When it comes to composition, photographers have a huge collection of tools and techniques to use to create strong, interesting photographs. The rule of thirds is a well-known technique, so is symmetry or negative space. Another compositional technique that photographers use to help guide their viewer’s eyes and tell their stories is leading lines.
You might think that leading lines are most common in landscape photography, but you can use them in any genre. Here, we are going to look at the different types of lines you can find in photos and how to use them to the best effect.
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What are leading lines?
Leading lines are lines that occur naturally in a scene. When we say ‘naturally,’ that means they are a normal part of the image, and you’ve not drawn them in. These lines can be organic, for example, a river, or human-made, like railway tracks. They don’t even have to exist: the direction someone looks in can be one.
You use them to direct your viewers’ eyes to your main subject or to draw them through the scene.
Different types of leading lines
Leading lines can appear in several different forms in your frame. Here are six examples of them that you will find in photography.
Horizontal leading lines
Horizontal lines run as you would expect: across your frame from left to right. They are useful because they can give a photo a sense of stability or calm. They can also divide your image into clear areas with different colors or textures.
The horizon is the most common example of a horizontal leading line but anything running across your frame works. Think of fences, telegraph wires, or electricity pylons. You will probably find them easiest to shoot using a wide-angle lens.
It’s probably not a surprise, but vertical leading lines run up and down your image. They do not have to run from the bottom of the frame to the top completely. They need to move in that direction. Trees, skyscrapers, and even people can form them. They often have a positive feeling.
Diagonal leading lines are very versatile. You can use them to suggest movement and change. As they run from the foreground to the background, they also emphasize the sense of depth in an image.
I bet that when you think of leading lines, the version that pops into your head is of converging lines. These happen when two or more lines meet at a point. Examples would be railway tracks or a pier or jetty going out into a lake or the sea. It’s usually best to position your focal point where the lines meet.
Curved leading lines are usually found in nature. They often have a softer, more organic feel. Shorelines and flower stems are good examples.
Implied leading lines do not exist physically, but you know that they are there. The best example of an implied line is someone’s sight line. Humans are nosy. When we see that someone is looking in a particular direction, we are inclined to look there, too!
Something like a row of lamp posts can form an implied leading line, too. It’s not a definite line, but you can follow it.
Why leading lines are important
Humans like patterns and humans are nosy. We find patterns reassuring. We like to follow lines and see where they go. Leading lines always go somewhere and they often involve creating or following a pattern. This makes them very appealing. And that makes for strong images.
As well bringing calmness to a photo, they can also add tension. You might think that tension is a bad thing, after all, who likes tension in their shoulder muscles? But, in photography terms tension can mean a few different things. It can be the feeling of anticipation or excitement, as if something is just about to happen in a scene. Or it can refer to the way that a photo hangs together, for example how colours might complement and contrast, or sides balance against each other. This is how you can use leading lines to add tension to a scene.
A path vs. a line
It’s not essential to know the difference between a path and a line, but knowledge is fun. A path points to the horizon line. A line will take you to a focal point that isn’t necessarily at the horizon.
Tips for shooting leading lines
- Keep your eyes open – they are everywhere: look for them!
- Pick your focal point – make sure that your lines send your viewer to the right place. You want clarity, not confusion.
- Get in position – being in the right place at the right time is important. If you’re using the sun’s rays or shadows remember that they will move.
- Use a wide-angle lens – it’s not essential, but very often a wide-angle lens gives you the chance to let a line flow into the scene.
- Alter your angles – getting high and low with your camera can change how your lines move through your scene. Experiment!
- Pay attention to the background – don’t concentrate so hard on the lines that you forget about the background. Your photo needs to work as a whole.
- Take multiple shots – change your viewpoint and the direction of travel of a line to give yourself some variety.
- Keep straight lines straight – when a line in your scene is straight, make sure that it is straight in your photo. Lines that aren’t level make people feel uneasy.
Examples of leading lines in photography
If you’re not sure where to look for them, the following places might give you some inspiration:
- At the beach, look for waves, piers, jetties, patterns in the sand, and the shoreline
- In cities, look at buildings and their roofs, bricks, and windows, as well as roads
- In generals, look out for trees, telegraph poles, and sun rays
Using leading lines will come naturally to you when you look for them and you practise putting them into your photos. It doesn’t matter what type of photography you do, from street photography to macro, they can appear anywhere. They can come from long shadows or bridges. They can bring a sense of perspective to an image and send someone to its main focal point. Leading lines are very valuable tools: get to know them!
Leading lines are lines within a photo that help to tell its story. They can direct the viewer’s attention to a focal point. Or they can guide your gaze through the frame.
Six: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved, converging, and implied.
The sun’s rays, shadows, and rivers are all examples of organic leading lines.
Roads, railways tracks, and buildings can all create leading lines.
A leading line doesn’t have to be a physical thing. You can suggest one with someone’s line of sight.
Anytime that you look in a photo and see a point where all lines meet, you are probably looking at a leading lines composition.