Being Level or Looking Level?

When I started posting my landscape pictures on the internet, I would occasionally hear, “It’s not level” or the “Horizon isn’t level”. That was fine in most cases because I didn’t have a level on my camera or tripod. Fixed in post (Photoshop). I finally bought a level that attaches to the hot-shoe on the camera…problem solved…so I thought.

Case in point. I posted this a few months ago and a few claim it’s not level. It appears to be tilted because of the receding shoreline to the right and the optical illusion of the filtered sunlight through the trees to the left. I used a level and double checked it in Photoshop to make sure the reflected trees line up.

"Morning has Broken" - Level

So I tried to make it “look level” and came up with this.

Looking Level
Morning Has Broken - Looking Level

That one was really obvious, at least to me. The reflected trees on the “looking level” image is obvious not inline. But what about cases like this. The first one is level. To make sure, I zoomed in to the buildings, can’t see them unless you have the original file, and the vertical walls are plumb.

Lake Yosemite at Sunset - Level

To make it “look level”.

Looking Level
Looking Level

So what would you do? Do you make them look level or do you try to be authentic?

I would love your comments about this! If your not a “photographer”, that’s okay, I’d love your comments as well.

Mike Matenkosky

Mike is a Central Valley California landscape and nature photographer whose subjects include scenes from Merced County, Yosemite, SeKi, and the eastern Sierra. He is currently living in Atwater, CA.

The text and photographs are © Copyright Mike Matenkosky (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from Mike Matenkosky.


  1. I make them level, as in real. Not looking like a level. If that’s a problem for someone, then it’s her/his problem, not mine. I make them level and not to look like a level. So should you. There is going to be people that are just saying something like that no matter what. You can’t please everyone and only one you should please is yourself. I know I do. Nice to see that someone picked this up.



  2. The apparent horizon not “looking” level (or water edges) disturbs me even when I know that the image is actually technically straight. I tend to try to hit a compromise, rotating so that the horizon line looks level without tilting verticals too much. I think in the natural, we compensate for perspective distortion automatically…it is part of our depth perception software…but when faced with a static, flat image, we can not, lacking other depth clues, translate that perspective tilt back into distance…and that throws us all off. We are not capturing reality. We are creating an image of it. We do whatever we need to so that it “looks” real…and that includes level horizons and water lines. 🙂


    1. Yes, I may try “fudge” it a bit too, depending on the circumstance, like my second example.

      Thanks for commenting!


  3. The whole question of “what it really looked like” is a lot more complex than we sometimes realize. Objectively, the scene is level to us when we are there, but at that time we view it differently than when we see it later in a photograph. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the fact that binocular vision tells us things about the “real” scene that the photograph cannot and the tendency of our visual system to “correct” things so that they make sense given their context.

    To my way of thinking if the photograph looks “off” because something is tilting, it is not a sufficient answer (generally) to say, “that is the way it was.” On the scene, those angles did not create the sense of “it tilts,” so why would we want the photograph to create that effect?

    There are no absolute rules about this, and it is often a matter of subjective judgment. (This is true of other aspects of a photograph as well, including things such as color balance.) In general, I might “split the difference” between the objectively accurate and the subjectively accurate versions – in other words, allow some tilt but not so much as to make it look odd.

    It also helps me to keep in mind that it is a myth that a photograph shows reality objectively. If you drill down into that notion, in the end you realize that it is ultimately impossible for a photograph to objectively “accurate.” What is more, we probably wouldn’t be very interested in such photographs. What interests us is the interpretation of the subject that the individual photographer brings to the image.



    1. That’s true, what is reality when it comes to the arts (photography)? Filters, post-processing, lighting etc are all tools that we use to create our vision. It is all subjective.

      Thanks for the comment Dan.


  4. I struggle with this sometimes as well. I generally make it technically level at first, then potentially tweak it a bit to appear more level to the eye (if not already). Sometimes I just find a happy medium. Sometimes I just figure that since it is technically level I just won’t worry about whatever the appearance may be. Really depends on the image, but I agree with Dan above – there isn’t really a rule for this.


    1. Nice to see I’m not the only one that struggles with that at times. Thanks for the comments, Michael.


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