This article was updated in January 2024 with contributions from Jim Hamel, Darren Rowse, and Jaymes Dempsey.
The horizon line is a big deal in many forms of photography, including the landscape, travel, and architectural genres. And even if there isn’t a true horizon line in your picture, there’s often a line running through the picture that viewers expect – often subconsciously – to appear straight.
Given that, you might be surprised to realize that crooked lines are a huge problem for beginner photographers (and they can be a problem for more advanced shooters, too!). We often become so wrapped up in our subjects that we fail to notice whether the photo is crooked, but the truth is that a slant is often the first thing non-photographers will see when looking at your shot.
Posting a good photo only for it to appear crooked can be embarrassing, but the good news is that keeping your photos straight and your horizons level is actually very, very easy. You can use two different broad approaches:
- Get the shot straight in the field
- Fix a crooked image in post-processing
And in this article, I walk you through tips and techniques so you effectively apply either approach to your workflow.
Sound good? Then let’s dive right in!
How to prevent crooked images in the field
While you can always fix a slanted shot in post-processing, it’s always best to get the composition right in the field. Not only will this save you time behind the computer, but it’ll also prevent you from losing pixels around the edges of the frame, which is a minor but inevitable part of Photoshop-based horizon correction.
So let’s start with a few easy techniques and tools to keep your images straight from the get-go!
1. Just look!
The first step to achieving level horizons is surprisingly simple: just pay attention. Before you take a photo, take a moment to frame your composition and ask yourself a key question: where is the horizon in this shot, and does it look level? This might seem like basic advice, but it’s a critical habit to develop.
Our eyes can be easily tricked by surrounding landscapes or the angle of the camera. By consciously acknowledging the horizon’s position, you’ll already be on a path to more professional-looking photographs. You’ll be amazed at the difference this small step can make!
2. Turn on your viewfinder gridlines
If you’re not using your camera’s gridlines, you’re missing out on a powerful tool. Most modern cameras come with an option to display a grid overlay in the viewfinder. This grid typically divides the view into nine equal segments, a three-by-three matrix. And it’s not just there to look pretty!
First, it’s a useful compositional aid, especially when you want to align subjects according to the rule of thirds. But more importantly for our discussion, it’s incredibly useful for keeping horizons level. Simply align the horizon with one of the horizontal lines in the grid, and voilà – you’ve got a level shot.
I use this technique frequently, and over time, it becomes second nature. When you look through your viewfinder and see the gridlines, aligning them with your horizon will become an automatic part of your process.
3. Use your camera’s electronic level
Many newer mirrorless cameras come with an electronic-level feature. This can be activated to appear in the electronic viewfinder or on the LCD screen. It’s an incredibly convenient, cost-free way to ensure your horizons are straight.
Personally, I don’t always keep the electronic level active as I find it a bit distracting. But when I need it, I set up my shot, turn on the electronic level, adjust accordingly, and then switch it off before capturing the image. If you’re not sure whether your camera has this feature, it’s worth checking. It can significantly streamline the process of achieving level horizons.
4. Buy a hot shoe level (or use the level on your tripod)
If your camera lacks an electronic level, or if you prefer a more traditional approach, consider a hot-shoe level. These are small bubble levels that attach to your camera’s hot shoe, and they’re generally inexpensive.
However, they do take up the hot shoe, which means you can’t use the shoe for a speedlight or remote release receiver. If you’re a frequent user of flashes or remotes, this might not be your best option.
However, many tripods come with built-in bubble levels. Using a tripod with such a feature can be a fantastic way to ensure your camera is level, especially for landscape shots. While it’s another piece of equipment to carry, the precision it offers in aligning your horizons can be well worth it. And speaking of tripods:
5. Always bring a tripod (if you can!)
A tripod can be a game-changer in achieving level horizons. When I use a tripod, I find it encourages me to slow down and consider each element of my shot more carefully, including the horizon. It’s particularly useful if you’re struggling to keep the horizon level in hand-held shots.
A tripod not only helps you get your camera level but also keeps it steady, which is invaluable for a series of shots in the same location. Remember, a good tripod doesn’t have to break the bank. However, investing in one with a sturdy build is crucial. As an added bonus, using a tripod opens up new possibilities such as stunning long exposures and night photography.
How to straighten a crooked image in post-processing
Ideally, you should aim to get your horizons straight in-camera. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, you might end up with a slightly tilted horizon. That’s where post-processing comes in. Most photo editing software, including Lightroom, offers simple tools for straightening horizons. Here are a few tips to get you going:
1. Use the Crop tool effectively
The easiest way to straighten your horizon line is with the crop tool. Virtually every photo editing software package in existence has a crop tool, so it should be familiar to you.
Most of the time this tool will also let you change the angle of the picture. And quite often that’s all you need to do.
In Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), select the Crop Tool, and then move your cursor slightly off the picture. The cursor will change to a curved line with arrows at either end, which indicates that clicking and dragging will now change the angle of the picture. Click and move it around to straighten your horizon line.
You can also do it by filling in the angle percentage on the far right.
2. Apply distortion correction
Sometimes your picture will appear crooked even when it’s level. That’s because most lenses have at least some barrel distortion, which makes the horizon line sag toward the sides of the picture.
This really affects things when you crop one side of your picture. The sag will show on one side (the one you didn’t crop) but not the other, so your picture will appear to be leaning to one side.
You can fix this with the leveling functions mentioned already. But another way to fix it is to cure the distortion, which can be done easily in Lightroom and ACR.
Find the box labeled Lens Corrections, and check the box next to Enable Profile Corrections. The software will then apply an automatic correction tailored to the lens you used. You might need to help the software find your lens by selecting the manufacturer and perhaps even the model. But usually the software will find it for you and apply an automatic correction.
3. Use Lightroom’s Transform tools
Sometimes you need a little help determining what is truly level. Your eyes can play tricks on you, particularly when you have different lines running in different directions in your picture. Lightroom can provide some help in the Transform panel.
The best way to get familiar with these controls is to just play with them. Go through them all and watch how they affect your photos. After that, you’ll know which controls will be the most useful.
You can have Lightroom level your photo automatically by pressing the Level button at the top left. However, this doesn’t always work, in which case you can do it manually using the Rotate slider.
This is a great set of tools to use when you have multiple distortions working at the same time. Here’s a picture that isn’t level, and also seems to be suffering from vertical distortion.
And here’s the same picture after pressing the Auto button in the Transform panel.
Pretty dramatic improvement, isn’t it? If you don’t like what you get, you can always perform manually tweaks using the sliders. It won’t always be that easy, but sometimes this control is like magic.
4. Use the Photoshop ruler
Say you’re struggling to tell if your horizon line is actually level. We already talked about the Level tool in Lightroom’s Transform panel. But there’s perhaps an even better way: Photoshop’s Ruler tool. It’s not something you’d know about until someone shows it to you!
Start by selecting the Ruler tool from the tools on the left side of your screen. Then draw a line along your horizon line. If you can’t see all of the horizon in the picture, just use the part you can see. And don’t worry – you can re-do this as many times as you want.
Once you’ve drawn your line:
- From the main menu choose Image > Image Rotation > Arbitrary. This will bring up a dialog box with a number in the angle box. This is the angle Photoshop has set based on the line you just drew with your Ruler. Don’t change it.
- Click OK.
Photoshop will now level the picture according to the line you just drew.
If it looks right, crop away to fix the edges. If it doesn’t look right, just undo it and try again.
How to keep your horizons straight: final words
Capturing photos with level horizons might seem like a small detail, but it makes a significant difference in the professional appearance of your images.
From simply paying more attention to your framing to utilizing tools like gridlines, electronic levels, or a tripod, there are many strategies to ensure straight horizons. And, of course, you can always post-processing can correct minor mistakes!
Now over to you:
Do you have any additional approaches for leveling your horizons that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!