Ask the VR Photography Experts

Q: I’m not sure what I’m dong wrong. No matter how careful I am trying to level my camera before shooting a panorama sequence, I can’t seem to keep it level as I pan. I use three bubble levels, a double level on the camera, one on the pan head and one on the tripod. After panning 180 degrees, all are off-level by varying amounts. Am I doing something wrong?

A: You didn't mention what camera or head you are using, but there are a number of things that can cause these problems.

The first relates to digital cameras (ALL digital cameras, including the expensive ones). Many times the image sensor is not perfectly level with the bottom tripod socket of the camera. In some consumer cameras it can be several degrees off of horizontal. This will drive you absolutely nuts, as no matter how much leveling you do of the camera (either via tripod head, hot shoe or camera body itself), the captured image will always be askew.

Most 35mm film cameras have very tight tolerances between the film frame and the viewfinder of the camera, so when it looks level in the viewfinder, it's level on film. However, as your camera gets used, particularly when it gets bumped around in the field, it will develop dents and dings on its exterior. These include not only the base plate and the viewfinder pentaprism, but even the lens mount itself. Therefore, when you use these for leveling of your camera (such as a bubble level on the flash shoe mount), there may be discrepancies.

Similarly, any pan head can become misaligned with wear, or in manufacture, so that it does not rotate on an even plane when panned. Even the bubble levels we use to check everything can be inferior or out of alignment.

The solution is to do a systematic series very controlled alignment tests. Find a very solid table or other flat surface and set it up somewhere where you'll have known plumb vertical and horizontal reference lines to compare with. Make sure this surface is absolutely level (use several levels to confirm this). Then, start testing each piece of gear you use, both visually and with multiple bubble levels. Shoot images on film or digitally and check the results, as well, and test everything both vertically and horizontally, as well as rotated in 90-degree increments. Use a carpenter's square to check that your bracket indeed is at a 90-degree angle. Be sure all knobs, screws and clamps are tightened when both testing and shooting (there has to be some play in the mechanical devices in order for them to move freely -- tighten things down to minimize this).

It could also be that your camera is too heavy for the pan head you're using, and that the rig bends slightly under the weight. Any of these things could account for a 1 or 2 degree (or more) misalignment. Somewhere along the way, you'll find something (or possibly multiple somethings) that doesn't remain level consistently. This what you may need to replace or modify.

Most of us try to choose the lightest equipment we can when shooting on location so we don’t have to carry so much weight. Remember however, that while lightweight equipment is great for our backs, sometimes it does not stand up to the bumps and abuse it receives. As with most things in photography, there are tradeoffs to be made.

- Scott Highton