How do I get a level horizon photograph?

Question: I’ve been really frustrated lately that all my landscapes seem to have a wonky horizon. What am I doing wrong? 

Answer: A slightly slanted horizon is a common mistake in landscape photography, and a sure-fire way to make an image look unbalanced. One reason this can happen is severe lens distortion – but by far the most common cause is the camera not being totally level when the shot is taken. This isn’t always obvious through the viewfinder or even on the LCD, but once the pic is on a computer screen it can look seriously lop-sided. The problem is most noticeable on coastal landscape shots, where the horizon is perfectly flat, and not interrupted by mountains or trees. Here, even a tiny slant is very obvious.

Level up your camera
The good news is that this is a very  easy problem to deal with. If you own  a tripod, chances are that its plate, or the section immediately below the plate, has at least one built-in spirit level (a spirit level on the legs isn’t useful). Get this lined up, and you know your horizon will be perfectly straight. If your tripod doesn’t have this function, pick up an inexpensive plastic spirit level that slides onto the camera’s hotshoe. Alternatively, your camera may have a virtual horizon built in. You can check this by activating Live View, then pressing the Info button until you see the virtual horizon appear overlaid on the screen. Then simply adjust the angle of the camera until the line goes green. 

Adjust with the crop tool
But what about images you’ve already taken? Don’t worry, you can achieve a straight horizon with a simple crop adjustment. Open your image in Photoshop, select the Crop Tool, then hover over any corner until you get a curved, double-ended arrow. Click and drag so the frame is ‘straight’ in relation to the horizon. You can do exactly the same in Elements and Lightroom. 

Accessories to consider...

Hama 2-way spirit level
For tripods without a built-in spirit level, this affordable hotshoe mounted option is ideal. It can be used on any DSLR, and its small size means it will slide into any accessories pocket.

Vanguard VEO 235AB
This lightweight aluminium travel tripod has a spirit level just above the ball head. It’s perfect for travel, boasting a maximum height of 145cm and weight of 1.5kg, which makes it easier to carry over long distances.

Correct distortion for straight horizons
If you’re sure your camera is straight but the horizon still looks off-kilter, your problem may be caused by severe lens distortion. This is particularly common on budget wide-angles, where straight lines near to the edges of the frame appear bent. It’s very easy to remove distortion in post-processing software using the lens correction tools. Let’s take a look at how this is done in Lightroom, Photoshop  and Elements

You’ll find Lightroom’s Lens Corrections panel on the right of the screen. Simply click the Profile tab, then check the Enable Profile Corrections box.

When opening a RAW file in Photoshop, you’ll first see the Adobe Camera Raw window, which has its own Lens Corrections tab. For JPEGs, which open straight into Photoshop, go to Filter>Lens Correction. In Elements, the Camera Raw window doesn’t have Lens Corrections, so click Open and go to Filter>Correct Camera Distortion.