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Level Horizons in Photography

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Level Horizons in Photography

The creative process should rarely be shackled by ‘rules’. Rules have always been there to be broken, boundaries are pushed and new ideas emerge. Some of these ‘rules’ are more just there as ‘best practice’, ways of getting the best from more traditional landscape images.

When photographing bodies of water, the horizon and a variety of vertical structures, it pays to ensure things are level in both the horizontal and vertical axis.



“But I can straighten the image in Photoshop or Lightroom”, you cry.

The reality is that you can save yourself a lot of bother by taking care of this at the composition stage. If you badly compose an image and then try to straighten in Photoshop, you could find yourself altering the composition or losing vital components or balance within the image.

How to shoot straight?

 It couldn’t be simpler.

There are a variety of options available to you as a photographer:

  • In-camera digital levels
  • In-camera grids and guides
  • Hot shoe mount spirit levels
  • Tripod spirit levels
We expect a horizon to be level.

In-Camera Levels

By far the easiest option on many newer DSLRs is an inbuilt digital level. On my Canon 5dMKIII toggling the INFO button brings up the digital level. It is quick and easy to use. Check to see if your camera offers this feature and get used to working with it. Toggling grid overlays can also be very useful to assist you when composing an image with water. They will also help if you are working to a particular type of composition such as the ‘Rule of Thirds’.

Hot Shoe Mount Levels


Hot Shoe Mount spirit levels are very cheap and usually have a dual axis level and simply slide into the hot shoe mount on your camera. They are more difficult to use than an electronic aid but simple once you get the hang. It is good to tighten your tripod head a little so your movements are more controlled.

Tripod and Tripod Head Levels

Many Tripods and tripod heads have built-in spirit levels. Make sure they are in a convenient location for you to work with them. You don’t want to be having to peer around the front of your tripod to check things are level. A little thought when setting up makes them easy to use and will save you time.

Glaring Mistakes

Now I may be fussier than most when it comes to keeping things straight but a  horizon which isn’t level, within a landscape image featuring water jumps out at me before anything else. It is unnatural and quite jarring visually.

Editing Horizons

Whichever software you use there will be functions to rotate and level. People have their own favourite ways of straightening things but this is what I do in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Lightroom – In the Develop Module choose the Crop Overlay Icon. Then choose the Spirit Level Icon for the ‘Straighten Tool’. Simply place the cursor on the horizon and then drag it along the horizon and release it. The horizon will now be level and you can choose ‘Done’.  You can drag the ‘Angle Slider’ but it far less precise than working within the image.

Photoshop – Now I’ve seen some people add a grid overlay and utilise the Rotate Function within PS but this requires you to crop the image afterwards. A far simpler way is to go enter the Lens Correction filter using Shift-Ctrl-R and then press ‘A’ to bring up the straighten tool. The straighten tool can also be accessed using the ‘A’ key within Camera Raw.

Picasa – Has a basic Straighten tool that uses a slider and grid found in the ‘Commonly Needed Fixes Section’.

The straighten tools will also work on the vertical axis as well. If you have an obvious vertical


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