Easy Ways to Level the Horizon in Lightroom

A common problem affecting all photographers at some time is the crooked or sloping horizon. In this tutorial I’ll explain how you can easily fix and level a sloping horizon in Lightroom. But if you only need to rotate an image through 90 or 180 degrees, see my tutorial explaining how to rotate an image in Lightroom.

Quick Steps to Level the Horizon in Lightroom

If you don’t have time to read the full tutorial, or you just need a quick refresher, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Select the image you want to fix in Lightroom and open it in the Develop Module.
  2. Activate the Crop Overlay from the Lightroom toolbar. You can also press R on your keyboard.
  3. Click the spirit level icon next to the Angle slider.
  4. Find and click one end of the horizon in your image.
  5. Drag with your mouse to the other end of the horizon.
  6. When you release the mouse, the image rotates so the line is level.
  7. Click the Done button to close the Crop Overlay.

If you’re unsure about any of these steps or you want to know more about the tools, read on.

How to Level a Slopping Horizon

Let’s start by looking at a typical example of a sloping horizon. The following shot shows an image open in the Lightroom Develop module.

Image with a sloping horizon open in the Lightroom Develop Module. Crop Overlay activated.

Here you can see the horizon where the sea meets the land is loping off to the left. Also notice the Crop Overlay Tool is active in this shot. You can activate the Crop Overlay clicking the icon  in the Lightroom Tools bar, indicated by the red arrow. Lightroom also has a keyboard shortcut ‘R’; press this on your keyboard and the Crop Overlay Tool opens.

Using Lightroom’s Straighten Tools

In the Crop Overlay you will find the Crop and Straighten tools. You’ll also find the Straighten Tools with is also known as the Horizon Level Tool or the Spirit Level Tool.

Look at the Crop Overlay panel shown below, and you’ll see two controls indicated by red circles.

The Horizon Level Tool in the Lightroom Crop Overlay

This straighten section of the panel has three tools. I’ve circles the two easiest options you can use for levelling the horizon.

The Auto Straighten Option

If the image you’re working on has a clear horizon to level, the Auto option will usually work well. Just click the word Auto and Lightroom will level the image. You can see an example below.

image straightened using the Auto option in Lighttroom

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By clicking the Auto button, Lightroom rotated the image to produce a level horizon. If you look around the edges of the image frame and you can see the rotation. Notice that you lose a little from the edges of the image but that it doesn’t create any empty space. You can also see that the Angle slider now shows 0.79. This is the angle of rotation required to level the image.

If Lightroom can’t automatically level the image it reports a message that it “can’t straighten the image automatically”. When this happens, you need to use the Straighten Tool or Horizon Level Tool as it’s also called.

Using the Lightroom Horizon Level Tool

This next method requires a little more work but it’s still easy and more reliable. Start by clicking the spirit level icon to activate the Horizon Level Tool.

Click on one end of the horizon with your mouse pointer and then drag across to the other end. As you drag, Lightroom draws a line. Take care to ensure this line follows the horizon in your image. You can see an example of drawing a level in the screenshot below.

drawing a level using the Lightroom horizon level tool

Here I clicked with the mouse at point 1 and dragged across to point 2. You can also see that my mouse pointer icon has changed to display the spirit level icon. This shows the Horizon Level tool is active. To deactivate it, click on the empty space in the Crop Overlay panel; think of this as putting away your tools.

When you’re happy the line follows the horizon, release the mouse button. Lightroom then rotates the image so that the line is level. You can then click the Done button to the bottom right of the image to close the Crop Overlay Tool. This then crops the image to remove the slanted edges of the frame.

Non-Destructive Editing in Lightroom

When straightening an image in Lightroom, Lightroom crops the edges of the frame. This keeps the image true and prevents empty space appearing around the edges. One of the benefits of Lightroom is that it uses non-destructive editing. This means you can undo any changes if you later find they don’t work.

In this example, if you want to reset the rotation of the image or change the cropping you can. Reopen the Crop Overlay Tool at any time and you will see the true edges of the image again. You’re then free to make further adjustments.

Manually Rotating the Image

The two methods we’ve looked at so far are probably the most reliable ways to straighten or level an image in Lightroom. But let’s suppose you don’t want the image to be level. Instead you want to rotate it to an interesting angle. You can achieve this using the Lightroom Angle slider.

You can use the Angle slider in one of two ways. The first is to click and drag the slider left and right using your mouse. As you drag you will see the image rotating.

The second method is to click and drag with your mouse on the outer edge of the image frame. You can see an example of this in the following screenshot.

the Lightroom Angle slider being used to rotate an image

As you click and drag the image rotates around its centre point. The crop overlay also changes to a smaller grid of squares to help line up objects. As well as this the Angle slider moves left and right with the angle number on the right also changing.

Resetting the Rotation

If when using the Angle slider, you want to reset the rotation, there are two choices.

  1. You can use the Reset button at the bottom of the Crop Overlay panel. The problem this may present is that it also resets any image cropping; the reset isn’t only to the Angle slider.
  2. If you just want to reset the Angle slider the easy way is to double click the slider. This also works if you double click the word Angle.

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Summary of How to Level the Horizon in Lightroom

There are three ways to level or straighten a crooked horizon in Lightroom . All three methods use the tools in the Crop Overlay:

  1. Click the Auto option. This works best when there is a clear or obvious horizon in the image.
  2. Use the Horizon Level Tool. Click the spirit level icon to activate the tool and then use it to draw along the horizon.
  3. Manually rotate the image using the Angle slider.

Although we haven’t covered it in this tutorial, you can also use the tools in the Lightroom Transform panel. These are much more powerful, and you can use them to address many more distortion problems as I explain in this tutorial.

More Lightroom Tutorials

You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Lightroom Tutorials page.

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