Something always looks off about photos where the horizon isn’t straight. It’s possible to fix it in Photoshop (or another image editor like Lightroom, Pixelmator, or Capture One) but it’s better to get it as close as you can on location. Here’s how to take photos with straighter horizons.
Use a Tripod and a Level
If you’re handholding your camera, your horizons are almost always going to be a little bit off. It’s almost impossible to keep it level while moving about, fiddling with settings, and pushing the shutter button.
The best way to get a stable, level camera is with a tripod. Many tripod plates—like the one in ReviewGeek’s favorite tripod, the Vanguard Alta Pro—come with a small bubble level so you can level out your camera even when you’re shooting on rough ground. If your tripod plate doesn’t come with a level, you can pick one that clips into your camera’s hot shoe up for a few dollars.
Your camera might also come with a built-in digital level or virtual horizon. Canon and Nikon’s basic entry level cameras don’t have one, but their mid-tier cameras tend to. Check your camera’s manual to find out if it has one and, if so, how to activate it.
If You Have to Handhold
If you don’t have the option to use a tripod and want to keep your horizons as straight as possible, things are a little trickier. If your camera has a digital level, use it. They’re much more responsive and simpler to read than a bubble level.
Another option is to pick any straight line in the viewfinder—I like to use two level autofocus point marks—and line them up with the horizon. The longer the line, the more accurately you’ll be able to do it. Once you’re lined up, brace your camera as tight to you as possible and press the shutter button. Make sure to use a fast enough shutter speed so that no camera movement will show.
Avoid Wide Angle Lenses
A big part of uneven horizons in landscape photos is optical distortion. Wide angle lenses give the appearance of curving lines due to barrel distortion. Unless your horizon is dead in the middle of the frame, any photo you shoot with a lens wider than about 24mm on a full frame sensor will probably show some degree of barrel distortion.
While it’s possible to go some way towards fixing it using the lens profiles built into Lightroom, Photoshop, and other RAW image processors, you’re not going to be able to eliminate distortion since it’s in the original data captured by the sensor.
If you need a straight horizon line—for whatever reason—then avoid using super wide angle lenses. Each lens is unique and higher quality—read, more expensive—lenses show less distortion but, as a guideline, I’d say not going wider than a 24mm prime lens (or 35mm with a zoom lens) will minimize any barrel distortion.
Fix it in Photoshop
Although you want to try and get your horizon as straight as possible on location, it’s normal to have to fix things a little bit in Photoshop. It’s one of the first steps in my landscape editing routine. The main reason to do as much in camera as possible is so you lose the least amount of data possible and don’t have to crop any important part of the composition out.
Every good image editing app has a Straighten tool, normally as part of the Crop tool. We’ve got a full guide to using it in Photoshop, but it’s probably applicable to your image editor of choice as well.
Realize When They Don’t Matter
For all I’ve been talking about how to get straight horizons, it’s important to remember there are times when they don’t matter. Once such situation is when you’re shooting a portrait with a wide aperture: the horizon line is just going to be an indistinct blur.
Another interesting one is when there’s no level horizon in the image or the things we take horizon cues off, like lampposts or buildings, are crooked. Just check out the sloping mountains in the image above. Seriously, that’s a “level” horizon in that photo, but nothing I can do will make it look anything but crooked just because there will always be some odd angle or line in the mountains that distracts people.