Digital Photography Tip: Horizontal Horizons

September 14, 2013

Digital Photography Tip: Horizontal Horizons

With fall right around the corner, a lot of us photography fans are gearing up for snapping those picturesque autumn colors. Fall is a wonderful time to catch beautiful, rich, warm images.

And a lot of those images are probably going to be landscapes.

And that brings us to what may seem like an obvious point.

When you shoot landscape images that include a clear horizon, be sure to keep an eye on the horizon line and keep it, well, horizontal in your images.

As clear-cut as that may seem, it’s surprising easy to shoot a landscape image just to notice later that the horizon isn’t level. It can happen because you’re worried about other things in your photo—color and composition and exposure— whatever, and a level horizon doesn’t seem like a big concern.

It’s especially easy to have a problem with the horizon when there’s another large horizontal-ish surface in the scene, like a rooftop or billboard. Your mind’s eye may think to make that surface level in your image. But rooftops and billboards aren’t always level. The horizon always is.

So, unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise, it’s important to keep to horizon line level.

Here are a few tips to help.

Composing with a Horizontal Horizon

  • Most cameras feature multiple focusing points that appear laid out in a grid pattern within the viewfinder display. You can use these points to level your scene and help to keep it straight.
  • Many cameras have an option to display a grid with the viewfinder. Sometimes this is called the “Rule Of Thirds” mode. You can enable this display from within the camera’s menu system. Once enabled, this grid can serve as a guide to help you keep your horizon level.
  • Some cameras feature an in-camera, electronic level. On Canons, this feature is called Electronic Level Display. On Nikons, you’ll find it labeled Virtual Horizon. With this feature, a level line displays on the LCD/Viewfinder, allowing you to easily correct for any unintended camera tilt. Again, this feature can be accessed through the camera’s menu system.
  • You can purchase a separate level that attaches to the hot-shoe of your camera or lays flat on the top surface of cameras without a hot-shoe. These devices are handy, quick and easy to use, and relatively inexpensive. And they eliminate the guesswork when it comes to keeping your scene level. One I like is Manfrotto 337 Hot Shoe Bubble Level – 2 Axis.
  • Lastly, you can mount your camera onto a tripod, specially one topped with a tripod head that features a bubble level. A bubble level is a small, clear plastic container that encloses a bubble of air inside liquid. When the air bubble sits in the middle of the level, you know that your camera is level. And when your camera is level, the scene it captures is level too.

Keeping a Horizontal Horizon

Don’t forget that composing the scene with a level horizon isn’t the end of the story. You also have to keep that composition level when you take the image. So be sure to use good form when pressing the shutter button to avoid shaking the camera as the picture is snapped. For more on that, be sure to check out our post Don’t Forget To Take The Two-Step!

And if you still find that you’re occasionally getting crooked horizons, don’t despair! Most photo editing software packages include a straightening feature that you can use to level things out. Below, you can see the process in action in Photoshop Elements version 9:

Happy shooting!

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