One of the things I most like about photography is that it satisfies the part of my brain that likes to make order out of chaos. You take a busy and cluttered world and simplify it bit by bit into the nice orderly rectangle of the viewfinder. While I’m engaged in the process of visually organizing the world, one of the things that I—and many other photographers—pay great attention to is ensuring that the lines we want to be straight and level and square are in fact rendered just so. That’s not to say that all lines in pictures should be parallel or perpendicular, but when I want something to be straight or level, I had better take the steps to make it happen. There’s nothing less gratifying, less orderly, than a line that should be parallel to the edge of the frame, for instance, running slightly off kilter. Or even worse, when the horizon in your picture is accidentally crooked.
To that end, for those of us who lay awake at night wondering how to break our bad habits of always tilting the camera slightly to one side (guilty as charged) or being less than precise when it comes to keeping things straight and true in pictures, you’ve got a tool at your disposal that simply solves all these problems: the level.
Photographic levels take many different forms. The first is one you probably already have on hand because it’s built into the head on your tripod. This bubble level is a great way to determine if the top of the tripod, at least, is level and plumb. Though you could, in theory, contort the camera in such a way that the tripod is level but the camera isn’t, though that would take more effort. Starting with a level tripod is a great way to get closer-to-level photos.
The next step up would be to purchase a small spirit level that slides into the hot-shoe atop your camera so you can see with just a glance if your camera is level front to back and side to side. This works well in conjunction with a tripod’s bubble level to ensure that the camera itself hasn’t been tilted out of true. The pictured Vello two-axis hot-shoe level can be had for under $20 from B&H, and similar products are available from various manufacturers at price points all the way up to $100.
You don’t have to purchase a hot-shoe-mountable level, of course. In some circumstances I’ve taken a plain 8-inch level and simply set it across the camera’s hot shoe. As long as it’s not being bumped out of place it will also display quite plainly whether the camera is tilting to one side or the other.
But rather than carrying separate devices, there’s another great level option available on many modern cameras. It’s the digital level that can be made visible right on the back of the camera’s LCD. This level can also guide you with front-to-back angle and left-to-right tilt to determine if your camera is sitting pretty. I use this feature all the time, in fact, and on my Sony a7R III it’s turned on simply by scrolling through the Display options with the thumb button on the back of the body. If you’re unsure of your camera’s built-in digital level or how to operate it, check the owner’s manual or do a quick Google search to see what people are saying about it. And if you’re in doubt, pick up one of those inexpensive hot-shoe levels and toss it in your camera bag for your next landscape or architectural shoot to ensure the horizon is level and lines that should be straight and true remain that way.