Nikon’s Virtual Horizon (VH), a feature in many of their newest DSLRs, is a great new tool that I absolutely love to incorporate in my shooting techniques. While most of us might be familiar with how this feature works, there is a way to set it up in your camera that makes it instantly available and can seriously cut down the time it takes to frame the scene level when you are shooting. Moreover, I’ve been using a new way of shooting panoramas with Virtual Horizon that in many cases has eliminated the need for all that extra panorama equipment, the tedious exercise of finding the lens center point (nodal point), and having to precisely level the camera on your tripod. As long as your tripod is reasonably level you can incorporate this new technique and get easy stitches every time.
How to use Virtual Horizon efficiently
This is an easy set-up, but your camera must have the Virtual Horizon tool and it must have the programmable Function (Fn) button. Here is how I set up my Nikon D810 so that I can access VH instantly and view it through the viewfinder.
1. Bring up the Camera Menu and under the CUSTOM SETTINGS MENU go to “f Controls”. Scroll down to “f4 - Assign Fn button”. Press the right arrow button once. You will now see a list of functions available. Select “Viewfinder virtual horizon”. Press the OK button.
2. Your function button is now set to show the virtual horizon tool in the viewfinder. To access it simply press the function button once. In the viewfinder you should now see two scales – one running left-to-right on the bottom of the screen, and on the right side of the screen you should see the same scale running from top-to-bottom. To turn off the virtual horizon press the function button once.
Since the function button is located just under the Depth of Field (DOF) button it is really easy to call up the Virtual Horizon feature without even having to take your eye off the viewfinder. Here is an example of what you will see in the viewfinder when VH is active.
Notice the scales at the bottom and at the right. Now, in reality, it will not look like this. If the camera is not dead-level you will see the center line for each indicator and graduations in the form of those small upright rectangles in the direction which the camera is tilted on either axis. The more the rectangles the more the camera is tilted away from level. If the camera is level you will only see the center line and a small arrow point under it. Just to be clear, the scale at the bottom indicates camera roll from side to side. The scale on the right shows camera pitch up or down. One thing to remember when leveling the camera is that you always want to roll or pitch the camera in the direction of the stacked graduations. So, if you see several rectangles on the right side of the center of the scale on the bottom you must roll the camera to the right to center it. The same for the up and down pitch indicator. Rectangles above the center line - tilt the camera up.
I hope you can now see how convenient this set up is. Before I had a camera with this feature I would spend a lot of time setting up my framing, and trying, sometimes desperately in fading light, to get the camera level. It is difficult enough trying to find a shooting situation that works aesthetically, positioning yourself, dialing in critical focus, adjusting filters, evaluating exposure, and then, on top of that, making sure your camera is not askew. I am not one who is keen on throwing away valuable pixels because of framing errors, so straightening and cropping an image in post is always something I want to avoid.