Few compositional techniques are easier to pick up and start using than leading lines photography. Once you start looking for them, lines are everywhere. They're in nearly every shot you take anyway, so why not use them to your advantage? Even if you don't realize it, your photo's lines are affecting how the viewer receives your photography.
Understanding how the audience approaches your work will go a long way in helping you recognize how to make your images more appealing and attractive to a broader audience.
What is Leading Line Photo?
Leading lines are compositional elements in your photo that help direct the viewer's eye as they see your work. When someone approaches an artwork that is new to them, their eyes travel over the composition to take it all in. How easily or how difficult this task affects their feelings about the composition.
If your photograph is of a beachside lighthouse on a stormy night, your audience will approach the photo looking to take it all in. The easiest tool for you to use to grab their hand and help them check it all out is to use various lines in the composition. If a winding path is in the foreground, their eyes will want to follow that path. Does it lead to the lighthouse you want them to see, or does it distract them and take them out of the frame?
In the example above, if the viewer has followed the footpath only to get lost in a tangle of sea oats and dunes, you've probably lost their interest. However, if the path led them over the dunes to the lighthouse, they are engaged and interested in your subject. If the beams of light spread out from the lighthouse and bring their attention to dark foreboding clouds on the sea, they've gone on a journey with you. You've successfully told them a story, and that's the ultimate goal.
On a more basic level, the line or lines of a composition also give people clues about what the image is about and what you were trying to say with it. It helps set a mood and it points out the important elements. Our article on Photography Composition highlights tips and techniques that will help you understand the basics.
Types of Leading Lines
Much like colors, lines affect people on a subconscious level. The orientation of the line in the frame makes an emotional connection that even the photographer may not realize at first. Additionally, how bold and distinct the line is makes a difference too. A highway disappearing into the endless desert may dominate the photo, while the surf line at a beach my do the job but not be evident to the viewer.
Side-to-side leading lines give the viewer a sense of stability. They're associated with feelings of tranquility or calmness.
Horizontal lines are subtle because we see them everywhere. The horizon is a natural horizontal leading line in landscape photography. Most lines are viewed from left to right as if reading a book. You can compose your images to use this flow when showing movement or a journey. It's an excellent method of storytelling, too. There are distinct beginnings and endings.
In contrast, lines that run up and down convey authority or power. Imagine standing in a forest, with huge trees towering over you. Their trunks make leading lines that go from the ground up into the sky. Your eyes are drawn to the top, to figure out how high they can go. They make you feel small.
Diagonal lines through the frame make the viewer sense movement and change. Mountain ridges feel like they grow out of the horizon.
Again, these lines are usually viewed from left to right. When viewed that way, a line that slopes down will have a different feel than a line that slopes upward. Downward sloping lines feel soothing, like a plane coming in for a landing. Diagonal lines going upwards are like planes taking off, creating tension, and hinting at a building climax.
When two lines in the frame get closer together, they grab and keep the viewer's attention. They also lock the audience's focus with laser-like precision on one point in the photograph–where the lines meet.
Converging lines are quite common in photography thanks to the normal perspective that occurs from most vantage points. The edges of a road converge ahead, making it seem like a natural path that leads off in the distance. This is an obvious example, but you can use converging lines in other ways too. Furrowed fields can be composed in such a way that the lines converge to a subject.
Crossing or Intersecting Lines
Be wary of using intersecting lines in compositions, or more accurately, be careful to avoid them unless you intend to use them. They can cause confusion and tension, like a collision in the mind of the viewer. When two lines meet, the eye doesn't know which exit to take. Of course, you can use it to your advantage when the story requires it.
Leading lines photo composition elements don't need to be straight. While straight lines catch the eye best, curved lines are more natural and less rigid. Most leading lines you find in nature will likely be curved, like shorelines or clouds. They have less structure, and they're less likely to be noticed as a leading line by the audience. But in using them, you will achieve the same effect. Read this article for a few more worthy tips on how to take awesome beach photos.
Another great advantage of curved lines is that they can lead the viewer on an indirect path. That means that they can cover more of the frame, spending more time wandering around.
There are certain situations where there is a line that the viewer's eyes follow, but there is not actually a line in the photograph. The most commonly cited example is when the model or subject is looking at something in the frame. In this case, the viewer's eyes naturally follow the subject's gaze. The audience wants to know what has the model's attention.
There are other examples of this beyond the line of sight, though. Tracks or footprints create an implied path, as do vehicles and vessels traveling through the frame.
Composition Tips Using Leading Lines
Using these lines in your compositions is all about storytelling. The easiest place to start is with a simple photo of a footpath leading through the woods. If you just had a picture of the footpath, it would be pretty dull. If you had a photograph of the trees and underbrush, it would be cluttered and confusing. But when you combine them into one composition, a story begins to unfold. A person can see themself walking on that footpath. They can see the way they would walk and where they'd be going. Their eye follows the path and then looks at the trees and the scenery around there. This example illustrates the basic concept, but there's a lot more to tell.
What about lines in architectural photography? Before you read on, have a look at our Guide on Architecture Photography, an art to itself that many people enjoy and appreciate. Leading lines are just as important in those situations, but people generally don't imagine themselves walking up the sides of buildings like Spiderman. Still, the eye follows paths and lines in the same way. As a photographer, you can harness this like a superpower to guide your viewers any which way you want.
The direction of the path you choose to use is also important. There are no rules that it has to go one way or another. It is generally true that people view two-dimensional media from left to right. But this is just a guide.
In our example above, with the path through the woods, the path probably led from the foreground to the background. That's a great place to start because these types of lines bind the image together and connect what otherwise might be disconnected elements.
Other types of lines might go through the frame from side to side or even lead the viewer around in circles. Imagine using a spiral staircase to lead the viewer in a circle around the frame. The same could be accomplished with a circular garden path.
The final element of using these lines is to place your subject carefully. In our forest path example, maybe the path is the subject. But more often than not, the composition will feel more complete if there is something at the end where the path leads.
Having your subject placed correctly is easy, so long as you're using a model or something you can move around. If you're taking landscapes or architecture, you might have to move around until you find the right combination of lines and subject placement. When working with lines that lead back from the foreground, shifting your position a few meters left or right might be a simple solution.
Another great way to use lines in photography is to use them to create symmetry. Symmetry is when parts of the image mirror other parts. Reflections in ponds are always visually appealing images. Architects often incorporate reflection pools into monuments for this very reason.
One last tip for using lines in your composition is to always avoid leading your viewer astray. Lines should go somewhere; the journey should be complete in one way or another. It’s okay for them to lead into a void or off-frame if your goal is to build suspense or mystery. But if there is a clear subject you’re trying to lead them to, doing so will only sow confusion.
Examples of Leading Lines Photography
Anything that people travel down makes a great leading line photo. Roads, railroads, runways, paths, and trails are all examples of things the eye will naturally follow because your viewer is used to traveling down them.
In landscape photography, there are plenty of lines to use, even if they may be less noticeable. Shorelines or tide lines work well. Most people think of these lines are horizontal since they are usually viewed from onshore looking out, and they certainly can be used that way. But if you take your image from the tide line looking down the beach, the line now stretches from the foreground to the background. This perspective is a much more exciting composition because instead of bisecting the frame, the tide line now binds the elements together.
Clouds are another source of lines in nature. The bases of clouds often form shelves or rigid lines. But the sloping lines of fog banks and cumulus clouds can make good lead lines too. Beams of sunlight shining through the clouds make powerful and impactful lines. The horizon can work just as well as a side-to-side line, but it can be challenging to use it in a way that does not merely bisect the photo into two disparate environments.
Lines are everywhere in nature. Mountain ridges, rock formations, and landmarks like canyons make great lines to use. You can focus on stratiform details in rock formations to add interesting details to landscapes. In the forest or green spaces, tree trunks, plants and shrubs, and even grasses form lines that can be used.
Lines in Architecture
Architects use lines just like photographers do. When composing building images, one important job for the photographer to do while setting up is to figure out where the architects intended lines are. They are probably obvious, but it takes a little practice to find them and use them. Of course, whatever the architect intended can be used by the photographer. But since the photographer is working with the finished product, there may be other lines around the building that they can add or use on their own.
Cities and street photography tend to have their own lines, based on street markings, sidewalks, traffic lights, rows of lamposts, and powerlines. Lines are everywhere in the city and urban environments, you just have to start looking for them.
Another powerful tool to use is the patterns made by tiles inside buildings or the masonry work on the exterior. Everyone appreciates the beauty of artistically laid out tiles and bricks, but the photographer will see infinite combinations of compositional lines. Tiles can be a mishmash of converging lines, though. It takes some careful planning to turn it into an appealing composition.
When reviewing modeling poses, remember that the model's arms, legs, or fingers can be used as lines. Portrait photographers often include hands in headshots to provide a guide for the eyes. Here is an article on tips to master the art of Portrait Photography. You might also want to read our Guide on well-executed couple poses.
Poses can be done in such a way that the model subtly points or gestures at something in the image. If the model is gazing elsewhere in the frame, their line of gaze is a natural reference for which the audience. Everyone will automatically look to see what the model is interacting with, which can be a powerful implied line.
There is a delicate balance with these images, though, since you need to consider what the model guides people to see. If it's outside the frame and not visible, it might add confusion. If done right and if it matches the mood of the composition, this might add an air of mystery that makes the audience speculate. But if it's done wrong, it might just look awkward.
If the subject of their gaze is in the frame, it shouldn't distract from the model. Landscape and travel photographers often use models to draw attention to the environment. The model is an accent to the surrounding scenery. Seeing a person in the photograph adds to the feeling of being there yourself, which is a great beginning to get the viewer to step into the frame. Once in the composition with the model, they'll follow the models posing and positioning to experience the environment.
Macro photography has the same techniques and thought processes. The lines are on the smaller side, though. The petals of a flower or the stems of a plant are good examples. The natural world is chock full of patterns, and once you zoom in on the macro world you will see them even more clearly. Just because it’s an image of tiny things doesn’t make composition and lines any less important.
As previously mentioned, implied lines are ones that aren't actually in the photo but that the viewer's gaze follows anyway. There are many examples of them, like animal tracks in the snow or footprints on a sandy beach.
If an object is moving through your frame, it also creates an implied line. What is it moving away from, and where is it going? A boat sailing on an ocean might point to a distant island. A plane flying through the air implies that it's going somewhere, but where? If you can include elements like these in your photos, you will shift your photography from capturing a moment to telling a story. These are simple examples of how aesthetics can be put to work. Do read our article with 10 simple tips on how to take aesthetic photos.
Lines appear in your photography, whether you plan for them or not. It's an essential element of composition to learn and understand because these lines significantly affect your viewers and how they perceive your image.
The challenge with creating an excellent leading lines photo is to convert the three-dimensional world you see with your eyes into a 2D image with a camera. Lines are much less evident in the real world, so it does take practice to successfully figure out how to use them in your pictures. But once you do you control how your viewers experience your artwork. And that’s one of the most powerful superpowers a photographer can harness.
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