Leading Lines in Photography
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.
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.
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 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.
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.