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I use a DSLR and I very often find that when I shoot without a tripod, and with my eye to the viewfinder (as opposed to using LiveView), my photos end up slightly crooked: lines that should be horizontal or vertical are slightly slanted.

Obviously I can fix this very easily in post-processing, but it would be nicer to get it right in camera. I always try to use the viewfinder's focusing points to straighten my composition (by lining them up with a horizontal or vertical element in the scene) but still, the photos so often end up crooked!

Are there any good tips for getting better at this? Is it a posture thing? Do (some) people tend to lean slightly as they press the shutter button? I'm constantly amazed at my inability to do such a simple thing right. Help!

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+1 for the constant amazament which unfortunately I share... :-( – Francesco Aug 21 '11 at 21:33
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I've not got my technique down perfectly yet, but one thing I noticed was my horizons leaning to the right and it was down to me pressing on the shutter too hard and just pushing it down. There's a lot of information on how to beat it but the best I found was slowing my breathing down and very slowly squeezing it instead.

One of the other interesting ones was to make a low tech monopod with some string and a nut-bolt combo on the tripod mount, you drop the string and stand on it and the tension keeps the camera a bit more solid.

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Cheers Nicholas! I've seen that "string monopod" technique before - thanks for reminding me of it. – Mark Whitaker Aug 22 '11 at 15:23
It's a bit tricky to get right but it does work, and if all else fails? You can buy a spirit level that clips into the hotshoe! – Nicholas Smith Aug 22 '11 at 16:13
Someone else suggested the spirit level solution too but it's no use when using the viewfinder. – Mark Whitaker Aug 23 '11 at 14:35
I've accepted this answer as I think it comes closest to what my specific problem is. Lots of other useful answers though - thanks to everyone who took the time to reply. – Mark Whitaker Aug 23 '11 at 14:37

I think the only cure is practice, practice, practice. I used to find many of my photos had wonky horizons, but as soon as I recognised it as a problem I made a point of thinking about it with every shot, and it pretty much went away.

If you want a visual aid, you may be able to buy a replacement viewfinder grille for your camera with gridlines that will allow you to align horizontal and vertical lines. But other than that, the only advice I can offer is to keep practising, and try to find a way of gripping the camera and lens that gives the best results.

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Cheers Nick: practise, practise, practise is what I've been trying. I'll keep at it. ;) – Mark Whitaker Aug 21 '11 at 23:30

If you have a Pentax K-7 or K-5, you can turn on the auto-leveling feature, which will rotate the sensor up to 1° (or 2° with shake reduction off). This seems like kind of a silly feature, but that last percent is actually pretty hard to nail visually, especially if you're focusing on other things. Even if you don't have it auto-correct, you can have a gauge indicate tilt in the viewfinder. (The Canon 7D also has a gauge, but not sensor rotation.)

One caveat is that many people have needed to send the camera in for (free warranty service) calibration — a misaligned sensor can make things worse, and there's no user-accessible adjustment in current firmware.

Other than that, the ruled viewfinder screen (and practice) that Nick suggests are probably the best. You can get bubble levels that mount in the hotshoe, but that's not really useful without a tripod.

Rotating in post-processing is like running a light blur filter across your entire image — a rather destructive operation. It can be reversed mathematically with decent results — if you rotate one way and then rotate back with the exact reverse operation you don't loose much, but if you rotate to correct a problem and stay that way, you are discarding detail and sharpness.

That's probably not a practical worry in most cases, but where it is, and you didn't happen to get it right in-camera, for best results, print crooked and rotate and crop physically.

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I like the suggestion about printing crooked and cropping to fit! – NickM Aug 21 '11 at 20:37
Love the K-5/K-7 auto-leveling feature. Its turned on all the time and I think is one of the best innovations. Actually, 18 months before Pentax did this I predicted they would be the one to do that on my blog.... So that is one feature I was waiting for :) – Itai Aug 21 '11 at 23:12
That sounds like a nifty feature but mine's a Canon (and not a 7D with it's equally nifty Digital Level Gauge either). Personally I've never found a detectable loss of sharpness when rotating in post: I know it should, but I assume Lightroom is handling it well. – Mark Whitaker Aug 21 '11 at 23:36
Theoretically, a RAW converter could handle the rotation as part of demosaicing, which would make it less significant than doing it on JPEG (or TIFF, or whatever) files. I don't know that they work that way, though. – mattdm Aug 21 '11 at 23:49

Your experience is rather common. Consider this from a review of the 7D from the excellent the-digital-picture site:

I have grid focusing screens installed in most of my actively-used DSLRs. You see, I suffer from HLD (Horizon-Level Deficiency) syndrome. It seems that no matter how hard I try to keep the horizon level, I still don't get all scenes framed perfectly level.

It may not be the solution you were hoping for but at least, if friends point out that the horizon is slightly off you can make them feel bad by saying "You see, I suffer from HLD, thanks for reminding me". Hopefully they should stop :-)

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Now that I like: it's not me, it's my syndrome! :) – Mark Whitaker Aug 22 '11 at 8:16

If I don't actively concentrate on getting the horizon straight, then it will not happen.

But when I do remember to think about it, I often use the autofocus points in the viewfinder. Although I have "only" 9 autofocus points in a diamond shape, I have somewhat figured out how to align a horizontal/vertical line in respect to specific focus points (not dead on the focus points, but slightly off) to allow the image to follow the rule of thirds.

If I'm not pushed to an awkward shooting position, this is often sufficient to get an image that is good enough.

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Try using the LCD liveview if your camera has it. Many liveview systems provide artificial horizon or 'rule of thirds' grid overlays that make it really easy to check your horizon.

If yours does not have these grids, you can also simply use a sharpie or other marker to draw a line. Fingernail polish remover or rubbing alcohol will remove it later.

The newest Canon 60D and 7D even include a level, both in the view finder and on the LCD screen.

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Sorry, I should have been clearer in my question that I'm referring specifically to using the viewfinder: you're right, LiveView does usually solve the problem. I've edited the question now to clarify that but thanks for the answer all the same. :) – Mark Whitaker Aug 21 '11 at 23:29

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