The humble spirit level is making somewhat of a comeback on cameras after going missing for half a century. I don’t think this was because it was a bad idea – it was just that people were duped into thinking that odd camera angles were avant garde and cool. I blame Rodchenko – the smile-less Soviet photographer of the Stalin era. His portraits make him look like a serial killer…but without the whimsy…
Well, back to the level. The old cameras and the studio cameras with multiple spirit levels were constructed that way for one purpose – to allow the photographer to zero the planes of the camera to avoid distortion of the image. Good photographic enlargers of the period might also have had levels.
When you ignore what a spirit level tells you, you run the risk of converging parallels in a vertical shot or sloping horizons in a landscape view. However you try to excuse this, and whatever construction you attempt to put on it, it still looks like you failed to do your duty. Or failed to actually know what your duty was.
The clip-on spirit level did for the small-format camera what the built-in levels did on studio and field plate cameras. People could put on a one, two, or three axis bubble in an acrylic block and make sure that the camera on the tripod was level in all axes. Then it was up to them to add the correct focal length lens, set the exposure, and hope that the subjects co-operated.
Now, in the digital era, we have the chance to see the same display on the LCD screen at the back of the camera, or in an electronic view finder. There’s a green line that floats there like the artificial horizon on an aircraft instrument. If we are lucky, we also have a little bracket that shows whether the camera is level front to back – or tilted up or down. It can be a little daunting to separate the information when it is presented all at once, but the dual nature of it means you can actually do the business while hand holding the camera as well, It just means that you have to be a darned good juggler.
I want more. I want a screen representation of level in three axes. There are times when it is essential to accurate depiction of products in a small studio. I know that sometimes I am going to have to sacrifice one lot of distortion to illustrate two surfaces but I do not want to have to deal with three lots of it at the same time.