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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The invalidity of spirit-levels

I’ve been in Norway for the past three weeks running two consecutive tours. While I’ve been here, I’ve had a few discussions with participants regarding the validity of using spirit-levels when composing.

In this post, I’d like to put forward a counter-argument for using spirit-levels when doing landscape photography. I’m sure some people will disagree with me or feel that spirit-levels have helped them a lot, but this is really just my point of view, so bear with me on this one.

Many of us use a spirit-level of some kind to help us get our horizons level. There are a couple of issues with this as I see it:

1) The first is that we are only levelling our camera with gravity. We are not balancing the objects within the frame when we use a spirit level, and this is where we get it wrong.

Many horizons are what I call ‘false-horizons’. A false-horizon is one where the contours of the land are not in sympathy with gravity. In the image example below, the edge of the lake appears to be higher at the right-hand side of the image and lower at the left-hand side. The camera had been levelled with a spirit level, yet the false horizon is not level with the frame of the image.

False horizon is not level

What is happening here is that the contour of the lake rises as we move further towards infinity in the frame. Leveling with gravity makes no sense because the horizon is actually rising. If we are to level our horizon, there is only one thing we must level it with – and that is the edge of the frame. Here is an adjusted image to illustrate how the image was recomposed to ensure the false-horizon is in balance with the frame of the picture:

False horizon corrected

I now no longer use a spirit-level for a few reasons:

a) I need to level  objects within the frame – with the actual frame, and not with gravity.

b) balancing objects without the aid of a tool such as a spirit-level means I am more in control of the overall composition. I have to think more about where all the objects are and how they balance with each other. I believe using a spirit-level takes this level of awareness away from me, and thus the compositions I would come up with are less focussed as a result.

2) The second issue I have with using a spirit level is that they allow us to compose images while we are not able to interpret the composition correctly. The reason why many horizons can be so far off the mark for many photographers is to do with how we physically stand behind our camera. Many of us often cock our heads sideways to view either through the eye-piece, or at the live-view screen. Most of us are not aware we’re doing it, but what we’re attempting to do is balance a composition while our head is not level with the viewfinder. This may not seem like a problem, but it really is. It is extremely difficult to balance a composition when viewing sideways because we simply can’t interpret the scenery so clearly when we do. Take this image for instance:

Is the horizon level?

I’ve rotated this image by 40 degrees to simulate how you would see this composition if you were viewing it through an eye-piece or on a live-view screen with your head cocked to 40 degrees. In the process of doing so, we find the image a little harder to interpret and understand compositionally. But here is the point: it’s not easy to tell if the horizon is level in relation to the picture’s frame. It looks level within the context of the frame its in, but is it really?

In the image below, I’ve rotated the entire frame to 0 degrees, to simulate how you would see the above composition if you were viewing it through an eye-piece or live-view with your head level to the camera:

The horizon is not level

Looking straight on to the picture, we can now see that the horizon is actually off. That’s because we’re able to interpret things more easily when we are head-on with the camera. Not when we’ve got our head cocked sideways.

But let me ask you this… what exactly is the horizon in this image? We actually build up an ‘imaginary horizon’ based on the contents of the frame. In the instance of this image, it’s a strange combination of vertical lines in the red house, and also the struts of the pier. But there’s a degree of ‘keystone’ effect to this image because I actually had the camera pointed down toward the ground. If I show you the levelled image, you can still see distortion in the house:


You could argue that the image is still not straight. I think the real answer is that the image is as straight as it can be, taking into consideration all the keystone distortions that are apparent in the composition. We’ve somehow balanced the left-had side of the house with the right-hand side, and decided there is some level of balance in there. We levelled the contents of the picture within the context of the frame. Not with gravity.

Ok, I know it’s not easy sometimes to get your head level with the eye-piece of your camera, but I always make a concious effort to try to get my head as level as I can. If it means I need to lie down on the ground to keep my head level with the camera, then I do it. If it means I need to bend my legs to keep my head level, then I will do it. Because when I am level, I’m not only able to notice if my false-horizons are level, but also if all the objects within the frame balance with each other. In other words, having my head level with the camera enables me to improve my compositions.

A spirit-level only levels our camera with gravity, but it does nothing to help us understand and fine-tune our compositions, and it does nothing to help us balance false-horizons. We must learn to level our images based on what is within the frame, and the only way to achieve this, is to keep our eye level with our camera.

Let your eye, rather than a spirit-level decide what is good. It’s really up to your own internal sense of balance and composition to get it right.

posted by Bruce Percy at 8:33 pm  


  1. Hi Bruce, interesting point of view.

    From my own perspective, I use a spirit level for two reasons.
    1. I must stand lopsided and all my photos tend to be a bit off to one side.
    2. Equally important for me, whilst my camera has a build in spirit level, I use an external level as a “wobbleometer”. Despite using a sturdy tripod I still see some camera shake in windy conditions, so I use the spirit level to show me if the camera is vibrating. That way I can see any lulls in the movement and press the shutter at the optimum moment

    Comment by richardb — 12 February, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

  2. Hi Bruce,

    I like the title :-) And broadly I agree with not trusting the spirit level to produce an image which is /perceived/ to be level (as distinct from being level, in gravity terms). I tend to use the level as a starting point and be entirely prepared to modify the camera’s angle to make the perception within the frame correct.

    I think your more important point, however, is the ‘look at the liveview or through the viewfinder with your head vertical’ one. To me, not doing that is considerably more damaging – or can be – than the choice of using, or not using, a spirit level. When I’ve failed to have my head ‘square’ to the view, pretty much every image I’ve ever captured has needed subsequent levelling, and hence cropping.

    An excellent post and one very much worth thinking about and acting upon, or at least being highly aware of the potential pitfalls!


    Comment by MikeDGreen — 12 February, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

  3. Hi Mike,

    I agree, and this was really my main point, although perhaps it’s not so clear in my post.

    I think that if your head isn’t vertical with your camera, then your compositions will suffer. One symptom of not being able to judge your composition is an uneven horizon.

    If you can’t see your horizon is off, it’s probably safe to assume there are a whole pile of other things your not able to judge well either.

    Comment by Bruce Percy — 12 February, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

  4. I found electronic level on my Canon 6D very useful as a starting point. But your second part is really interesting. I should try level my head with the camera next time ;-)

    Comment by Artem Sapegin — 13 February, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

  5. I can recall you warning me off using leveling devices at a workshop several years ago. So, I went out and bought a set of bright yellow waterproofs. Not particularly expensive but durable. I could kneel on the ground or even sit in the mud to look through my viewfinder or the live view without worrying about damaging the clothing or getting wet. Composing on the tiny live view screen is difficult enough without having to twist ones head sideways.

    I remember trying to use a view camera where the image was upside down on the ground glass. I was always twisting my head to view the image. Perhaps that is why my compositions were never very good.

    Do you have an opinion on the use of remote viewers, i.e. the “Camranger” where the image is shown on a much larger iPad? Do you think this might aid in better compositions?

    Thanks for making me think about my photography. Looking forward to the next workshop.

    Rich Rooney

    Comment by Rich Rooney — 14 February, 2014 @ 9:08 pm

  6. Hi Rich,

    I haven’t used, nor have any experience of the camranger tool. So it’s too early for me to say anything about this device.

    One thing that springs to mind is ‘keep it simple’, and I’m not sure it would be an easy task to work two devices (camera and ipad) than just one. I can see myself running out of spare hands perhaps, but as I say – I have no experience.

    I would imagine that the larger view of the iPad may be a real boon to helping those of us who have bad eyesight attain sharper focus and level our horizons better. It’s just that it’s not easy to view such a device in broad-daylight. As with everything, when you gain something, you often lose in some other way.

    I think the usability of such a device will only become apparent over a great deal of time.

    Hope this helps, and thanks so much for the input Rich. Say hi to Pam for me :-)

    Comment by Bruce Percy — 14 February, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

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