Once you start noticing it, you can’t stop: that slightly askew horizon on your pal’s beach pics, or the sloping rafters in that pub photo, or the Leaning Tower of… Chicago?

Not getting your lines straight is a common photography mistake for both amateur and pro shooters. And it’s not something that you can always just fix with the “straighten” button in your photo editor (or on Instagram). The best way to achieve balance those nice, straight lines is to compose correctly when taking your original shot. To do that, you need to line things up squarely, factor in lens distortion and find vertical and horizontal elements that serve as your image anchors.

Photography expert Jared Polin, of FroKnowsPhoto.com, harps on this continuously when doing photo critiques online. “It’s a big thing for me,” he said. “Too many people rely on fixing it in post when it’s not that hard to get your lines straight when you’re actually shooting.”

The above photo is a good example of me having to really pay attention to the lines to get the shot right — it’s of the Porsche Panamera assembly line in Leipzig. I centered myself to the subject, shot the image as close as possible to horizontal, and kept the zoom as tight as I could to avoid lens distortion.

There are a few key mistakes people make when composing images that may lead to crooked lines. First, they use the camera as a crutch. Polin says that using the tilt-out screen or the “live” view on the rear LCD won’t always help you square up the image. Also, a digital level may not be your saving grace. “I don’t think it’s better to use that over finding the lines in the image,” Polin says. “It never seems to be right. I can see level, and I can see when something is slightly off.” He recommends getting your lines straight in the viewfinder to properly compose the shot.

In aviation-speak, you want to be sure your camera’s pitch, roll and yaw are correct.

And then you need to ensure that your camera is on a parallel plane with your subject, whether it’s a person or a view of a city from a rooftop. Unless you’re deliberately intending the lines to be off-kilter to achieve a certain look, you want the camera to be properly aligned in every axis relative to the subject — not shooting slightly at an angle or tilted up or down or left or right or rotated clockwise or counter-clockwise. (Which, again, might not be relative to the true horizontal or vertical.) In aviation-speak, you want to be sure your camera’s pitch, roll and yaw are correct.

Finally, remember that your lens can play a part in off-kilter photos as well, particularly a wide-angle lens. You see this illustrated most obviously in cityscapes, where buildings at the edge of the field are curved slightly or angled differently relative to buildings in the center of the frame. The solution here is to keep the composition symmetrical and the camera level to the horizon. This minimizes that distortion and makes angles that are there at the edge of the frame feel more natural and less noticeable.

So stay as centered as you can, pay attention to the lines in the composition and remember to intensify your attention as you shoot wider and wider. Having straight lines is a small detail, sure, but a critical one. People may not notice when you get it right, but they’ll definitely notice when you get it wrong.

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