The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
So Nothing Goes Askew
If you have a photo with the ocean slanting to one side, or a building teetering dangerously, or everyone running slightly uphill on level ground, then something’s gone askew and it’s time to take a look at the horizon. If you pay close attention when taking photographs you’ll likely discover that you tend to take slightly unlevel pictures, often tilted to the same side. (The ocean is particularly useful for detecting any unevenness, since it’s so unnatural to see the horizon there with even the slightest slant.)
Many photographers find themselves producing slightly off-level images, but that’s not a big problem since it’s relatively easy to remedy; it’s often just a matter of concentration. If you consciously attempt to hold your camera level, you will usually align it properly. At some point, you will no longer need to concentrate in this way, and the process will become second nature.
Even so, it still happens that I’ll take a look at one of my photos and think, “Something’s gone askew here.” This usually happens when I’m in a position where I need to work quickly or when there’s no natural horizon line within the image. It’s unfortunate, but the best thing you can do is be aware of the problem and look out for it in the future.
Cameras offer up some helpful tools to prevent slanted pictures. Some will allow you to superimpose an artificial horizon line (a sort of built-in level) in the viewfinder or on the display. With others, you may be able to activate grid lines, which can help you orient the camera. (If your camera model offers this feature, I strongly recommend that you make use of it. Grid lines can also help improve the image composition.)
Many tripods have built-in levels that are quite helpful. Alternatively, you can purchase a mini level for the flash mount; however, I’m of the opinion that the flash mount is meant to accommodate a flash or a wireless flash trigger.
Generally, image editing processes are another option for taking care of this problem. Every image editing software has relevant solutions. But these methods are less than ideal for two reasons: First, you want to spend as much time as possible taking pictures rather than sitting on your computer editing them. Second, the retroactive straightening process leads to a loss of image area and visual data. As a result of the necessary rotation, triangular areas at each corner of the image will need to be trimmed off (unless you decide to clone information from other parts of the picture).
If you have positioned important visual elements near the border of your image, this rotation and the subsequent cropping can quickly lead to problems if something critical gets cropped out or becomes at least partially clipped. Furthermore, the image rotation can compromise the composition, even if only to some extent. The example from Zambia on the previous page shows that the corrective digital rotation significantly reduced the amount of space in front of the canoe and caused the tree in the background to move precariously close to the top border.
A canoe safari on the Chongwe River, Zambia. The slanted surface of the water in the background and the reflections make it apparent that the camera was off kilter. The version below was digitally corrected afterwards. | Nikon D700 • 120 mm • 1/320 s • f/6.3 • ISO 3200
Necessity is the mother of invention: With the lens I had available at the time, this was the only way to capture both the boat and its onlooker in the same frame. If I straightened this image in post-processing, there wouldn’t be much of it left. | Nikon D300 • 36 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 400
What if there’s no horizon line in the photo at all? Good question. Most pictures contain a passable substitute for figuring out what is straight and what isn’t. For example, the bank of a river or the edge of a building can act as a substitute for the horizon. A reflection in water can be used as a guide for aligning your image properly – if the image is level, the subject will appear directly above its reflection. Your gut instinct can also be helpful. And sometimes it just doesn’t matter whether the horizon is level, as with detail pictures, for example, or when you want your picture to be obviously slanted. If this is your intention, don’t just tilt your camera one or two degrees – go all in. You need to make it clear to the viewer that it was a deliberate compositional choice, not an accident.
In addition to horizontal lines, photographers should also keep an eye on vertical lines. As a rule of thumb, vertical lines in architecture photography should run parallel to the image border. Slanted vertical lines can be corrected digitally; however, in this case you’ll want to leave enough space around the building to allow for the correction later and to ensure that the eventual crop doesn’t leave any white areas behind. Or you make a virtue of necessity and leave the converging verticals in your image to illustrate the architectural dimensions or to create an unexpected and dramatic impression. If this is the route you choose, again, don’t hold back. Make your intentions unambiguously clear so no one thinks you’ve made a mistake.
This freehand shot of an iceberg in Antarctica can’t be saved with a digital rotation. Much of the picture, including the reflection, would be lost. Which makes this photo junk, unfortunately. | Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/800 s • f/6.3 • ISO 200