Composition – Leading Lines

Written by:

By Steve Russell

Have you ever observed a scene you thought was beautiful so you photographed it only to have the photo turn out to be very mundane? I know I have and I suspect that if honesty were to prevail we would all say we’ve had a similar experience.

Remember that the camera doesn’t see as much as our eyes see. The camera’s vision is limited by the focal length of the lens and the size of the sensor in the camera. Our eyes see what’s in front of us but they also see peripherally around the entire scene. To compensate for the vision limitation of the camera we have to employ various composition techniques to make a photo interesting to the viewer. One of these techniques is called “leading lines.”

A good photo requires two things – an interesting subject and a composition that makes our eyes stop on the image and the subject in the image. Leading lines, when utilized appropriately can greatly enhance an image. Here are a couple of images that demonstrate what I mean.

For almost ten years I saw this scene two or three times a day. One day I stopped to photograph it. I particularly liked the way the sun would shine through the Spanish moss in the mornings. But this image looks nothing like what I saw as I drove down the street. In fact it’s a pretty mundane image. There’s nothing that would make anyone call it a keeper.

This is the same as the first photo except it’s the way I photographed the scene instead of the street being cropped out. The street that curves through the scene takes your eyes from the bottom of the image to the same part of the photo as shown in the first image. While most, if not all, of this occurs on a sub-conscious level it still occurs. Your “mental eyes” feel more comfortable with the second image than the first because they go into the photo by travelling along the street and they can get out the same way.

Leading lines can be horizontal as in this image where the shore line, the trees and the cattails lead the eyes to the boat house on the right side of the image.

Leading lines can be straight as in this image. The leading line can be short as it is here or it can be long. However, a road or highway that begins at the bottom of the image and fades into the distance at or near the top of the image is a photograph of a road and not a leading line that takes the eyes to a subject. A mountain range at the top of the image, for example, uses the road as both a leading line to the mountains and as a subject of the image.

They can be curved as in this image. Here the river curves around the first formation on the right and then disappears between the small hill on the left and the second formation beyond the hill. Immediately the viewer’s mind stops and wonders what’s behind the hill. In this image, the photographer has made excellent use of leading lines.

Leading lines can be convergent. A technique that “forces” the eyes to the subject and holds them; there’s no way out.

However, when the lines become the image, they’re no longer leading lines. The photograph becomes a geometric composition. Nothing wrong with geometric compositions, but it’s helpful to know the difference.

Look at your photos and see how well you utilize leading lines. Here are a few things to consider regarding leading lines:

Does the leading line take your eyes into the image?

A line that goes from one edge of the image straight to another edge does not function as a leading line. In fact, a straight line from edge to edge makes the eyes leave the image before the main subject is identified.

A straight line makes the eyes go fast to the subject. A straight line, like a straight road when driving, tells the brain that it needs to hurry to the subject.

A curved, sweeping or wavy line makes the brain slow down and take its time. In the image of the river canyon above, the brain wants to take its time floating down the river and look at what’s along the way.

Keep in mind that composition is the “art” part of photography. Leading lines aren’t a requirement or rule. Not all images need a leading line. But many images would benefit from the inclusion of one. If you’re not comfortable with leading lines or haven’t really considered them before, now would be a good time to grab your camera and go out and practice. Better composition makes for better photographs.

Photo Credits:

Untitled (River Canyon) by Meredith Farmer on Flickr Creative Commons
Untitled (Church) by Meredith Farmer on Flickr Creative Commons
Leading Lines by hitzi 1000 on Flickr Creative Commons
AmEx Steps by RedDogFever on Flickr Creative Commons
All other photos by Steve Russell

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  • Clippin Path

    So fantastic image here specially the 3rd,4th,5th images are mind blowing. Thanks a lot for sharing !!