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Composition: leading lines

Leading lines of photography composition are a fantastic tool. When you start becoming aware of leading lines, you will be amazed at how many you see all around you every day. So, because they are everywhere and they are great for creating strong composition, leading lines is one of the most used photography composition techniques.

So what are leading lines?

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 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.

Use leading lines found in nature

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 lead 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.

Because you’ve taken control and directed your viewer to your subject, you’ve made it easier for your viewer to enjoy your image. Very often leading lines are used for emphasis, so there is no doubt as to the subject, or even the message, of your image.

Leading lines are like a great big arrow that says look here.

Composed using light as a leading line

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.

  • Roads, paths, pavements and boardwalks
  • Rails
  • Steps
  • Buildings
  • Lines of trees or lampposts or bicycles – lines of anything
  • Walls, hedges and fences
  • Bridges
  • Shoreline
  • Rivers
  • The horizon
  • Limbs – arms, legs, branches
Using limbs as leading lines in photography composition

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

When you combine using leading lines of photography composition with the rule of thirds you create strong composition. This is achieved by placing your subject at one of the intersecting points on the rule of thirds grid and ensuring the leading line leads the viewer’s eye to this point.

For more on the rule of thirds read our tutorial “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 lampposts leading down the side of a road creates a leading line, because the lampposts 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.

We also have a tutorial on repetition: “How to use repetition to make your photos irresistible”

Repeating architectural columns as leading lines

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 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 is simply not safe. Too many people have lost their lives, because they were trying to get a photograph. No photograph is worth that.

The second is that it really is a cliche. It has been done so many times that it is 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.

Create leading lines with striped material

The lines of the material act as leading lines to the model’s face, as do her arms and the shoreline in the background.

Using leading lines

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 will see leading lines. You might see several leading lines. It is up to you to decide which leading lines will make the strongest composition.

Try several different uses of the leading lines 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 and eventually you will automatically be sizing up a location for leading lines the moment you arrive.

Now that you know about leading lines of photography 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?

Examining photographs you admire of skilled photographers is a great way to learn.Click To Tweet

Check out the other 18 photography composition tips here “19 Photography Composition Tips you need to know to be Awesome”.

Breaking waves used as a leading lines

The waves act as leading lines to the subject, as do the three surfers.

And another thing. Leading lines do not have to be straight. A winding path, road or river also make great leading lines.

Winding gravel road leading lines

Here the lines of trees and the road lead us into the photograph. The road then leads us on our subject’s journey.

If you’re struggling to get to grips with the leading lines of photography composition you can be sure that others are struggling too. Please share your questions and/or struggles in the comments below and we’ll give you some help.

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