonderful happened. In hindsight I felt I’d been led to that place, either by instinct or by forces beyond my consciousness.

Letting Go—Another Story

My friend William Neill wrote an enlightening article in Outdoor Photographer magazine about how he made Dawn, Lake Louise, probably my favorite image of his (among many great ones). He started with a plan, but when the weather didn’t cooperate he was able to let go of his preconceived idea and find something even better. Bill actually just posted the photo and full original article on his blog—a great read. I’ll give you just a little taste here:

“Rising very early on a summer morning, I hoped for a dramatic and brilliant sunrise on Lake Louise and the glaciers above.  Perhaps it was the two weeks of photographing in rainy conditions that biased my hopes!  I waited patiently for sunrise, but my preconceived vision failed to appear as persistent clouds shrouded the mountains. It was a silent and mysterious dawn.  I simply sat and soaked in the scene.  Finally, I made two exposures, but expected little. I completely forgot about this session during the rest of my trip.  When I saw the film after returning, I was amazed.  I had to think hard about when and where I had made this photograph.  Unconsciously, but facilitated by my experience and instinct, the power and magic of that landscape, at that moment, had come through on film.”

Planning is fine, and even necessary to a point. If Bill hadn’t planned to go to Lake Louise that morning he might have just slept in. But when your plan doesn’t work you have to be willing to adapt. And even if your plan does work you might find something better—if you’re open to other possibilities.

Your Stories and Comments

If you’ve embraced uncertainty and experienced your own moments of photographic serendipity I’d love to to hear about them, so please leave a comment—and include a link to the photo if possible.

Also, I like these photographs of reeds and cloud reflections a little too much, and can’t choose between them. So you can help me out by casting a vote for your favorite in the comments. My favorite is probably the image at the top of this post (no. 1), but it’s a close call. Thanks for your help!

 —Michael Frye

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 1

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 2

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 2

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 3

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 3

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 4

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 5

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 5

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 6

Reeds and Cloud Reflections no. 6

Related Posts: Capturing a Mood

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

2013 Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops Announced!

A January moonrise from Valley View, Yosemite

A January moonrise from Valley View, Yosemite

The Ansel Adams Gallery recently announced their 2013 workshops. I’m pleased to be teaching four Yosemite photography workshops for the Gallery next year—Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom: Mastering Lightroom (January); Spring Yosemite Digital Camera Workshop (April); Hidden Yosemite (July); and The Digital Landscape: Autumn in Yosemite (October).

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Lightroom because it’s simple, yet powerful—easy to use, but sophisticated enough to get great results with almost any image. Last January was the first time I taught a workshop specifically focused on this tool: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom: Mastering Lightroom. This class was popular, and a lot of fun, so we’ll be doing it again next January. Of course it’s not all computer work—the workshop includes field sessions to photograph snowy January landscapes, the rising full moon, and, if we’re lucky, clearing storms. I’m really looking forward to it!

The other three workshops—Spring Yosemite Digital Camera Workshop, Hidden Yosemite, and The Digital Landscape—have been very popular in the past, and sometimes fill quickly, so be sure to reserve space early.

And stay tuned… I’ll be announcing more workshops within the next month.


Photo Critique Series: Space and Separation in a Mt. Shasta Photograph

Mt. Shasta and Lake Siskiyou by Kyle Jones

Mt. Shasta and Lake Siskiyou by Kyle Jones

I know it’s been awhile since the last critique; it’s been hard to find the time lately. But many of you have told me how much you like the critiques, and I really appreciate that, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to do another one. I’m writing this critique, rather than doing it by video, because, well, it’s just easier. But I may still do video critiques again in the future.

The subject of this critique is a photo by Kyle Jones called “Mount Shasta and Lake Siskiyou,” from the far northern reaches of California. I think this image has some interesting things to teach us about space and separation in a composition, and shutter speeds for water.

Light and Weather

You’re looking north here, with the sun rising to the right (east) and illuminating Mt. Shasta. The low-angle sidelight creates some nice texture on the mountain ridges and highlights the cloud. The faint mist on the water adds a little early-morning mood. Conditions here weren’t extraordinary, but certainly more interesting than if the sky were clear and cloudless. Despite the cloud and mist the mood here is bright and sunny rather than dramatic or mysterious. It looks like this was made a little after sunrise, since the light was already hitting the trees on the left, so perhaps catching the very first light on the peak would have added a stronger mood—but I like the feeling of this photograph as it is.

Composition—Space and Separation

Kyle told me: “I arrived well before dawn and spent some time trying to find a composition I liked along with a shutter speed that looked good in the water. I wanted an ‘imperfect’ reflection with some ripples in the water and I didn’t want to blur the water with a long shutter speed. I took about 25 shots with just the water in the foreground before I found this rock. I thought it anchored the shot well and I liked the fact that the rock had some character. I took another dozen shots at various shutter speeds with this rock in the foreground, finally settling on this one as my favorite.”

Overall the composition in this photograph is simple, clean, and strong. All the main elements—cloud, mountain, reflection, and the foreground rock—stand out clearly, with little unnecessary clutter.

However, while I like simplicity, and rarely advocate including empty space in a photograph, in this case I think the composition is too tight. Three important elements have been cut off along the edges of the frame—the cloud, the reflection of the cloud in the water, and the reflection of the foreground rock.

Important objects along the edge of the frame need to be either completely included or cut off enough to show that you meant it. If just the edge of an object is missing it looks accidental, like you weren’t paying attention—which you probably weren’t! Here I yearn to see the whole shape of that cloud, and its reflection, and see the complete round shape of the rock and its reflection as well. Cutting off the edges of those elements makes the photograph feel cramped, and this mountain scene should feel majestic and expansive.

When composing a photograph our attention is often focused on the middle, and it’s easy to overlook the edges. To prevent this, try to get into the habit of running your eyes along the edge of the frame before you press the shutter. This effort will often reveal small distractions that could be excluded, or the edge of an important object that has been cut off. Since reflections aren’t “real” solid objects we often pay less attention to them, so make a conscious effort to pay extra attention to how reflected objects meet the edge of the frame, or merge with other objects.

Speaking of mergers, there’s one small one here between the foreground rock and the reflection of the cloud. It’s just as important to have separation between elements within the photograph as between objects and the edge of the frame. Here that separation could have been achieved by taking a step to the left, which would have moved the cloud reflection to the left relative to the rock, and given both the rock and the cloud reflection their own distinct shapes. Or moving far enough to the right could have placed the cloud reflection to the right of the rock.

Of course moving even further could have kept the rock out of the frame completely. While the rock isn’t bad, does it really add much to the photograph? It does “anchor” the image, as Kyle said, and adds some depth. But the photograph would be simpler without it, and the beautiful rippled reflection might be emphasized more if it wasn’t competing with the rock for attention.

Centering and Symmetry

The composition is quite symmetrical, both vertically and horizontally, with the horizon in the center, and the mountain centered left-to-right. I’m not a stickler for the rule of thirds, as every situation has its own logic, and sometimes the center is the best place to put your subject. With reflections, like the one in this photo, centering the horizon creates symmetry and repetition, as the bottom of the photograph mirrors the top, and this often works very well.

The problem here is that the image is not symmetrical—that foreground rock interrupts the symmetry and throws the image slightly off balance. If the rock is going to be in there I think it would work better to avoid that centered horizon and give the foreground, with the water and rock, a little more space than the sky. And by taking a step to the left and putting some separation between the rock and the cloud reflection, as I suggested above, you could move the mountain toward the left side of the frame and balance it with the rock on the right.

Again, of course, Kyle could have moved far enough left or right to keep the rock out of the frame, and then the symmetrical, centered composition might have worked better. But even then it wouldn’t be perfectly symmetrical, since the water was rippled, so perhaps putting the horizon a little above center and giving more emphasis to the interesting, wavy reflection might have been more dynamic.

Of course all of my suggestion here assume that Kyle could have used a wider lens. He told me this image was made with a 28-75mm lens at 28mm, but I’m pretty sure he owns shorter focal lengths than this. If not, vertical framing might have worked, though maybe only without the rock. Since the main points of interest are in the middle, a vertical orientation, eliminating some dead space on the right and left sides, would have been worth considering. To show the potential of that idea, I (crudely) cloned out the rock and cropped the sides. Imagine this as a vertical photograph, with a little more room at the top, and even more at the bottom:

Without the rock a vertical orientation might work (imagine a little more room at the top here, and even more room on the bottom)

Without the rock a vertical orientation might work (imagine a little more room at the top here, and even more room on the bottom)

Whenever you compose a photograph ask yourself, “What catches my eye the most? What do I really want to emphasize?” If I were standing in front of this scene my answer would have been, “The ripples.” Yes, there’s a big mountain out there, but the ripples are just gorgeous, and visually more interesting than anything else. I might have even zoomed in and made an abstract of just the water—something I did in a similar situation last year (see the second photo in this post). But if I was going to include the mountain then a vertical orientation, without the rock, would fill most of the frame with mountain, cloud, and rippled reflections, with a minimum of space devoted to less interesting elements.

Technical Considerations

The photo was made with a Canon XT camera on a tripod with a Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 lens at 28mm. It was shot at ISO 100, 1/10s, and f/7.1. Kyle says he’s sure he used a polarizer, and is pretty sure he used a Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-edge graduated neutral-density filter.

This version was processed in Lightroom 3. Kyle says that he used the Camera Standard profile and Adobe’s daylight white balance. “I used the point curve to add some contrast and added a little recovery (5) to keep some detail in the clouds. Exposure, Fill, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast were all set to zero and the Clarity/Vibrance/Saturation all set to 15. I also used the Adjustment Brush to select the foreground rock and increase its exposure (by 0.78) to bring out some detail.”

The overall exposure looks great. If Kyle did use the graduated filter—and it looks like it to me—it worked well to balance the light of the mountain and clouds with their reflections. Kyle avoided using too strong a filter and making the reflection lighter than the actual cloud, something you would never see in real life. The brightest part of the cloud still looks a little hot, so using a little more Recovery (or bringing down Highlights or Whites in Lightroom 4) might help.

I love that Kyle chose a fast enough shutter speed to preserve the ripples and textures in the water. You don’t need perfectly calm water for great reflections. In fact it’s often more interesting when there are some small ripples like this—as long as you use a reasonably fast shutter speed to preserve the appearance of those ripples, rather than letting the water blur and smooth out.

Everything appears to be in focus at this small image size, but there’s considerable depth here, and  f/7.1 is not a very small aperture, so I wonder if everything would really look sharp at a bigger size. A smaller aperture like f/11 or f/16 would have provided enough depth of field to make sure both foreground and background were sharp. (You can see a slightly larger version here.)

Of course setting a smaller aperture would have required using a slower shutter speed, potentially blurring the water, unless you pushed up the ISO. Personally I would have been willing to live with a  little more noise from the higher ISO to make sure that I had both the aperture and shutter speed I needed.

The polarizing filter might be a little overdone. The giveaway is that the blue sky is darker in the middle and lighter on the sides, something you wouldn’t see in real life. Polarizers have a very strong effect with sidelight, sometimes too strong, so in situations like this I prefer to rotate the polarizer to less-than-maximum strength so that it’s effect isn’t obvious. It’s easy to darken blues later in software to increase the contrast between clouds and sky if necessary.

The processing looks great. Shadows are dark, as shadows should be, but with a hint of detail.The overall contrast seems just right, and the saturation isn’t overdone,. The white balance looks perfect. Again, a little more Recovery might bring out more detail and texture in the cloud.


Overall I think this photograph is well-seen and well-executed. Though I’ve nitpicked it to death, the flaws are relatively minor. Yet paying attention to small details can make the difference between making a good photograph and a great one.

Your Comments

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this image. Do you think the composition works overall? Do you agree with me that there should be more space at the top and bottom, and some separation between the rock and cloud reflection? And what about that rock—do you like it, or would the photograph be stronger without it?

Thanks Kyle for sharing your photograph! You can see more of his work on Flickr or on his web site.

— Michael Frye

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As part of being chosen for this critique Kyle will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. Thanks for participating!

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.