How to Use Leading Lines for Exceptional Composition

Christina Harman by Christina Harman on

Leading lines are a powerful tool that experienced photographers use to improve the balance, and overall composition of their images.

Lines are often used to lead the viewer’s eye through the photograph, towards points of interest. Our eyes our trained to “read through” images, just like we read through the words on a page. Lines can help to facilitate this, making it easy to “visually read” an image. Because of this leading effect, lines are also used to convey a sense of depth and distance in a photo.

While most well-composed photographs have lines that help to lead viewers through the photo, lines have another somewhat surprising effect. Lines can also be used to affect the overall mood and feel of a composition, and can be used to add a sense of drama, excitement, stability, or even harshness to an image. Lines really are a powerful, and versatile, compositional tool!

Leading lines can be found just about everywhere, in both natural and manmade settings. Everything from jagged coastal shorelines and winding rivers, to roads and architecture contain lines. While they aren’t always immediately obvious, even implied lines can be surprisingly effective – and by intentionally looking out for leading lines in your compositions you’ll soon become adept at spotting them.

Converging Lines
photo by Antoine Beauvillain

In order to get the most out of this compositional tool, it’s important to know where to place them, and how to use them effectively.

Let’s explore the three main purposes of leading lines in a photograph, and see how lines can help to add depth, draw attention, and change the overall mood of a photo. Find out how you can use leading lines to enhance your compositions!

Create Depth

Lines are often used to add a sense of depth to a composition. Despite the fact that photography is very much a two dimensional medium; leading lines help to create a real sense of distance and depth in a photo.

Converging lines – lines that reach the disappearing point at the horizon, are a great way to convey depth and distance. The further away the lines are, the smaller they get, drawing the viewer through the scene and adding a sense of perspective to the photo, helping the viewer to feel as though they are there.

Draw Attention

Leading lines essentially form a visual path, and are often used to help draw attention to various aspects of a composition. Because of their attention-grabbing capabilities, lines are often used to draw the viewer through the image, to varying points of visual interest, or to a main focal point looming in the distance.

Change the Image’s Dynamic

While lines are most commonly used to draw the eye through the photo, lines have another hidden talent. That is, they are sometimes able to affect the overall dynamic of an image. Our minds tend to associate different lines with different moods – jagged often means harsh or ominous, while horizontal tends to convey a feeling of restfulness, or calm. While this isn’t always the case, and there are other factors that play into a composition’s overall mood, it’s worth paying attention to the effect that leading lines can have on the overall feel of an image.

Let’s look at a few characteristics that are often associated with different types of lines.

  • Horizontal

    Horizontal Lines
    photo by Jay Wennington

    Horizontal lines are the most common lines in photography. They tend to convey a sense of calm, rest, and stability in a composition. Think of the peaceful feeling that the stability of a horizon line adds to the overall feel of the image.

  • Diagonal

    Diagonal Lines

    Diagonal lines can add a sense of energy and motion to your photo. They spark interest and convey action or drama. Tilting the camera slightly to capture a car that’s heading around a corner adds to a composition’s visual dynamic. Composing an image with a bridge, trail, or other element that spans across the frame diagonally will help the image to come alive – adding a certain visual energy to the composition.

  • Vertical

    Vertical Lines
    photo by Todd Quackenbush

    Vertical lines convey a sense of height and strength. A classic example of this would be photographing a building from the ground up, highlighting just how tall and imposing the building is.

  • Curved or Jagged

    Curved Lines
    photo by James Forbes

    Curved lines, most often found in windy rivers or roads add a sense of relaxed, natural beauty to an image – while jagged lines like rugged mountain peaks tend to convey a harsh mood.

When incorporating lines into your photos, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the mood that the overall composition conveys, and to make sure that the lines are helping to further your compositional goals, rather than distracting from them.

Tying It All Together

One of the first things to do when composing your photograph is to survey the scene, look for leading lines – or any compositional elements that can help to add balance and direction to your image. Then, determine how the lines can help you to tie everything together. Ask yourself how you could use the lines to direct attention to the subject, or to lead the viewer through the image and into the background. Also keep in mind the dynamics and the overall feel that you want to convey.

If you’re trying to capture a dramatic storm, look out for lines that are consistent with the overall feel. Incorporate jagged mountain peaks, streaky dark clouds, or a spooky looking tree as lines that will reflect the mood that you’re trying to capture.

For a smooth, relaxing sunset image, include the horizon line, or a meandering coastline to add to the calm, relaxing feel that you’re trying to convey.

Making the Lines Work for You: Adjust Your Angle

It’s amazing how a simple adjustment can have a big impact on the resulting image. Simply angling the camera a bit higher or lower, or moving to a different place can dramatically alter the shape of the lines, and help your composition to take a completely different turn.

Learning to Spot Leading Lines

While lines aren’t always obvious, it’s important to be on the lookout for leading lines that you can use to further your compositions. While some lines – like waterfalls or roads are easy to spot, it’s worth looking a bit closer. Some of the most effective lines are more subtle, but lines don’t have to be obvious to be powerful. In fact, some of the best images have leading lines that are less-than-obvious!

There are lines all around, and with a little practice, you’ll soon start to notice linear opportunities as they jump out at you when you’re composing your images.

Remember to adjust your perspective to change the direction or angle of the line to achieve your desired result. Have fun, and don’t forget to share your images with us via Twitter or Facebook – we’d love to see them!

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