Leading lines is a well-known composition rule that’s been used since the birth of art. Even if you’ve never heard of the rule before, you’ve likely used it to some degree in your photographs.
Lines are a natural part of how we navigate through our lives. They’re everywhere!
Opening your eyes to this rule will help you better understand how lines guide your vision. More important, it’ll help you become more aware of the infinite opportunities to compose with lines.
This lesson will show you a few of the most common known rules of handling leading lines. While the following techniques are by no means all of the techniques possible, consider it an entry gate to the world of lines.
Lines Control the Visual Experience
Think of a photograph as a visual map. Within this map are lines. When a viewer looks at any photo, their eyes are naturally guided by the strongest lines within the frame.
This is what is referred to as a ‘leading line’.
Fences bridges, shorelines, sidewalks… all of these can work as leading lines within a frame.
The first thing to know is that there is no definitive, concrete example of a leading line. Almost anything and everything that has a line and is used to lead a viewer within an image can be seen as a leading line.
It is for this reason that leading lines is a very easy technique to use and understand, but quite a challenge to master. More on that later.
As I cover in The Art of Framing, all lines within a frame serve as a way to guide your viewer. Leading lines are those lines which are most prominent and influential on your viewer.
They provide the most force in guiding the viewer to explore.
The following are a few of the most common ways leading lines can lead viewers.
#1. Drawing the Viewer Into the Image
Lines are often used to lead viewer into the content of the frame. Often times, lines are composed from the bottom left/right corner or from across the bottom and into the main substance of the frame.
When viewers see this structuring, they naturally follow the lines to see where they lead.
This type of framing makes it easy for viewers to immediately get immersed into your photograph, viewing your main subject of interest.
A common example of this when you place your camera directly in the center of a road and shoot towards the horizon, with the road leading there.
This creates a vanishing point, where the lines of the road converge into a theoretical infinity. When viewers see this, they naturally follow the strong lines towards the horizon.
Outside of this common usage, lines can be used in numerous other ways to lead viewers into the frame. As you’ll soon see later in this lesson, there are way more opportunities to use lines than just roads.
When this approach is used, you usually want the lines to lead directly to your subject or most important part of the frame. Viewers will naturally gravitate towards where the lines converge and if there’s nothing there, the photograph will likely fail to hold interest.
#2. Leading Viewers From A to B
Consider lines as connecting dots in photography. In the language of English, they’re like the words and structure that tie several ideas together. They provide flow, motion, and a framework for a seamless visual experience.
When you have several objects within a frame, for example, you can compose your image to utilize implied lines to connect all of the objects together. This will allow viewers to easily move from point A to point B with ease.
Lines do not need to be obvious. You can imply lines by your arrangement of objects.
As long as the connection is not too ambiguous, viewers will subconsciously connect the dots.
#3. Creating a Sense of Depth
Try this. Find a wall nearby and place a subject directly in front of it. Face directly towards the subject and wall and take a picture.
Now, move yourself to face the subject and wall at a 90 degree angle. When you take a picture from this angle, the lines of the wall will create a diagonal motion, creating a sense of depth.
Depth creates implied lines that can be used to lead viewers within your photograph.
The use of depth can also connect separate areas of your scene together. You can, for example, use depth to connect a foreground area to a distant background. Without a sense of depth, it would be much more difficult for viewers to move from foreground to background.
#4. Create a Sense of Direction and Flow
As covered in my post on The Power of Perception, different types of lines create different emotional experiences.
- Horizontal lines create a sense of calmness.
- Vertical lines imply strength.
- Diagonal lines add motion, movement, and conflict.
When composing your image, knowing the line type you’re using will allow you to better foresee the emotional experience it will create. If you want to avoid a highly dynamic image and prefer a more tranquil scene, you can take measures to reduce vertical lines.
If vertical lines are from depth, you can minimize depth by using a longer focal length lens. If they’re caused by your angle, you can re-position yourself.
It’s More Than Just the Obvious
If you base your usage of leading lines solely on the obvious lines around you, you’ll likely miss out on numerous opportunities.
Lines are everywhere.
The better you can see them, the better you can channel their power.
Fortunately, the way lines are created is quite simple. It all comes down to two things…
Our eyes naturally gravitate towards light and away from darkness. This creates a contrast of light and dark, or chiaroscuro.
When we see light in contrast with dark, we naturally see the formation of lines.
This is what allows us to read the environment around us, noting the lines and shadows that imply depth.
Without a sense of contrast, we wouldn’t be able to walk down a flight of stairs. All of the stairs would appear the same shade. There would be no shadows to show where we need to step.
As you navigate through your daily life, start taking note of the contrasts of light and dark. Heck, if you’re at a computer right now take a quick glance at your keyboard.
It’s the light around you that creates the shadows around your keyboard, allowing you to see exactly where to push. It’s the light that also creates the lare and glow around the edges of each key. While the keyboard itself was molded to have depth, without light this depth is not perceivable. It can only be felt.
This one is pretty similar to light, but somewhat different. A rugged desert landscape is the perfect scene to better illustrate.
Visit the scene on a sunny day around noon and you’ll see strong contrasts and lines created from the harsh, direct lighting.
The scene, comprised of numerous layers from rocks and earth, creates layers upon layers of lines – when direct, harsh light is present.
Come back on an overcast sunrise or afternoon and the terrain will take a different mood. The harsh, strong lines will vanish and a soft, surreal effect will take its place.
When two complementary colors (two hues opposite to each other on the Basic Color Wheel) take up an equal portion of a frame, a line will be created at the dividing line.
While not as commonly used as lines created from light contrasts, color contrast can make for creative, abstract usages of leading lines.
Use Leading Lines to Express, Not to Impress
I remember the first set of images I took for an exercise to use the rule of leading lines. Nearly every image I took appeared forced.
I was looking for lines and composing them to ‘lead’ somewhere.
Yes, there are lines all around us…
- Electric lines
…and this makes the technique a very easy one to overuse and not truly understand.
To avoid this, I recommend first knowing what you want to capture. What is your vision? What emotion or experience do you want to convey?
Then, and only then, ask yourself how lines can help convey that message. Going the other way, finding subjects to fit the mold of ‘leading lines’, is a recipe for superficiality.
Focus on your vision and let your tools – your DSLR, exposure know-how, and composition ability – guide you.