Living with Photography: Straight Shooting

By Norman Chan

Missing gridlines on my DSLR.

An interesting topic that popped up in our forums this week was the question of whether or not to shoot with an intent to crop and straighten out a photo in post-processing. That is, if time isn't a consideration, should a photographer bother with framing the photo in the viewfinder/LCD while they're shooting it or just leave the final framing to an image editing program that can crop and rotate with fine precision. Given how easy and fast these tools are to use--especially on mobile devices and in mobile photo apps--you would think that it makes more sense to not worry about framing when taking a photo and concentrate on other things like metering and focus.

But something I've noticed since shooting with a DSLR and editing in Lightroom is how much I prefer framing "in the moment". Specifically, how much I tend to take straight-on shots with a level horizon. I touched on this in an earlier post about zoom lenses and lens distortion, which is why I'm really liking the distortion-free photos from my 50mm prime. And looking into my photo library, a pattern emerges. I either take photos with a very level horizon like the one of the otters above, or shoot to maximize the presence of ~35 degree angles, like in the photo below.

In fact, I bet if you put a protractor against many of my photos with these apparent angles, you'd find that most of them are close to 35 degrees. And why's that the case? The answer lies with gridlines.

On my mirrorless camera, gridlines were easily enabled on the LCD screen, superimposed over the live view image from the sensor. But these weren't just your typical four gridlines splitting the screen into thirds horizontally and vertically, I enabled the gridline option that actually split the screen into fourths, which also added diagonal lines from corner to corner. The diagonal angles, in theory, let you take photos off axis to add drama to a photo, but still align straight edges to a digital guide. For example, I would match up the diagonal grindline on-screen to the edge of a table or across the eyeline of a subject.

Image via DPreview, click for animation.

The consequence of this strategy was that many of my photos share that same angle. And since an APS-C sensor has an aspect ratio of 3:2, the diagonal line that cuts from one corner to the other is roughly 35 degrees. Trigonometry at work (someone double check that math!)

Photo credit: Dpreview user Rumi Siddiqui

For better or worse, this practice may be ceasing with my use of the 6D. That's because in DSLRs, you shoot through an optical viewfinder, which may or may not have the option of gridlines. On a 5D Mark III, for example, gridlines can be enabled in the optical viewfinder, but not so on the Mark II or 6D. If I want a guide to show me the screen split into thirds, I would have to switch to liveview on the LCD, which I don't like as much (especially without a swiveling screen on the 6D). Additionally, many DSLR's optical viewfinders don't have 100% sensor coverage, so even if you think your subject is at exactly one third the way from the left or right, there's a little bit of extra photo that you won't see in the viewfinder. Viewfinder coverage is a very minor concern when you're talking about 1 or 2 percent, but it matters for people who want to get that perfect shot in frame upon hitting the shutter button.

So without native gridlines, I've resorted to the strategy of using the autofocus points seen in the optical viewfinder to set my horizon. Unfortunately, this is another place where the 6D falls short of other full-frame DSLRs, with only 11 autofocus points to worth with. The five that go across horizontally at the center of the frame are my go-to points for framing, which has worked well so far. Still, the lack of diagonal lines may alter how I subconsciously frame at angles in the future.

One other option is to switch out the focusing screen of the camera. Canon sells a matte focusing screen with gridlines for $32, and the process to switch out the screen is apparently very simple. It's on my list of accessories to test on the 6D, along with filters, straps, and flashes. It really is all about the add-ons.

So how do you frame your photos in-camera? Do you care about a level horizon or perfectly angled shot, or does Lightroom or Photoshop just take care of that for you?

Photo credit: Flickr user oscarnates via Creative Commons.

And finally, here's my favorite photo taken in the past week. I shot this while on a family trip to a Buddhist monastery in Northern California, which also happens to be the home to a flock of free-roaming peacocks. The great thing about the birds who live on that compound is that they're very accustomed to human presence, and will even walk right up to you if you stand still. It was a fun exercise in shooting moving animals without having to worry about scaring them away, as well as tuning the RAW photo in Lightroom afterward to make their distinct colors pop. (Our JPEG compression desaturates colors, so click the image below to see how it really turned out.)

Of course, going to conclude with a reminder that we have a Tested community Flickr pool, so join up if you have a Flickr account. We're starting weekly challenges today as well, and I want to make sure they're fun and accessible to everyone, regardless of what camera you use. I'll try to stay away from cliches like self-portraits or food. To kick things off, your challenge is to shoot a photo of your favorite coffee mug. Easy enough, right? It's an opportunity to be creative! And if you're not on Flickr, post your photos in the comments below. I'll link my favorite next week. See you then!