Let’s be honest… Capturing an image with a perfectly straight horizon is easier said than done. Even with the help of built-in level guides or hot shoe levelers, some photos just don’t want to be straight.
Luckily, it’s an easy problem to fix in post-processing as the majority of photo editors has a straightening tool.
I’ve tested many of them and while most do an equally good job for simple corrections, I find Photoshop to be the best. By far.
The reason is that it’s more flexible. You don’t need to rely on a single tool or work within a specific parameter. Instead, you have a handful of options that can be used to correct crooked or tilted lines. Be it a horizon or a tilted building or tree.
Below, I share two methods to straighten a horizon in Photoshop. One method is ideal for simple corrections while the other can be used for more complex corrections.
First, Create a New Guide
There is one thing you need to do before initiating one of the below methods: create a new guide and place it along the horizon.
This makes it easy to see when the horizon becomes straight. Especially since you’re not able to zoom in or out during the straightening process.
A guide is created by clicking on the top ruler and dragging down. This reveals a white line that you can drag and drop onto the photo. If you haven’t activated the rulers, you can do this by clicking CMD+R on a Mac or Ctrl+R on a PC. Alternatively, you can go to View -> Rulers from the top bar menu.
If you don’t want to use rulers but still want a guide, you can create one by going to View -> New Guide.
Method #1: Skew
The first method is ideal for basic straightening. Images that fall within this category can easily be straightened by using a simpler photo editor such as Lightroom or Luminar 4.
An advantage of applying this straightening method in Photoshop is that you avoid cropping the image in areas below the horizon. Standard straightening tools will rotate the image until the horizon is correct, meaning that you lose chunks of the image.
Recommended Reading: How to Straighten a Crooked Horizon in Lightroom
Using Photoshop’s Skew tool, you correct the horizon or crooked lines without rotating the image. Start by moving the guide to touch the highest part of the horizon, such as this:
As we can see from the guide, the image above is slightly tilted towards the right.
Next, activate the Transform Tool. This can be done by hitting Cmd+T on a Mac or Ctrl+T on a PC. Then right-click on the image and select Skew from the drop-down menu. Alternatively, you can go to Edit -> Transform -> Skew.
The final step is to grab the top knob on the side where the horizon is not touching the guide. In this case, that’s the upper right knob. Click and hold while pulling the knob upwards. This will ‘pull’ the right side of the image (more correctly, skew it). Keep pulling until the horizon aligns with the guide.
That’s it! The image is now straight. Hit enter on your keyboard to apply the correction. You can then click and drag the guide back to the rules to remove it.
Method #2: Warp
The second method is slightly more tricky but is the go-to method for images that require more than a basic straightening. This could, for example, be due to distortion from a wide-angle lens. In those cases, the highest point of the horizon tends to be around the middle, with both sides tilting each their way.
What that means, is that following method #1 won’t work. That will only make things worse.
Instead, we need to use the Warp tool. Start by placing the guide at the highest point of the horizon, such as this:
Next, activate the Transform Tool such as we did in method #1. Then right-click on the image and select Warp from the drop-down menu. Alternatively, you can go to Edit -> Transform -> Warp.
Unlike the previous method where we only adjusted one knob, we need to now adjust two. This is because we need to correct more areas of the photo.
It doesn’t matter which side you do first. Simply grab the knob nearest the horizon and pull it up until that side looks ok. Then, repeat for the opposite side.
I recommend keeping an eye on the horizon when using this tool. It’s not uncommon that you get some unwanted curves along the horizon (i.e. a wavy look). If this happens, you need to either undo your previous step or attempt to correct it by pulling up or down along the horizon. This gets a bit more complicated as you need to add more control points. I recommend reading this article by Photoshop Essentials if you want to learn more about advanced uses of the Warp Tool.
In most cases, you won’t need to worry about adding extra control points. That’s more likely if you have an extremely crooked horizon with various elements that need different corrections.
For simpler purposes, such as the image above, these few steps are enough to make the results look good.
You might notice white areas around parts of your image after using this method. In that case, open the Free Transform tool and pull the corners slightly outwards until they’re gone.
Combine Both Methods
The beauty of Photoshop is that you’re extremely flexible compared to more basic photo editors. What that means for us when straightening crooked horizons, is that we don’t need to stick with only one method.
It’s perfectly possible to combine both the methods above. In fact, I quite regularly do. It’s not always that every part of an image benefits from being perfectly straight; distortion can play to your advantage.
You can hop between the Skew and Warp tools as you want. Simply right-click on the photo (when the Transform Tool is active) and select either option from the drop-down menu.
Finally, I strongly recommend having this as the first step of your Photoshop workflow. This allows you to maintain a non-destructive workflow and avoid unnecessarily merged or stamped layers.
That’s it! As you can see, it’s not that difficult to straighten a horizon in Photoshop. There are a few more steps than in the more basic photo editors but you can handle much more complex tasks. There’s nothing to be intimidated about!
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