Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post about tilted horizons. It’s one of those issues which is probably never going to go away. This year it’s come up at least once a month during photo critique sessions. Sometimes we want our images to be tilted. But often we don’t. We spend enough effort with our images removing unnecessary distractions (by selection of the composition in the viewfinder, by cropping later, or in some cases by digitally removing elements). Why not try to remove the added distraction of an unnecessary tilt?
That 2009 post is still relevant, but there are a few extra tools available to us today.
Some examples from Canon DSLRs introduced since that 2009 post:
The EOS 7D introduced an internal “spirit level”, and I configured mine so that when I tapped the M-Fn button (near the shutter button) it used the AF points to show me up/down (tilt) and left/right (yaw) without needing to take my eye away from the viewfinder, making it easy to correct either/both angles. This was a big advance over having a physical spirit level in the hotshoe. The electronic level is also accessible in Live View if you press INFO enough times.
The 7D has an option to show a grid as well, but sometimes there aren’t many visual clues to align with the grid. At least, not obvious at the time you’re taking the photo.
The EOS 5D MkIII has the same feature.
The EOS 7D MkII suddenly did not. We couldn’t assign “VF electronic level” to the M-Fn button. But there’s a new feature which replaces it, in the viewfinder configuration. I now have mine set to permanently display the tilt and yaw scales in the top centre of the viewfinder. I was initially concerned that it would clutter up the viewfinder, but in practice it doesn’t get in the way, and it’s actually more convenient to use than the old 7D system where you had to remember to press the M-Fn button.
Today my main cameras are both the 7D MkII and the 5D MkIII, so I use both systems. I also have grids enabled in the viewfinders.
But sometimes we still have to fix it with software later. An example is this Caspian Tern photo. I had been walking along the water’s edge on this beach, keeping as much distance as I could between me and the Tern’s nesting area higher on the beach. The terns didn’t seem too disturbed as I moved along the beach, but one time when I stopped to take a picture this bird decided to swoop down and check me out.
The camera and lens was on a Mongoose gimbal mount on my monopod, which made supporting and aiming the large lens easy. But obviously in the heat of the moment I was concentrating on getting (and keeping) the bird in focus and not worrying too much about the horizon in the background. When working with a gimbal mount on a tripod I try to level the mount base first so that all shots are automatically level, but there was no tripod here! Incidentally, it was a very hot day and the heat haze is especially obvious in the background.
A quick crop in Lightroom later, and we end up with a simpler (and hopefully stronger) version. These two versions are arranged in a gallery, to allow you to switch between them to compare:
When you’re “finishing” a photograph and stepping back to have a look with fresh eyes, remember to check to see if you can simplify the image by removing a tilt. Like most other things in making a strong image: if it doesn’t need to be there, take it out.
(No, I’m not encouraging cloning out elements of a documentary image, but if a crop will do the job then great!)