Leading lines composition
Leading lines in photography composition are a fantastic tool. When you first become aware of leading lines, you’ll be amazed at how many you see all around you every day.
So, because they are everywhere and they’re great for creating strong composition, leading lines is one of the most used photography composition techniques.
So what are leading lines in photography composition?
Leading lines are the lines in a photograph that lead the viewer’s eye in and then out of frame. Sometimes they don’t lead the eye out of the frame at all, but cause the eye to circulate around the subject.
Most often the leading lines will start in the foreground and disappear into the background. They might even converge to a point of infinity in the background. This creates a sense of movement through the image as the viewer’s eye journeys through.
The path in the grass acts as a leading line taking the viewer into the shot to the subject and following her direction of movement out of frame.
What do leading lines do?
Leading lines give the viewer direction and leads the eye to the subject.
Very often the subject will be placed at some point along the leading lines. It might be part way through and then the line continues, or it might be that the leading line leads to the subject and ends. If might also be that several leading lines lead the viewer’s eye towards the subject.
If a photographer takes control and directs the viewer to the subject, they make it easier for the viewer to enjoy the photograph. Very often leading lines are used for emphasis, so there’s no doubt as to the subject, or even the message, of your image.
Basically, leading lines are like a great big arrow that says “Look here!”
To understand why leading lines are so effective in photography composition, read about the Gestalt principle of continuance in our tutorial on Gestalt theory, which explains how we view images.
Further reading: Harness the power Gestalt theory in photography
The light shining on the child is a leading line directing the eye straight to the child, placed using the rule of thirds. The floor also acts as a leading line.
What do leading lines look like?
Let’s take a look at a few examples from the list of naturally occurring and man made leading lines in photography:
- Roads, paths, pavements and boardwalks
- Lines of trees or lampposts or bicycles – lines of anything
- Walls, hedges and fences
- The horizon
- Limbs – arms, legs, branches
Further reading: 7 types of lines in photography composition and how to use them
The model’s limbs direct the eye to her face. In this case there are several leading lines all leading into the image and causing the eye to circulate around the subject.
Using several photography composition tools in one image
Combining leading lines in photography composition with the rule of thirds creates strong composition. To do it, place your subject at one of the intersecting points on the rule of thirds grid while making sure that the leading line leads the viewer’s eye to this point.
Further reading: Why you need to know the Rule of Thirds – and how easy it is
Another photography composition tool that often occurs with leading lines is repetition.
A row of street lights leading down the side of a road creates a leading line, because the street lights repeatedly occur at regular intervals. The same is true for a row of trees disappearing into the distance, or a row of rocks on a beach.
Further reading: How to use repetition to make your photos irresistible
3 composition rules are in use: repetition of the pillars to create a leading line on camera right, repetition of lights to create a leading line on camera left, the pier on camera right as a leading line and placement of the subject using rule of thirds.
A word of advice on using leading lines
Unfortunately, because train tracks make such great leading lines, many many photographers have photographed on train tracks. My advice is don’t. For two reasons..
- The first is that it’s simply not safe. Too many people have lost their lives, because they were trying to get a photograph. No picture is worth that.
- The second is that it really is a cliché. It’s been done so many times that it’s not an original idea. So, while you may be tempted to do it, rather stretch your creative muscles a little and look for something more original. It’s safer.
The lines of the material act as leading lines to the model’s face, as do her arms and the shoreline in the background.
How to use leading lines in photography composition
So, you’ve got this great location where you want to shoot and your subject is ready. Take a moment to look around you and consider the best composition. You’ll see leading lines.
You might see several leading lines. It’s up to you to decide which leading lines will make the strongest composition and how you’ll compose the photograph.
Try using the leading lines in different ways at your location and examine your photos on your computer later with a critical eye. This will help you to recognise strong composition and solidify your knowledge. By doing this, eventually you’ll be able to automatically size up a location for good leading lines the moment you arrive.
The waves act as leading lines to the subject, as do the three surfers.
And another thing. Leading lines don’t have to be straight. These also make great leading lines:
- A winding path
- road or
Here the lines of trees and the road lead us into the photograph. The road then leads us on our subject’s journey.
Check out our other 18 photography composition tips here: 19 Photography Composition Tips you need to know to be Awesome
Now that you know about using leading lines composition, when you examine a photograph you like, have a look for the leading lines. See where they enter and leave the image, if they leave the image at all. Where are the lines leading the eye?
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