Great composition can do many wonderful things for your images, but one of its most important functions is to direct the viewer’s attention where you want it to go. Unfortunately it’s very easy to make little mistakes that end up becoming super distracting. Luckily, it’s just as easy to fix them.
One of the most common compositional errors I see is when photographers don’t straighten up their photos. And by that I mean that there are lines in the image that should be straight, but aren’t.
The problem here is that the brain of the viewer is taking in the image, and noticing that there are crooked lines when there should be straight ones. And that annoys the brain. Even if you don’t consciously notice the issue, subconsciously it’s attracting attention when it shouldn’t be.
The tricky thing is that it only takes a little bit of a deviation for this problem to happen. Check out this example to see how much of a difference straightening up can make. The image goes from feeling slightly awkward, to feeling normal.
In this example, you can see in the pre-straightened image that the vertical line on the left side of the frame is crooked, when it should be straight. This creates a pretty strong distraction because of the size of the line, as well as the proximity to the edge of the frame, which acts to emphasize that it isn’t straight.
The Two Steps
There are two steps to fixing crooked lines, and like most compositional techniques, it begins *in camera*. As much as fancy cropping can help, if you aren’t paying attention to your composition while you’re shooting, you may end up with unfixable problems.
See, when it comes to lines, if you don’t plan it out ahead of time, you may find yourself unable to straighten up. This will happen if you don’t SQUARE up. If you’re shooting a building, or wall with lines that should be straight, you need to stand at a right angle to it. If you’re slightly off of that, you’ll never to be able to get things perfectly straight.
So step one is to make sure you’re standing square to your subject if you want the lines to end up being straight. Take your time here, because this is something that you can’t fix afterwards.
Even if you’re squared up, you may find that you have trouble getting lines perfectly straight in camera. It’s really tough! We use grids on our focusing screens to help, but I still can’t always get it, especially if I’m shooting quickly. So the second half of the fix comes in during post-processing.
If you’re using Lightroom, you have a couple tools at your disposal to help out. The first is Profile Correction. Many lenses (especially wide angles) can distort the image, and cause straight lines to be slightly curved. That’s a bummer, because you’ll never be able to get it straight! Checking off “Profile Correction” will help to straighten the curve, and get you one step closer to perfection.
Then, the line might be crooked. From there you can grab your straighten tool, in the Crop dialog, and just draw along a line that should be straight (either horizontally or vertically). Lightroom will automatically straighten and crop, and you’re good to go!
Photoshop can also straighten crooked lines, with the Ruler tool. Just draw along the line that should be straight, and then click Straighten.
Horizons can sometimes be tricky, especially since they often aren’t perfectly straight! A good approach here is to try out a few lines, and see what looks best to your eye.
The same thing goes for scenes where there are lot of lines, and they can’t all be straight. Some may naturally be slightly crooked, or you weren’t able to square up to all of them. You’ll have to use your judgement and decide which line to straighten. Which ones draws your eye the most? Which is the largest part of the composition? Don’t be afraid to try out a few lines, and see which one ends up looking the most comfortable to your eye.
Then there are some images where the lines are far from straight, but it doesn’t distract from the scene. Perhaps the tilt adds to the feel of the image (like kids running down the street), or the lines are such a small part of the composition that they don’t draw your eye at all. This is where you get to be the creative decision maker, and decide what works best for your unique photo!
Straightening out an image takes only a couple seconds in post-processing, and a bit of forethought when it comes to composing the image, but it can make all the difference in the world. It’s a quick adjustment that takes a photo from sloppy to strong. So pay attention to straightening your lines, and you’ll find your compositions start improving right away!