I like to use the leading lines technique because the world is just chock full of lines and so it just can’t be helped – but I also like to think it’s because it makes me feel that my photo is going to take you somewhere. Sometimes the destination is not so important, it’s the journey that counts. And don’t we all like that feeling like we are actually going somewhere? So, be it a road, or a dotted line, or the sweep of an arc, a line will take you places.
A lot of photographers do reject these rules though. Ansel Adams, for example, (who I would actually argue was more of a master in printing than a master in composition) said: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
Or how about another non-fan of the rules:
“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.” Edward Weston
I suppose the point of putting these quotes up front, apart from the fact that they make me laugh, is everyone has their own path, what they love to shoot and their way of pursuing excellence. I like to pepper all of my teaching with the idea that there is always another way of thinking and doing things.
There are always new (and old) ideas to challenge yourself with and take your photography further. So follow what feels right for you – learning photography should never be a dogmatic experience. Practising, exploring and committing to developing your photography is really what is most important.
As a slight deviation, but not really, this is a great 2 minute video from Jason Silva about Creative Flow states and how when you are in the creative zone or the creative flow state the part of your brain responsible for self-editing goes dim. That’s when pushing past rules or bending them can really pay off. Perfection is not just about control, says Silva, but also about letting go.
So now let’s get totally into those lines…
What’s exciting about leading lines is that even though I’ve been using it for twenty years, it has developed with my work over the years so that I have been able to become much more sophisticated in my use of the technique. It’s like the idea that in order to express simplicity you need to practice and practise and practise.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci
So – I don’t want to just use the most obvious examples of leading lines in this guide. Subtly using composition techniques is a great way to enhance your photos, although when you start out you’ll probably be making really obvious uses of these techniques as you get familiar with them.
Leading lines has given me some really awesome photos that I am very proud of. With rules I suggest:
- Learn them
- Embed them into your photography by practising them madly
- They will become an automatic way of seeing for you which then helps you to:
- Bend and develop them into your own practise and then finally
- Break them at will, when it’s right for the photo
I think Picasso sums it up really well (as usual):
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Photographs are not just a collection of elements that are flat and are easily read. Photography has a myriad of ways to tell stories, to express multiple ideas and to take you places both physically and into your imagination. It does this with as much as you include in the photo as what you leave out.
Leading lines can:
- Take your eye on a journey – either through the photo or out of it completely (and with roads and paths, often to infinity)
- Direct your eye to the main subject of the photo
- Direct your eye in a specific order through various elements of a photo
- Lines create depth in a photo – and this is a really fun idea to play with
All compositional techniques help you tell a story
Think of lines as a tool to help you tell a story in your photograph. When you find your subject, ask yourself – are there any ways that a narrative can be created by enhancing it with lines? Usually when I find something I want to shoot I will move around it looking for angles and lines and a secondary element to support it. Take time to really look and see all the elements in your composition. Make every element matter.
Where I stop to take the photo all depends on what I am trying to say. Diagonal lines, horizontal lines, vertical lines all convey different feelings.
Are great for bringing energy and movement into an image. They can express a variety of messages. These neatly stacked diagonals are juxtaposed with the energy of the trees. Perhaps the rigidity and force of man next to nature’s wild beauty? Nature has a uniformity that is totally different from man’s, perhaps?
For a sense of calm and peace. Our eyes seem to find this direction the most reassuring. This one is obvious:
But how about this one? Horizontal lines still, but a very different subject – urban, a bit grimy and messy. Still calming? I would say yes. I think the eye likes a bit of order.
Are pleasing to the eye – they can create dynamic look and convey energy. Here I think the curved lines are more subtly leading the eye through the photo. I love the strength the lines convey next the luxuriously light and ethereal sky.
Another curvy line, this time, a road!
Portray structure and strength. And power?! Both in the man made world:
And in nature (at one of the worlds greatest forests in my opinion, The Lady Bird Johnson trail in the Redwood National Park in my home state of California) :
Or how about a bit of both – horizon and vertical? This was shot at La Defense in Paris. If you love playing with reflections and the hard lines of new buildings it’s an awesome place to shoot.
Here’s another from my La Defense phase:
Some other ideas of lines…
Lines of chaos?
I’m not sure what to call this one, or even if anyone would classify it as leading lines. But I think it is, because at first you just see the chaos of the tree branches. And then your eye is lead up the tree towards the two people. (I think I invented that term lines of chaos, so can someone enter it into the great canon of photo vocabulary please? :))
Fading or incomplete lines
Lines don’t always have to be clear or complete to communicate a feeling. I like the fact here that you can’t see the end of the track; it enhances how nature has taken over. Nature will always win in the end, won’t it!
Using motion or light to create lines
Lines don’t have to be found, they can be created by using long exposures on motion and lights. This can create a sense of power and speed as it has below. And I like in this image that I have a stationary motorbike as a contrast. I love using contrast or juxtaposition with lines.
I love a nice simple, but strong background for portraits. Something that is going to say something about the person, their expression, perhaps their stance. I think this is a good combo:
Lines at your feet
I have an obsession with photographing things on the street. Like chewing gum trodden into the tar or lines and arrows doing strange things. You can call it my Ernst Haas phase. I think particularly with things on the road and street you’ve got a great opportunity to practise this technique and learn to really play with lines. Remove the lines, arrows and directions painted onto our streets from their context and they become really fun and interesting to look at.
So ask yourself – what’s the feeling the lines are provoking?
I find many photographers are more interested in composition elements than thinking about what the story or feeling the photo they are taking is communicating. OK – I don’t want to load too much onto your shoulders here, but the feeling that the photo is evoking in the viewer is extremely important. If it evokes no feeling, no interest, curiosity, nostalgia, desire, whatever it may be, no matter how well composed, then that photo will be flicked over and forgotten.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” Don McCullin.
Compositional techniques are a means to an end, not the end in itself. So think about how the lines in the photo are making you feel. In this image below, which I particularly love because when my family and I were staying in Paris for several months working on my book my son was going through his train obsession era. So I spent many, many, many hours at Parisian stations watching trains with him (and talking about them, filming them, looking them up etc.) This image is in my book and really, it’s for him. I should call it, Ode to my son, age 7.
Can you see how in this image the lines give a different sensation because they don’t start within the photo? Leading lines often don’t end within a photo, creating a feeling of endlessness or infinity, but the eye is always looking for somewhere to at least begin its journey.
And a few final thoughts / ideas / inspirations / links:
- Strong subjects: If you have a strong subject there is no need to worry that lines will overpower it. Lines are strongest in a supporting role but rarely have the power to take over an image.
- Arrows: your eyes will naturally follow the point of an arrow. And there is something quite interesting about arrows competing for your attention by pointing in different directions.
- Opposition: Using lines to create opposition/juxtaposition is always interesting.
- Angle and perspective: If you find some interesting lines but it’s not working in your composition try playing around with your angle and perspective. Get high, get low, move around. As the master Haas says: “Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah-ha’.”
- An aid to simplicity: leading lines helps you focus on simplicity – most photographers are too complex in their expectations. simplicity and strength.
“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.” William Albert Allard
Last very important point In this post you’re seeing my photos, my style and how I’ve brought leading lines into my work. You’re style of shooting, what you choose to look at and shoot will mean it will look totally different in your work.
So play with it. Have fun.
About the Author
Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and CNN. He is also a teacher – writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas, and pro-photo techniques. This article was also published here and shared with permission.