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How-to's Camera Reviews

Nikon's Virtual Horizon Feature: Two Great Ways to Use It

Ernesto Santos (esantos)


Keywords: virtual_horizon, landscape, leveling, panorama, correction

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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.

nikon virtual horizon

 

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.

Nikon Virtual Horizon in viewfinder

Virtual Horizon Viewed in 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.

 Nikon D810 viewfinder with Virtual Horizon Indicators

Viewfinder of Nikon D810 with Virtual Horizon Indicators

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.

(32 Votes )
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Originally written on June 5, 2015

Last updated on April 28, 2016

31 comments

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on November 8, 2017

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Jack, Dennis, Please make your questions at the camera model forum in each case. i.e. the Nikon D500 forum and the Nikon D850, D810, D800 forum.

Dennis V. Hughes (dvhughes) on November 7, 2017

My D850 is a little different. Still don't know how to get the virtual horizon into my viewfinder like on my 800.

Jack Moskovita (jack65) on April 12, 2017

So how do you set it up on the D500?

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on December 14, 2016

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Charles, welcome to Nikonians. You may ask your question in the forums. Cite the article in the D750 forum.

Charles Forman (ChuckFSr) on December 11, 2016

I have a D750 with both the viewfinder and live view virtual horizon features. The viewfinder version does not offer a pitch up/down meter. The viewfinder does have separate roll meters, one that is visible when the camera is held horizontally and another which is visible when it is held vertically. I have to wonder why they couldn't do double duty at pitch meters when the other is being a roll meter. I guess that's why one spends another $800+ for a D810. :-) Having said that, I would like to know what the value of a pitch meter is. I can understand wanting to minimize or eliminate unwanted tilting with roll metering. However, when a picture is framed, the camera will probably be pointed up or down to some degree. Under what circumstance would the photographer want to keep the camera at or near a 0 degree pitch? Finally, to be honest, I generally find the viewfinder roll meter to be next to useless. When there is sufficient ambient light I generally eyeball a pretty level shot. I might be off a degree or 2 but that usually doesn't matter. I could really use it when the ambient lighting is low and visual orientation clues are hard to see thru the viewfinder. As the article points out, the roll meter is always black and is virtually invisible under these circumstances. I don't understand why Nikon couldn't turn it white in low-light situations.

Peter Milton (miltonpics) on September 17, 2015

Good article. The virtual horizon feature was one I was excited about when I got my D810 and I use it all the time. I sometimes want to take a pano when out without a tripod and must therefore do it hand held. I have found the virtual horizon a massive help in these situations. I can now get really clean panos that have very little variation in top and bottom coverage across the whole pano.

Robert Banks (knutsonspider) on September 4, 2015

Thanks.............being on the level is something we should all master.........even with our camera!

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on July 11, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Hi Robert, It doesn't, but it can help level the camera as you go through the exercise to find the nodal point. The common way to find the nodal point is to go through the process of aligning the camera behind two objects well apart at a distance. You then pan the camera (which is on an adjustable rail and on a tripod) and look through the viewfinder. You should see that the two objects move in relation to each other as you pan - the result of parallax shift. Now, adjust the camera on the sliding rail and repeat the pan until you do not see the two distant objects shift in relation to each other. That is the nodal point for that camera/lens/focal length combination.

Robert Andrews (Snapd) on July 9, 2015

Ernesto, How does the virtual horizon help with finding the nodal point of your lens? Robert

Shane E (bv1) on June 30, 2015

Thanks Ernesto for your comment, I have now read page 2. I was in a rush yesterday and didn't notice your article had two pages. I have used the LV Virtual Horizon and found it is useful at times but for single shot night photography I try to keep LV to an absolute minimum due to battery life and sensor heating. While LV VH could appear useful for night time mosaics I find pano gear a necessity instead, since it is too easy too loose track of positioning in the night sky.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on June 30, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Shane - I agree, the VH which you see in the viewfinder is of little use in very dim light. You might also try using the VH that is available in Live View which I describe briefly at the end of my article.

Shane E (bv1) on June 29, 2015

I have the Viewfinder Virtual Horizon setup for the AE/AF-L button and although it is useful in daylight I find it frustrating to use at night. It briefly illuminates by half pressing the shutter release button but does not stay illuminated long enough to make useful corrections (can this be adjusted somewhere?). For night shots I also setup my Fn button for the Top Item in my Custom Menu and set Virtual Horizon to the top item. This Virtual Horizon option is found in the Setup Menu and differs from the Viewfinder Virtual Horizon. This version provides an illuminated Virtual Horizon projected onto the rear LCD and is much more useful when shooting in dark conditions.

Dr. Deborah Goetz (DrDebG) on June 28, 2015

Thank you for your article. It was very informative. As you suggested, I programmed VH for my function button. It works wonderfully, and my panos are dead on. Thank you again for sharing!

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on June 13, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to comment. I really appreciate the feedback, and helps me in writing future articles. As I suspected, most Nikonians are pretty sophisticated photographers and it is great to hear most of you are using VH in some form or another. I hope my explanations help those who have yet to try it. Cheers! Ernesto

Steven Greenbaum (Steve6344) on June 13, 2015

This method works well if the tripod is level. Since I find it difficult to level the tripod, I purchased a RRS panning clamp which sits atop my bullhead. I then level the ball head using its built in spirit level. Since the panning element sits on top of the leveled ball head, it doesn't matter if the tripod legs are not leveled.

John D. Roach (jdroach) on June 13, 2015

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Ernesto, Nice article! While the D750 has a different look for this feature, it is nice to have. I sort of wish that Nikon would use the same technology that Fujifilm does in its X-Series, X-T1, etc. for this.....it is available anytime one views the LCD.

Ron Ward (RonWard) on June 11, 2015

Excellent article with relevance. Thank you

Frederic Hore (voyageurfred) on June 11, 2015

A good read and useful article Ernesto. I would like to add some points and suggestions. First - I always shoot in Manual mode. I will first find the brightest area in my pano using Aperture priority, by taking some test shots and noting the exposure, then set my shutter, aperture and ISO according to the amount of DOF I need and speed to freeze, if necessary moving objects in the scene. If Aperture priority indicates my speed will be too low, for example in a scene with bobbing boats or moving vegetation, then I will raise the ISO if necessary to get the right shutter speed for the mm of the lens. With my cam now set to manual mode, the exposures will be the SAME across the scene from frame to frame. This eliminates and differences in scene brightness between frames, especially if working a setting sun into an image. Second - I agree Auto white should not be used, again to avoid differences between frames, especially in changeable light. (You cannot really "turn it off", but rather choose another WB setting, or create a custom WB). I always use the daylight setting for outdoor images, to emulate what I would get on film. I find the Nikon colour tenp settings at daylight to be just fine. I always shoot in RAW mode, so I can easily tweak it in PS later, if I want to warm up or cool down a shot, by bringing in all the RAW images together into PS, then using the Synchro setting to do adjustments on all opened images at the same time. While I like and use the VF on my D800 for single, tripod mounted photos, for pano's, I have found that the Ultimate Level Base made by Acratech, is a very fast way to get my Acratech GV2 ball head dead level. Even if your tripod is pitched 10 degrees off from vertical, this device allows you to level your cam ballhead in a snap! More here: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/431861-REG/Acratech_1117_Leveling_Base.html Hope this helps! Cheers, Frederic in Montréal

E.B. Miller (ebuzz2k) on June 10, 2015

Thank you! I'm going to try this because on my last trip I noticed that almost all my images are tilted to the right! Hate that.

User on June 10, 2015

An informative article Ernesto, thank you. A simple solution well described.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on June 10, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Simon - In some instances, yes. But I wouldn't get rid of one if you have it. As I mentioned in the article, this method works best with longer focal lengths and when there is no prominent feature in close within the foreground. When I make panoramas using a wide lens (50 mm or wider) I still use the usual method of finding the nodal point, setting the camera/lens unit using a rail, leveling the camera, and using a panning clamp to pan from shot to shot.

Scott Sternberg (Bump57) on June 10, 2015

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Thanks Ernesto for putting this together. I am always using VH for single shots but never thought about using it for panos, great tip! I can't wait to try it out...

Simon W (Gromit44) on June 10, 2015

Ernesto, Would this do away with the need for a special pano head?

Nathan Ginsbury (Ginsbury) on June 10, 2015

Thanks, Ernesto, for mentioning this. I had, of course, read it at some time in the manual but had (don't ask why) never actually used it, although I should have done, should have done, should have done. I have a Df and have programmed the Preview button to show the virtual horizon. The scale at the bottom is visible through the viewfinder but not the scale on the right. Nathan

Mark Wiltrakis (Hideo Gump) on June 6, 2015

VERY good info - many thanks Ernesto.

User on June 6, 2015

Yes. Just check already done that on my D800E Thank

Dale Maas (marnigirl) on June 6, 2015

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Thanks Ernesto, I had read about that feature but had not really investigated it. I see now it has value. Great explanation! Dale

Gary Poole (gpoole) on June 5, 2015

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Great article Ernesto. I've been using the viewfinder virtual horizon since I got a D800 soon after they were released, so the first section is old hat to me. Only difference is that I chose the AE/AF-L button instead of the Fn button. The second section was a completely new idea to me. I'll be sure to try it out the next time I attempt a pano. Note that in the D4 & D4s the virtual horizon indicators are different. When in landscape orientation, the exposure scale at the right of the viewfinder is the pitch (up/down) indicator and the center row of focus point rectangles is the roll (left/right) indicator. For roll only the center focus point is lit when level and the number of focus points lit left or right of center indicates the amount of roll. For pitch there is no little arrowhead at the level point, just the 0 on the scale. The roles of the indicators reverse when in portrait orientation.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on June 5, 2015

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Yes, I've experienced the same behavior. I thinking that VH draws a lot of battery power and Nikon purposely has designed it to minimize battery chewing. Nevertheless, it is still one of my favorite features in the newer cameras.

Howard Mager (hmager) on June 5, 2015

I love this feature on my D810 but have one minor complaint. In low level lighting the VH indicators disappear. If you repress the assigned Fn button or tap the shutter it will highlight in red for a second allowing you to see the indicators. If they can, Nikon should add this in their next software upgrade.

Carl Weaver (ov1av8r) on June 5, 2015

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Since I am right handed, many of my quick shots lean slightly to the left a couple of degrees. I sometimes have to correct the lean in Lightroom during post processing. Now with the virtual horizon set on my Fn button, I can correct this on the spot. Great idea - thanks.

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