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Horizontal Is As Horizontal Does
by Jay Miller


As a somewhat infrequent camera club photography judge, I'm privileged to review a wide variety of photography and observe a broad spectrum of photographic techniques. Though many of the images and techniques are not what I would consider to be extraordinary, they are nevertheless often surprisingly innovative and thought-provoking and regularly give me food for thought when it comes to my next photo assignment. Arguably, however, my biggest frustration with many of these otherwise excellent prints, is that little attention was paid by the photographer to the horizon. I can not tell you how many times I have seen excellent photos (particularly landscapes) marred by the simple mistake of a tilted or not-level horizon. I view such faults critically - and as basically inexcusable. Tilted horizons are anomalies that are easy to fix - particularly if you are a Photoshop user - and should never be a distraction. Sad to say, they simply indicate to me that the photographer is either lazy or aesthetically blind to his/her photograph's shortcoming.

For starters, photographers need to pay attention to horizons from the git-go, i.e., when taking the actual photograph. Yes, there are occasions when horizons are hard to discern through a dim viewfinder, or maybe the camera's pentaprism assembly is off-bore, or maybe one has a vision fault that leads to misalignment, but regardless, this is a "fixable problem" by the advent of the finished image. There is no excuse for a horizon to be anything but level unless there is a purpose to the offset.

Admittedly there are occasions when tilted horizons are part and parcel of the photo and are there for a reason. Regardless, the shooter better know what he/she is doing before attempting same. Aesthetics are all in the eye of the beholder, but tilted horizons are hard to justify unless the point is obvious. For the rest of us, our eye naturally seeks the straight and level - and anything that fails to conform sends a subliminal message to the brain that says "hey, something's not right with this picture".

And let me not forget to mention that many of today's more advanced "pro-sumer" and pro-grade cameras have artificial horizons built-in. Often, such cameras can be programmed so that the horizon is superimposed over the image that is visible in the viewfinder. Even if your eye tells you one thing, and the camera's horizon indicator tells you another, you will know which way to tilt the camera in order to get a "level" photograph.

I wish I could tell you that every airplane photograph I have ever taken had a perfectly level horizon, or one that was so out of sight that it really didn't matter - but I can't. In fact, the vast majority of my original images suffer from horizon tilt to one degree or another. Blame it on poor technique, bad eyes, or a generally twisted view of the world(!), but no matter how hard I've worked at it over the years, tilted horizons still show up with great regularity in any batch of photos I take. No matter, for when I view these photos on my monitor, probably the first thing I do in Photoshop is level 'em. Photoshop has a tool specifically for this, if you're not aware of it, and it works perfectly every time.

To find and use Photoshop's "ruler tool", as it's called, look under the "eyedropper tool's" drop down menu. You'll see the ruler tool there. After you highlight it, just move your cursor to the image and find the actual horizon. Click and drag your mouse either horizontally or vertically along the edge of where you think the horizon is (or where a perfectly vertical line is located), and then let go. You'll leave a marker line that will be visible but will disappear when the image is horizontal. Next, go to "Image" (top tool bar) and drop down to "Image Rotation". Click on that and you'll get a small window that says, among other things, "Arbitrary". Click on that and say "ok". The photo will snap into correct horizontal position. At that point, all you need to do is crop to your satisfaction, and you're in business.

So, pay attention to those horizons! They're important, they can make or break your picture, and they're easy to make right!

Jay Miller is a professional aviation journalist and photographer with 36 books and nearly 50 years of aviation photography to his credit. He is Chair of the International Society for Aviation Photography and a valued Arlington Camera customer.

Click here to download a printable version of Horizontal is as Horizontal Does.

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