A crooked horizon can easily ruin an otherwise stunning photo. Fortunately, Photoshop CC offers a few quick and easy methods to fix your tilted files – and in this article, I share my favorite.
So whether you shoot landscapes, architecture, street scenes, or even portraits, read on to discover my simple, step-by-step process for straightening a crooked image in Photoshop!
How to straighten a crooked image in Photoshop: the basics
Fixing a crooked horizon in Photoshop might seem difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Identify a reference line
If you want to get the best results when straightening your image, before you do any Photoshop wizardry, simply open your photo – then analyze it carefully.
Try to find a portion of the image with a clear horizontal or vertical line. In other words, identify an area that should be perfectly horizontal or vertical; that way, you can use it as a reference when straightening the shot.
Here are a few common horizontal reference lines:
- The horizon line along a lake or ocean
- The horizon line along a grassy plain or desert
- The top of a building
- The top or bottom of a building window
- Brick lines along a building
- The line of a road or sidewalk
And here are a few common vertical reference lines:
- A telephone pole
- The side of a building
- The edge of a window
- A street sign
Note that you don’t need all of these reference lines to appear in your image. For an easy straighten, you only need one!
For this sample image, I could use either the edge of the field or a tree:
Step 2: Select the Crop tool
The easiest way to straighten a photo is with the Crop tool, which you can find in the toolbar. By default, the toolbar sits along the left-hand side of the interface:
If you can’t see the Crop tool, you’re likely in the wrong workspace. Select Window>Workspace, then choose either Essentials or Photography.
Step 3: Select the Straighten tool
Now that you’ve activated the Crop tool, check the tool menu at the top of the interface. You should see a set of crop-specific options, such as Ratio, Delete Cropped Pixels, and a handy little Straighten icon (it looks like a ruler).
Click on the Straighten icon, then:
Step 4: Drag the tool across your reference line
The Straighten tool is designed for ease of use: You draw it across a line that’s supposed to be straight, and then Photoshop will do the actual straightening for you.
So find the reference line that I encouraged you to determine in Step 1, then drag the Straighten tool across!
(Pro tip: The farther you drag the Straighten tool, the easier it is to align it with the reference line. In other words, farther is better!)
Finally, let go of the Straighten tool. Watch as Photoshop automatically straightens your image, then take a look. If the image still looks crooked, you can always drag the Straighten tool a second time, or you can click and drag along the image corner.
On the other hand, if the image does look straight, then you’re done! Hit the checkmark at the top of the screen, and save your photo!
When should you straighten a crooked image?
In general, crooked images look bad. If you notice a clear crooked horizon line or crooked building, it’s a good idea to straighten it – because while casual viewers won’t always notice the issue, they’ll feel that something is off.
However, there are times that you can use crookedness for artistic effect. Flower photographers sometimes tilt the camera to emphasize long stems. Street and architectural photographers sometimes tilt the camera to add a sense of immediacy to the scene or to fill the frame with the subject.
At the end of the day, if you notice a crooked horizon but you’re not sure you want to fix it, that’s okay! Perhaps try to straighten it up, then compare the before and after. See what you think. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting!
One more thing:
If your image features several clear vertical horizontal lines and you shoot from an angle, you may end up with an apparently crooked scene simply because the lines converge in the distance, like this:
This is due to perspective distortion, not a tilted camera, and so you can either:
- Use Photoshop’s Camera Raw filter to transform the image and remove the converging horizontals.
- Embrace the converging lines and leave the image unstraightened.
Of course, you can also straighten the image using the method I shared above, but you’ll need to pick a horizontal line to target (because they converge, you can’t straighten them all!). You might also try using a vertical reference line; no, the horizontal lines won’t look perfectly straight, but the overall effect will be more natural.
The problem with straightening photos in Photoshop
As I’ve emphasized above, doing a straightening job in Photoshop isn’t difficult, nor is it time-consuming. However, it does come with a problem:
Whenever you straighten an image, you lose pixels (and you may lose key compositional elements in the process).
Why? Because Photoshop crops the straightened image to eliminate white space along its edges.
This is unavoidable when straightening your files, and that’s why it’s always best to get the image right in-camera. (Purchasing a little hot-shoe level, or using the level on your tripod, can make a big difference!)
One more recommendation:
If you suspect that your next shot will need straightening – because you’re struggling to get the camera straight or because you’re shooting from an awkward position – leave a bit of extra space around the composition. That way, when you do go to straighten the shot in Photoshop, you won’t cut off any essential elements.
How to straighten a crooked image in Photoshop: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to straighten your images – and you know when you should (or shouldn’t!) apply a straightening fix.
So go practice. Find some images that need straightening, then test out the method I’ve shared! It’s guaranteed to improve your shots.