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Monday, 01 May 2017


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I often use the leveling line, but if it looks "off" to me when editing (in the sense of detracting or getting in the way), I always correct it.

I am bothered by tilted horizons but, frustratingly, have a harder time shooting straight, myself. I think part of it might be my eyeglass prescription. A rectangle can look taller on one side or the other depending on which way I'm looking through my glasses, and then my glasses keep me from seeing the entire frame, depending on the viewfinder, in various cameras. I end up leveling my photos in LR frequently. And you're right - some shots just never look quite right.

I confess to being one of those photographers who, at times, puts significant effort into making sure the horizons and other key element in my photographs are rectilinear. Blame it on the architectural drafting and graphic design courses I took in junior high and high school. On the other hand, because I know the "rules" so well, I can also have a lot of fun breaking or ignoring them. What matters most is that, level or not, the resulting photo does what I want it to do.

On a formal landscape getting the horizon to look level seems to work better for me. As you illustrated "bubble level" level and level to your eye are sometimes two different things. I say go with what looks right, it's your picture after all.
On everything else the horizon is just another factor in composition. Even on video which has a tradition of keeping the camera level, I often do "dutch angle" shots if it allows me to fill up the frame more effectively.
There is an argument to be made for a rigid set of self imposed limits to photography. Watch Tokyo Story by the great director Yasujiro Ozu to see how much you can do when you work within a deliberate visual structure.
As for me, I am not a super-genius Japanese art house director so it's "Katy bar the door" at least as far as horizons go.

I'm a little sloppy about getting the shot level, so rely on the camera leveling lines to help (if I remember). My Ricoh GR is actually the easiest for this, the way they designed the level on the back display. With that camera I tend to not only get shots level, but often vertically straight.
But like you there are some shots that for various reasons seem impossible to get right. What I might try with your dark lake shot is brightening it up so it's nice and ugly and you can make out some shore features, then level it, then bring the exposure back. Still might not look right. Sometimes I just hit "auto" in Lightroom and that does it.

I think your problem of leveling a distant, curving shoreline is a common one for landscape photographers. We're used to leveling a flat horizon in our viewfinder, and while a distant shoreline can feel like a horizon, it is definitely not flat and probably shouldn't be level in your finder. I first noticed this phenomenon while photographing downtown Boston from across the harbor. When I leveled the shore, the buildings slanted, and when the buildings were upright, the shore looked slanted, at least in my viewfinder and camera LCD. Once I saw the pictures on my computer's screen it was obvious what the problem was, the shore was receding on one side of the frame. The photos with the vertical buildings looked correct.

Hi Mike!

I'm baffled about how handle non-level horizons. I've been faced with similar ambiguous pseudo-horizons often - there's a pair of slopes that cut across my backyard, but I've never hit on a permanent solution. I think you've explored the nature of the problem really well.

The main time I care about level indicators is when I'm trying to cancel out perspective looming for people or buildings. The Gx7 has a nice two axis level that shows how much I'm angling the camera down. But I don't use it very often - I see perspective looming and distortions as part of how the experience of seeing actually is. From my height, I see my kids as having big heads and tiny feet, and my uncle as an imposing figure I look up to. That's the truth of my world. I enjoy using a waist level finder, because it brings back the truth of the world from when I was a kid: children are consequential and have a valueable (literal and figurative) point of view, and adults are heroic in scale, though goofy in nature. That's also the truth of my world.

I can produce really neutral photographs, zeroing out eye seeing for camera seeing. I think we know the formula: level the horizon, elevate the camera to the midpoint of the subject, add sufficient light to remove deep shadows and bring the subject's brightness range to within plus or minus one stop, pick a distance that minimizes perspective distortion (i.e. probably use an 80mm-e lens for people and cars), and stop down far enough that there is no detectable out of focus detail. But it's so inconvenient!

Now that I've listed the standard constraints, I feel like I'm missing something perhaps I should deliberately do some large amount work within them to see what can be found out,

P.s. Did you really mean to publish so many posts at once? Wow, that's a lot of work! If you are experimenting with different ways of presenting, keep it up, it's very interesting.

The shadow of Winogrand's head. It's so him.

So what Law of Nature says cameras must be level or horizon lines must be? If this is a record shot or documentary image, maybe-maybe not. Otherwise, its the image that counts, not the geometry (unless geometry is the purpose of the image). Many things look more interesting from unusual angles. Its up to you. That's what being creative is all about.

I have always been bad at horizons. To me, your deep blue cloudscape looks slightly tilted on-screen, but it would have looked perfect to me through the viewfinder. In my case, when cameras started including the leveling feature I though I was saved. No such luck; even with the leveler I still get slightly wonky horizons.

So when I started shooting street scenes from the hip I decided to embrace the tilt. I don’t do it on purpose; it’s a by-product of shooting by pointing instead of composing. Sometimes it works.

The image linked-to below is one that I think works, although the tilt — more dramatic than most — profoundly disturbs some people who see it. I’ve created a severely cropped version to see what it looks like straight, and it kind of works that way too, but I prefer the tilted one, and it fits better into the larger body of work.


Craft is important in any art form. I recall reading that it was Renoir who said, probably in French, "Be a good craftsman, it won't stop you from being a genius." Being a good craftsperson says that you are in control of your medium, not the other way around. Slipshod work detracts from one's impression of the image and raises the question, was this intentional, e.g. Gary Winogrand, or just someone who won't put in the time to do it right. Usually it's easy to tell if an effect is purposeful, e.g. Winogrand again, but if it's hard to tell, it's usually a matter of not paying attention to detail, perhaps an artistic plan, but usually not. One can iterate endlessly in Photoshop; there has to be a time to say, "it's done," but that's usually after at least trying to make the egregious issues right. In the film era it was hard to make a technically good image, it took time, and paper and chemicals, now that it's relatively easy, why not do it?

This is an easy one! Just take the picture that looks like you want it to at the time. Forget about that leveling tool ( unless you are shooting architecture and need an exact perspective). When you process just tilt the image until it suits you!

I'm not a man of many rules, but I've got one about tilting: if your horizon is not straight and the viewer doesn´t get it's on purpose, something went wrong.

As an aside, I belive some people find it hard to keep horizons leveled. My wife, for one, is absolutely unable.

When I want to get a picture level in post-processing, and I'm unsure about how much change is required, I find that having a reflection of a tree, hill or a structure in a lake, puddle or river surface helps, even if the water has waves on it. If I rotate until the reflection is below the object, it provides a reference.
I suspect the brain/eye looks for this pattern unconsciously as an aid to knowing where exactly is 'up'. Not knowing where is up (in darkness or a whiteout) can be truly disorientating.

Water is the ultimate ' level finder', so pictures with water horizons always look wrong if the horizon is not level. But we also have flowing streams and brooks, as well as captive shorelines in which cases absolute level may feel wrong in the picture. So we do what looks right to our eye.
In the same way, even with a view camera, many photographers 'under correct' the verticals in buildings because it looks more natural to our eye.
As for the intentional cocked frame, it's a way of saying look at the subject ignore the rest. Sometimes it works great. sometimes not.
But when you include substantial elements in a cocked frame that people know from experience are vertical or horizontal, it seems to call attention to that rather than the subject, so from my point of view those work less well.

My only personal rule about tilted horizons is this: if you're going to do it, have enough angle so that it looks intentional. Otherwise it just looks sloppy.

I don't think there are any rules in photography except one - the end result has to work. For me, tilted horizons almost never work. If you can tilt and make it work, go ahead. I always try and make it straight.

It wasn't until I started using a DSLR with a smaller viewfinder than the OM2n and the Eos Elan II that I was using up to that point did I realize that my right eye and left are are out of alignment. I didn't know that that was possible. My eye doctor confirmed that it is. I have vertical offset and (get this) rotational offset. The larger, closer to 1:1 views of the OM and Elan gave more material for my brain to work with in "correcting" this. The smaller viewfinder, accentuated it as I usually shoot both eyes open. It answered a lot as I always wondered why a subset of my film prints came out with a slight tilt to the horizons. I now have a prism correction in my glasses for the vertical offset which alleviated headaches and neck strain, but there is no fix for the rotation, which my brain has to do the gymnastics for.

The levelling tool works well for me when I hold the camera up above my head, and use the rear screen. for some reason I find it difficult to keep the camera level in the left to right plane when doing this, and the levelling tool soon puts me, er, straight.

I have to confess, I'm so obsessed about leveled horizons that in many occasions I have lost a good photo because I haven't had the horizon perfectly leveled. I'm sure I have a kind of OCD, specially considering that it is so easy now to correct that.

Yes your example is level.
Anytime there is something reflected in the surface of a body of water say a lake or a teacup, if the reflection is directly below the the object then the image is level. You probably already know that but it isn't universally known. Unlike the beloved leaky teacup it is still a useful photographic teaching tool.

I miss the leaky teacup,

After some years using 24, 45, and 90mm tilt/shift lenses almost exclusively, I am almost unable to take a photo without my little bubble level mounted on the camera's hotshoe. The shift allows for easy panos and oddball aspect ratios. Aside from being plumb and level with the world, it is also useful in determining if all vibrations have dampened out—I use a carbon fiber tripod. Yes, it's obsessive, but at this point it has become my m.o. with hands and eyes operating as if on autopilot.

Anyway, despite all of this care, every so often an image will look slightly askew. I always figure it's a gravity anomaly and let it be.

I find I mind when a clear horizon line is tilted slightly as it implies (to me) a lack of concern or carelessness--OK, laziness--quite a bit by the photographer. When it's clearly tilted by choice like the Winograd example, I know it's an intentional compositional technique, not a mistake, carelessness, or laziness. I shoot indoor volleyball A LOT and usually have to correct for random tilt in most images. Thus, when I see similar, slightly tilted volleyball (or basketball) images, I'm annoyed. Do I use in-camera level lines when I shoot? Always. Do they help? Some, when I'm shooting volleyball and usually when I'm shooting other stuff. While I have multiple bubble levels I seldom use them, even the built-in level tool in my Canon 7D Mk II, even when I have the camera on a tripod. I simply eyeball it so it looks right and I'm usually happy with the results.

I've been on both ends of the spectrum with regards to leveling. My first foray into "serious" photography was via street work and with Winogrand as a hero, any tilt seemed okay as long as the composition worked. I found that when I was shooting with a Leica M6 I couldn't get the horizons straight to save my life even when I did try. Something about the range finder and the way I held the camera, I suppose. It would always tilt the same way, down a few degrees on the right. I never really figured it out. It wasn't as bad with a smaller rangefinder like an Olympus XA or a Canonet. With an SLR, I'm fine.

The last few years I've moved to using a tripod-mounted tilt-shift lens on a big SLR. Straight horizons and controlled perspective are important to the way these photographs look. I recently upgraded my body (after eight years!) to a Canon 5DSr and one of the main draws, aside from the insane resolution, was the in-camera leveling. I've since found that it's a degree or so off (and boy would it be nice if you could zero it out or adjust it... maybe I should exchange it and hope for a better level), but it's consistent enough that I can work with it. It gets me to level faster than I did before. I've also tried hot shoe mounted spirit levels and tripod-head spirit levels. I haven't found anything that is a fullproof solution yet. There's always a little adjusting after the level says everything should be good.

In past times when I used colour slide film exclusively, many images would be discarded
as they did not look "right," ie they had a tilt. As 99 percent of my then photography was railways this could be somewhat unnerving
however getting the train or locomotive was what counted. These days, now without any camera gear by personal choice, find in reviewing those once discarded (however never trashed) slides can be scanned and maybe corrected, if need be.

The unlevel horizon line in an image is also
called tripoditis, one leg longer or shorter than the other. (G)

And yes have sold all my camera gear, best somebody else enjoy the Nikon D750 as well as my F100, and lenses. Simply was not enjoying the journey to photograph, anything. Now reviewing and slowly selling my extensive colour slide collection of railways and related.

One gets to a point in life when the process matters no more; then too physically getting to any location of late is not without its difficultires either.

I was looking at tilted roller derby photos yesterday. When following a fast-moving group of people moving in a circle, I'm swinging the camera (usually while sitting on the floor, too), so some tilts happen. Sometimes I corrected them, sometimes I couldn't (too tightly framed to have slick to rotate much without losing important elements), sometimes I didn't think it was necessary. But for me it's nearly always a mistake, not an artistic choice.

Most of the ones that bother me are the ones that are off just a little, and look like mistakes. That particular Winograd one actually works for me; the Stan Banos one doesn't (though it's tilted enough not to look accidental, at least).


Interesting. I never use the in-camera level, but I use a grid in the finder all the time. In fact, changing out the focusing screen to a screen with a grid was the first thing I did when I bought my F2 forty-two years ago.

The grid allows me to decide what "I" think is level, at the time of exposure. When I pay attention to it, I get it right almost every time. This series took almost no leveling after the fact, but I made up for that with a helluva lot of vertical tilt correction in post...


There's something wrong with my inner ears and I hold my head at a slight angle, as I do my cameras, and have a high proportion of my shots unintentionally tilted, something I find quite distressing.

When I fix that in Photoshop, I find the angle is often under 1 degree, which means my eyes are sensitive to even small tilts, something even a spirit level would have a hard time detecting.

Concerning Garry Winogrand, as with Eggleston, I never really understood the fuss, find him vastly overrated, and yes, his tilts are annoying. There's a reason why the old masters in painting seldom if ever resorted to this (Van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles" is not a counter-example, as the trapezoidal room itself was askew, not the perspective).

winogrand did not compose the image but put the camera bluntly on the event result is a photograph

The first camera I bought new, an Olympus OM-1, gave me a surprising number out of level images. I discovered that the viewfinder mask was off. It took three trips to the service center to sort that one out, The repair techs spoke almost no English back then.

Fast forward a few decades and I find myself leveling images in Photoshop, the ruler tool is so handy. But there are always exceptions, and your lake photograph is a good example.

I'm one of those people with a built-in spirit level. I can't bear to see tilted water or horizons. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I can't understand how someone who creates a great image can allow it to be published with a tilt.

Soon after you moved, you pointed to a large collection of images of the Finger Lakes area. I thought they were pretty dull images, but more than half were tilted. I couldn't stand them.

It's so simple to correct a tilt. I use ACDSee and use Rotate, drawing a line across something obviously horizontal. It's a matter of a few seconds, so easy to do. I can pick a deviation of as little as 0,2deg. and can see water levels even without a horizontal.

It's the same with punctuation or grammar. To me, those are like driving on a rough, pot holed road full of deviations. I have to go back and re-read the sentence to get the sense. It wastes time. The prose doesn't flow.

It's the same with tilts; I waste time trying to suppress my unease before I can see the image and appreciate it. It's a craftsman thing. A craftsman wouldn't let a piece out of his workshop with a bad joint or a scratch. He takes time to get it right. Take the time to fix that tilt, please.

My photographs are a reliable 0.7 degrees down on the right. I LOVE the horizontal and vertical tilt indicators in my Panasonic GX7 and G85.

I am a bit anal about horizons but I really like a lot of what I see when people set out to just take the picture they see in front of them regardless of the horizon (some recent wind surfing pix come to mind) or they tilt the camera for an effect which enhances the action (some recent car racing pix illustrated that beautifully).

Tried it myself and just can't do it. Bugger!!!

Cheers, Geoff

I like the in-camera level, and have one camera which is also good at letting me get it horizontal, to eliminate converging verticals. But when shooting quickly, I and it seems most of the unlevel folks in your examples simply take some dominant feature in the picture, align it with the nearest edge, and push the button. That applies to the Stan Banos and Mahn England examples above. They make sense to me. I can see how the unpleasant tension arises between the hills and the clouds. I'd say go with the clouds, or split the difference and go with the leveler in this case.

Horizons are horizontal.
Thank you

"It's a craftsman thing. A craftsman wouldn't let a piece out of his workshop with a bad joint or a scratch. He takes time to get it right." Sounds like Peter Croft and I are cut from the same mold, sorry Peter, no insult intended. But I do want to reiterate the need for craft in this day when cell phones rule and attention spans are short. Perhaps the reason so few people print is because they cannot stand to look at something for as long as it takes to decide if they really like it and do not want to look at it daily for a long time. I attended a show at the Portland Art Museum of Robert Adams' images. He has a slew of awards and his photographs are in many museums. I confess to being totally turned off by his uneven horizons, blown highlights and other obvious printing deviations. He is acknowledged to be an excellent darkroom printer so could have easily corrected any of these things. I had to assume he has mastery of his medium and chose to do it this way. After processing all that, I grudgingly gave him some credit and assume he was trying to make a point, as Winogrand did.

I always use a grid screen to help with horizontals and verticals. I have an active search on for a Beattie screen w/grid (remember them?) for my Nikon F3hp. Gotta have a grid!

PS: "Just before Twilight" looks a little high on the right and a little low on the left, but in the end, it is a lovely image.

Michael (and David), I tilted the photo not for "truthfulness," but because despite the dramatic skies and super majestic scenery, without tilting the camera as I did- there simply was no photo! I tried it level first- it was flat, without any visual tension, as dead a composition as one probably can't imagine (despite the incredible visual elements). I really wanted to pay justice to that vista, the tilt brought everything together as a working, dynamic whole.

Mike, don't know if you are aware, but on some models of camera (Olympus, for e.g.) the electronic level can go 'off true' and can be reset or recalibrated if required, so don't completely trust the display - not sure of Fuji though. I tend to use the fixed grid lines, not always convenient, but they don't drift.

Over the years I tried both the grid screen and the hotshoe bubble level. Neither really helped. Two things made a difference to my landscapes: 1) a taller tripod; 2) backing up five or ten feet and gauging the flat top of the camera against the horizon using both eyes.

Simmple for me: level has to be level. Unless it is not, but then it has to be on purpose.

Thanks for pointing to Winogrand's "Women" series, I love it.

In the most innocuous shots I will press for plumb and level. I think it effects us at the gut level and makes the brain relax; primates, balance, survival... Tilt the camera-see the latest tips and tricks. Jazz up your pictures with this simple technique....uh...no.
Several of the images shown here are terrific tilted. They read well compositionally and, even absent level, take us comfortably to a whole new place. Composition precedes level when that happens. Smacked me right upside the head.

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