One of the first ever tips I was given when I began taking photos as a teenager was to watch the horizon when framing a photograph.
The day after I was given this tip I went back through all of my photo albums (I was using film cameras back then) and discovered that a fairly large proportion of the images I’d been taking looked a little like this one.
While there is a lot to like about the above picture there’s an obvious mistake with it when you know what to look for. The roof of the building is crooked (sloping down to the left). While this might actually be the case in real life (it is an old building) the problem goes further when you look at the place where the water meets the sky.
Oceans don’t slope upwards (even though there is some hills in the background of this picture). When I took this photo I was so concerned with getting the colors right (I’ll write about polarizing filters another day) that I completely forgot to look at the horizon and make sure that it was level.
This is an elementary mistake that many photographers make. It has the ability to spoil otherwise brilliant shots.
Of course at times you might want to experiment with holding your camera at different kinds of angles and put your horizon purposely offline my rule of thumb is to either make it perfectly flat or very obviously off line. ‘Slightly’ off horizontal does nothing except make your photos viewers feel dizzy or lean their heads when they view your shots.
How to Get Your Horizons Straight
The simplest way to get your horizon horizontal simply line it up with the top or bottom of your view finder. Keep in mind that the edge of your frame in your viewfinder or LCD screen will be the edges of the actual image and will be the reference point for the eventual viewers of your shots to work out whether your shot is straight or not.
Many cameras also have markers in their view finder (often a rectangle or set of focussing spots). These can often be used to help line up your horizons mid frame.
Some cameras have a ‘rule of thirds’ mode where they overlay a grid in your LCD/viewfinder to show you where to place your points of interest. While they’re not intended to help you get your images stright – they can be helpful markers to show you where a level line is.
Lastly, if you’re struggling with getting horizons straight consider buying a small spirit level. You’ve probably seen builders use big ones (they have a little bubble in them to show you when something is straight). You can also get little ones to attach to your camera that work similarly. For example Adorama sell a “Adorama Single Bubble Level (pictured above/right) for this purpose.
PS: a lot of photo editing software these days comes with a ‘straighten’ or ‘rotate’ feature so if this tip has made you go back through your old photos and you’ve shots that are crooked you might want to learn how to use these tools. I use iPhoto and ‘fixed’ the above shot in less than 5 seconds (see below).
Tools like iPhotos straightening one can have a real impact on your photography and I’d recommend learning how to use them.