How to perfectly straighten your watch photos

How to perfectly straighten your watch photos

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There’s something undeniably zen about a perfectly straightened photo. Not only does it give the viewer the perspective of looking at the subject head-on, but it also helps the eyes focus on what’s most important as the aligned edges recede into a supportive background. Not to mention the intangible joy of experiencing work that feels intentional and precisely arranged.

Don't get me wrong, the perceived difference between a perfectly straightened photo and one that is slightly askew is sometimes pretty damn subtle. But at a certain echelon of creative work, the distinction between good and great is often found in exactly these kinds of nuances.

So today, I want to talk about how you can take your photos one step further and add that subtle touch of polish by perfectly straightening them. Enjoy!


This week’s challenge

Bust out those rulers and protractors! This week let’s nail our lines and share some beautifully and perfectly straightened shots! Don’t forget to tag them with #watchstudies to share them with the community!


Straighten up

The exercise of straightening a photo is to align the edges of elements such that they are parallel with the edges of the photo’s frame. This gives the impression that the viewer is looking at the subject from directly in front of or above it. You can also think of it as making the photo feel as though the subject is perfectly at eye level.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photosToday's cover photo before it was straightened (L) and after (R). The yellow lines represent the "straight" reference.

Before we dive into how you can achieve this, let's cover some fundamental principles that define what straightening a photo really means.

Principles of straightening photos

1. Be exactly on or completely off

"...if they’re supposed to be straight, make them exactly straight. And if they’re not, make them obviously crooked. Anything in between will feel sloppy."

The first principle actually aims to help you decide what needs to be straightened, if anything at all. If you've been following my tutorials for a while, you know that I truly believe in intentionality. Details handled with care and precision create a more cohesive final outcome. The small things paint the big picture.

When it comes to the question of alignment, elements should be either exactly aligned or completely misaligned. Elements that seem almost aligned but just slightly off feel accidental and careless. They can also be super distracting.

This photo haunts me. In my haste to post it, I simply forgot to straighten it. The book is so close to being straight, but noticeably not. Careless!

 

Here's a corrected version, the version I should have posted. The difference is subtle, but the straightened version is undeniably better.

 

Not everything in a photo needs to be perfectly straight. In fact, unless you’re going for a knolling-style shot, they probably shouldn’t be. But if they’re supposed to be straight, make them exactly straight. And if they’re not, make them obviously crooked. Anything in between will feel sloppy.

2. It’s all about optical alignment

The key word here is optical, referring to the fact that it just needs to look right to the eye. In contrast, technical alignment looks at whether elements are mathematically parallel. The reason for this distinction is that, occasionally, something that is technically aligned doesn’t actually look that way to the eye.

"Nobody cares whether something is actually perfectly straight."

An example of this in practice occurs when you’re laying a watch down for a flatlay. The intuitive way to straighten the watch is to look at the dial and picture an imaginary line running between the 3 and 6 markers and another running between the 12 and 6 markers (sort of like a sector dial). Then just make sure those imaginary lines are parallel with the respective edges of the photo frame. Easy peasy, right?

The reason why this doesn’t always work is because of the way bracelets and straps are designed. There are always minor tolerances in lug holes and bracelet links that can cause a bracelet or strap to not lay perfectly perpendicular to the watch case. There’s also tapering and bevels and other visual details that can affect the way your eyes perceive depth and orientation. Plus, you might’ve just set the watch down slightly askew or shot it a few degrees off.

In the example below, I've rotated the photo so that the watch optically looks straight. In reality though, if I draw some guides, you can see that the dial is actually slightly off keel and the bracelet is a few degrees off. But as a whole, the watch looks straight. Optical adjustments sometimes means averaging out all the little flaws.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photos

In contrast, if I were to technically straighten the dial, the watch actually feels like it's leaning to the left. This is because the bracelet just wasn't set down perfectly straight. 

How to perfectly straighten your watch photos

So, when you’re straightening a photo, you need to take all of these variables into consideration and compensate for them. When you do so, you may find yourself rotating the canvas a few degrees in either direction to achieve optical alignment, even though your original north star – the dial – ends up being a little rotated.

In summary, nobody cares whether something is actually perfectly straight. In fact, nobody wants to spend a single second wondering whether a photo is straight at all, which is the real reason why we want to get details just right: when details are handled perfectly, they don’t steal attention from the focal point.

3. It’s all about the edges

I’ve talked before about the fact that our eyes understand the world in relative terms, rather than absolute ones. We see the state and property of things by comparing them to other things around them. Something is considered small to us only because there is something bigger to compare it to.

The same idea applies to optical alignment. What this means is that elements in a photo look straight if they’re parallel to something else that is known to be straight (like the edge of the photo). The closer the two compared elements are to each other, the easier it is for our eyes to make that assessment. The further apart they are, the harder it is to make that assessment.

This example photo looks straight. That's because I spent most of my energy  making sure the lines closest to the outer perimeter of the photo, namely the notebook and the watch roll on the far right, were perfectly straight. What you may not realize though, is that the watch itself is actually just slightly slanted. A little mistake that is easily overlooked because the elements near the edge of the shot are straight.

 

In other words, when you’re working on straightening your photos, focus on aligning elements that are closer to the outer edges of the photo. If you nail those, chances are the photo will look pretty straight, even if some of the elements toward the center of the shot are a few degrees off.


How to shoot straighter photos

If you can get the shot as close to perfect as you can in the camera, you can save yourself a lot of heavy lifting during the editing process. While editing is a powerful part of a photographer’s workflow, there are certain things that, short of some photoshop magic, basic editing can’t fix – like items that are physically misaligned. So, in that spirit, here are a few ways to try get nail the in-camera shot.

Turn on your camera’s level

If your camera has one, I highly recommend turning on the digital level. This will give you a visual guide in your viewfinder that tells you whether the camera is parallel to the ground or not.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photos

Unfortunately, as far as I know, most cameras’ levels can only give you a reading if you’re shooting straight ahead, but not downward (or upward for that matter), leaving you stranded for flatlays.

Phone cameras on the other hand seem to have the opposite arrangement, with no level being available unless you're shooting downward or upward.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photosThe camera app on iPhones show dual crosshairs that tell you your camera is parallel to the ground when they perfectly overlap.

Turn on your camera’s grid

Another great feature to enable on modern cameras and phone cameras is the grid overlay. On my Fujifilm cameras, I like using the 24 grid because it gives me a good number of cells to help me compose my shots with. More importantly though, the intersecting horizontal and vertical lines give me references to align elements with to ensure I capture them as straight as possible.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photos

Use comparison points

Another approach to complement or substitute any of the two points above is to use comparison points. That is, choose elements to use as a base reference – like the planks of a wooden board, or the edges of a book – and align everything against them.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photosIn today's cover photo, The Watch Annual 2021 book was the comparison point, against which everything was aligned.


How to straighten photos with editing

It’s common that, despite your best efforts and all the right camera features enabled, your shot comes out slightly skewed. Don’t fret – this is where the power of editing can come to the rescue.

It’s important to note that these editing techniques will only help you fix perspective issues with your shot. They unfortunately won’t address compositional flaws (like two items being physically misaligned). To fix those, you’d have to fix the original composition and shoot again or bust out your Photoshop chops.

Here are 3 ways to straighten your shot using Lightroom’s Geometry tools.

Manual adjustments

How to perfectly straighten your watch photosAdobe Lightroom's Geometry tools gives you a handful of settings to manually correct the perspective of your photos.

When you tap on Geometry in the toolbar, you’ll see a list of adjustment settings available to you (Distortion, Vertical, Horizontal, etc). You can use these settings to adjust the perspective (or geometry, as Lightroom calls it) of your shot manually.

For the most part, the Vertical, Horizontal, and Rotate settings will be most valuable in helping you straighten out all your edges. The Vertical setting helps you skew your photo vertically, while the Horizontal setting helps you skew your photo horizontally. Rotate is pretty self explanatory and is essentially a duplicate feature to the rotate setting you have available when cropping.

To give you a clearer understanding of what some of the most commonly used settings mean, I’ve included a little visual guide below.

Once you get a sense of what each setting does, it becomes a process of tweaking and observing each of them until your photos feels optically straightened.

Adobe Lightroom's Geometry toolsA visual legend on what some of the Lightroom's Geometry settings do. You can drag the markers to the left or right for the desired effect.

There are two other useful features in this section worth pointing out:

  • Enable Constrain Crop so that Lightroom automatically crops your photo properly as your skew it. If you don’t, you’ll see the outer white edges of the skewed photo “break” the frame and you’ll need to crop it manually after.
  • The Aspect setting is a useful tool if your Vertical or Horizontal adjustments are getting heavy and the subjects are starting to look out of proportion. In this case, use the Aspect setting to re-balance the dimensions of the photo to your liking.

Smart adjustments

How to perfectly straighten your watch photosSmart adjustments that allow Lightroom to intelligently straighten your photo for you.

If you don’t want to tirelessly adjust every axis of your photo manually, there are some smart adjustments available to you. At the top of the Geometry panel, you’ll find a drop down labeled as Upright that defaults to Off. When you tap it, it reveals a handful of options that you can use to let Lightroom intelligently straighten your photo for you.

  • Guided: Draw your own horizontal and vertical guides and Lightroom will make them perfectly parallel and perpendicular to each other. More on this next.
  • Auto: Lightroom does some its best to straighten your photo based on what it can analyze about it.
  • Level: Lightroom will “level” all the horizontal lines that it can detect by making them parallel with each other and the edge of the photo.
  • Vertical: The opposite of Level, where Lightroom will take all the vertical lines that it can detect and make them parallel with each other and the edge of the photo.
  • Full: Lightroom applies a combination of Level and Vertical to the photo.

What’s handy is that you can still apply manual adjustments on top of these smart adjustments. This means that, if one of them doesn’t get it completely right, you can tweak it further to perfection.

Guided adjustments

Using guides is a really powerful option that I usually only enlist to tackle the trickier alignment issues (like when no combination of smart and manual adjustments can get all the edges aligned). With Guided adjustments, you get to draw two vertical guides and two horizontal guides to tell Lightroom more precisely what edges to optimize for.

How to perfectly straighten your watch photos


Your turn!

Bust out those rulers and protractors! This week let’s nail our lines and share some beautifully and perfectly straightened shots! Don’t forget to tag them with #watchstudies to share them with the community!


Thanks for joining this edition of Sunday Friday Study Club! If you enjoyed today’s tutorial, you may also enjoy this related content:

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