Statistical Approach to Landscape Photography

Well, the secret is out. I guess that based on the title of this post you can figure out that I’m a geek at heart  🙂 .

Blue Heron at Burleigh Falls Ontario

What prompted this post was a discussion between two well known and respected photographers that I watched a few days ago. From time to time they critique images sent by other photographers and it is shown in a form of a video. In that particular installment they reviewed all kinds of images, from portraits to landscapes. What caught my attention was a brief exchange that went like this: “Look, there is another landscape picture that has horizon dead in the middle ! This is not good. You should never put horizon in the centre of your image”. I paraphrased it a bit but that was the essence of the comment. I thought: “Really ?! Is that so ?” Of course I knew about that “rule” as well of all other kind of “rules” that more experienced photographers pass down to the newbies but that brief comment got me thinking about the validity of this particular “law of photography”. In my work I’m almost never concerned if the horizon is in the middle or not. I just don’t think of it as a valid rule but on the other hand, I’m not the second coming of Ansel Adams to believe that “I know better”. So I decided to put years of my scientific training to good use and do a little bit of statistical analysis of outstanding images.

First of all, I decided to analyse Top 100 Landscape photos from photo.net web site. Why photo.net ? Mostly because I’ve been a member for many years so there is a familiarity factor and secondly (and more importantly) because of a rather unique feature of that site. When you post your images you can submit them for rating by your fellow photonetters. The scale used there is from 1 to 7 where 1 = Very Bad, 2 = Bad, 3 = Below Average, 4 = Fair, 5 = Good, 6 = Very Good, 7 = Excellent. So I went to photo.net and browsed Landscape images with the highest All Time average. The scores ranged from 6.78 to 6.63, all extremely high. Among the photographers in that “top 100 club” were many well regarded pros like: Simon Butterworth, Marc Adamus and many others, so it was definitely a pool of elite images. The results, shown below, were quite interesting:

Horizon Stats

The numbers you see in the column titled “Bin” show range of distances between horizon position  (seen or just perceived) and the middle line. For convenience I calculated that in percents. What we can see there is that:

  • 25% of all images had horizon roughly in the middle !
  • You are more likely to see the horizon above the middle line (43%) than below (32%)
  • 57% of images had the horizon  between -30% and 30%

Now it is interesting to compare that with the Golden Ratio. Using the same methodology that I chose for my calculations, the horizon placed at the Golden Section point would be 23% away from the centre line. So based on the summary above, approximately 32% of images followed the Golden Ratio rule. But at the same time, almost the same number (25%), had the horizon “dead in the middle” !

What’s the conclusion then ? Well, I think that we can safely say that the rule of not placing the horizon in the middle is just a BS. If you feel that it should be in the middle then go ahead, do it and don’t worry about critics who feel it should not be there. At the same time, decisions regarding composition of your image should be made consciously.  So think about the position of your horizon but DO NOT robotically avoid the middle area because the “rule” says you shouldn’t be doing this.

Finally, a few word about today’s image. I took it a couple of weeks ago in Burleigh Falls in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. It is a beautiful place where Blue Herons fish in the rushing waters cascading over rocks and boulders.

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