Today's photo tip will further our investigation into getting better landscape photography. By the way, I consider city skylines as landscape photographs, it's just buildings instead of mountains. Let's spend a little bit more time on making sure the shot (and the horizon in it) are level.
In previous photo tip articles we've looked into making sure the horizon is level, but most of us don't give this compositional technique near enough consideration. In fact, we generally don't consider it at all. It's important and can ruin a photo if not done.
Here are a couple more leveling thoughts...
Many tripods have one of those bubble levels installed in the head to help with the leveling issue. Some cameras are now including a level too!
Getting your images level may seem basic and obvious, but if it weren't such a huge problem, would tripod and camera manufacturers bother to insert one or more levels? It has to increase their manufacturing costs and they wouldn't do it if it weren't necessary.
The problem is... Often it is difficult to make the horizon level when looking at the image in the view finder - from a side to side perspective.
It is often difficult to even determine where the horizon is! You can't make it level if you don't know where it is! In these cases, it is sometimes easier to level the camera by looking for a vertical subject in the frame and making sure it goes straight up and down.
Let me point out that the camera not only has to be level side to side (horizontally across the frame), but front to back as well. (Up and down.) This will eliminate key-stoning.
Key-stoning distorts the image and is most apparent when using very wide angle lenses.
Architectural photographers run into this issue all the time. Their problem is that they may have to shoot a very tall building - from across the street. How can they get the entire building in the frame... from street level all the way up to where the top of the building disappears into the clouds?
First, they need a very wide angle lens to get the whole building in the frame, but this can introduce distortion and key-stoning. They solve it by using a special type of lens called a tilt and shift lens.
In simple terms, a tilt and shift lens is able to move the lens elements so that the lens is level in respect to the subject. It's an expensive but necessary piece of architectural photography.
Have you ever seen a photo of a large building that looks like it is leaning and about to fall over? They weren't using a tilt and shift lens. In this situation, they either used a wide angle lens and got key-stoned (is that a word?), or they just used a regular lens, pointed up - so the shot wasn't level.
Now put this photo tip to the test. Get out there this weekend and do some landscape photography. Concentrate on getting the horizon level. Then do a few shots where it ISN'T level. Study them side to side! Now go to a tall building and aim the camera up to photograph the top of the building. Take the shot. See how it looks like it's about to fall over? Finally, go to a camera store and have them show you a tilt and shift lens and have them explain how it works. Photo contest blue ribbons are in your future!