On the horizon

I take a lot of photos of flowers and small invertebrates.  This will come as no surprise to those of you who frequent this blog.  I try to throw in a bison or landscape photo just often enough to keep you hooked, but quickly revert to my fixation on photographs of bees, grasshoppers, flowers, and – of course – crab spiders.  I try to justify my obsession by explaining how important all those little organisms are to the functioning of prairie ecosystems (and they are), but the truth is that I just like close-up photography better than wildlife and landscape photography.  Today, I’m not even trying to hide that from you.  This would be a great time to click away to something else if you don’t want to read a lot of words about photographing little things in nature.

When I first entered the world of close-up (or macro) photography, I remember both reading and hearing about “distracting horizon lines” and being cautioned to avoid including the horizon in the background of close-up photos.  It’s true that concentrating too much on a subject and ignoring what’s behind it is a major issue for macro photographers.  It’s also true that including a bright stripe of sky on top of a darker stripe below can pull the viewer’s eye away from the intended subject of a photo.  However, as with most photography rules, making exceptions can sometimes lead to more interesting images.

Here’s a very nice photo of prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) in the Nebraska Sandhills.  It was taken in beautiful early morning light and has a nice clean background.
Here’s the same larkspur plant, photographed from a slightly lower perspective so that the horizon shows toward the top of the image.  Now, the image is no longer just a photo of larkspur – it’s a photo of larkspur in a prairie.

Over the last several years, I’ve more often found myself playing around with horizon lines behind my close-up photo subjects.  What I’ve found is that contrast and definition matter a lot.  If the boundary between land and sky is out of focus and very gradual, it can become a pleasing addition to a photo – one that adds depth and context, as well as visual interest.  That’s very different from the starkly contrasting bright/dark line that we’re often warned about including behind close-up subjects.

Adding a fuzzy horizon behind close-up photo subjects is often just a matter of lowering the camera an inch or two.  It’s not always a smart choice, but I’ve been trying to at least consider it as an option when I’m in the field.  If I’ve got a subject that isn’t flying or crawling away from me, I’ll usually start by following the rules to get a safe, traditional image.  Then I’ll lower the tripod slightly and see how that looks.  More and more, I end up liking the second choice better.  It’s a good thing I’ve learned not to follow the rules this bozo espoused in a macro photography guide published on this very blog.  What a dope.

This larkspur photo was taken just a few feet away from the one above.  I think it’s my second favorite larkspur photo. 
This is my favorite larkspur photo.  Not only was the light sublime, the intricate blossoms lent themselves beautifully for this composition.  I also love the way the background transitions gently to sky, providing context for the image.  It was well worth an extra moment or two to shorten the tripod legs and aim the camera a little more upward.

So, go break some rules.  Have fun, take chances, experiment!  Unless any of my kids is reading this.  In that case, follow the rules.  And go clean your room.  As long as you’re living under my roof, young man…

This entry was posted in Prairie Photography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

4 thoughts on “On the horizon

  1. The difference with and without the “horizon line” is fascinating. Both photos are great in different ways. Also – don’t stop showing us your bugs and plants! I love the closeups, as well as the bison and landscapes. Your commentary is also informative. Love it all.

  2. I started taking photos without knowing a single rule, so it always surprises me when I bump up against one I’ve never heard of, like the “horizon line rule.” I suppose the intended purpose of the photo makes a difference. Documenting a plant for inclusion in an article or field guide, or attempting to highlight specific features of an insect probably requires a different approach than capturing some aspect of the plant artistically.

    This is a lovely set, and I do prefer the ones showing the horizon. I think they’re more interesting visually — although I’d never complain about the occasional bison wandering by!

  3. Great post! I also tend towards close up photography of bugs and flowers. I think I tend to get pretty focused on the subject and don’t think about the background all that much. Your post opened my eyes to thinking about incorporating the background.

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