“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

– Ansel Adams

How many times have you looked at a picture or a painting and wondered,

“Gosh that fence seems to draw me in to the picture”

or

“I wish I was on that road”?

I don’t have to be psychic to tell you that you had been looking at lines in a picture when you said those, even if you did not realize it straight away. Lines, or leading lines, as they are referred to in photography, are the subject of our discussion today.

Leading lines are one of the most important aspects of photography. They have the power to draw a viewer’s eyes into a composition. Just like the rule of thirds or repeating patterns or even the Dutch tilt, leading lines tend to leave their undeniable impression on a photograph. They often are the difference between a bland snapshot and an excellent composition.

What are Leading Lines?

Before we go any further it is necessary to give you a proper explanation of what leading lines are actually. Leading lines are not something that’s extra special. They are present everywhere, all around us. They form an integral part of our everyday life. E.g., a tram track leading away from the center of a busy office block and on towards the suburbs, a straight parapet of a castle, or even a fence such as the one we discussed above and is demonstrated in the picture below. All these serve as leading lines.

Composition rules in photography

Cape Otway Lighthouse Victoria by Lenny K Photography

Please note that the line does not have to be a straight one. Even a curved line such as the one in the picture below will also do. The purpose of the line is to ‘lead’ the viewer into the frame. It needs to work as if it’s some sort of guiding line that guides the viewer’s eyes towards the main focus point of the picture.

How to Use Leading Lines in Your Picture

The trick is in identifying where the line is and how it can be integrated into your composition. You will, however, have to keep in mind the overall requirements of the picture when doing so. The most commonly used examples of leading lines are straight street curbs or roads leading seemingly towards nowhere. However, these are not always obligatory to be included in your composition. These are just a few clichéd examples. Once you get a good understanding of how leading lines work you will be able to produce far greater results incorporating them in your work.

The best techniques of using leading lines is to look for something which the leading lines seem to ‘lead’ towards. This is good to have though not always necessary. Sometimes an element of mystery or surprise can make an image far more interesting when you know for sure what to expect.

Like in the image above the parallel white fences tend to meet further into the picture where the lighthouse is. However, in the picture below the leading lines, i.e., the road tend to vanish around the corner. They are both interesting in their own ways. The first one tend to draw the viewer’s attention into the main subject of focus in the image, which is the lighthouse. In the second image with the car, which is the main subject of the composition, seemingly poised to disappear into oblivion, the interest of the viewer grows to see what’s beyond that turn.

tips to use leading lines in photography

Ruinaulta Tunnel Spitg I by Kecko

Another thing to consider when using leading lines in your composition is to ensure that you do not use the lines straight down the middle of the frame. Straight lines, when they are used right down the middle of the frame, tend to not have the same visual appeal as a curved line or even another straight line that is shot at an angle to the frame. In the first example changing the camera angle and making the line appear angled helps.

curved lines as leading lines in photography

Galaxy Express by Jay Huang

The same way if you use a straight line that traverses straight left to right of the frame the resulting picture would be a mess. The eyes seem to get stuck on the ‘boundary’ created by a line that is parallel to the bottom of the frame.

parallel straight lines in composition

mountain by Tom Hall

There are however exceptions where it can work. Check out the picture above. This is one of my favorite uses of leading lines. An empty road headed dart-straight for the mountains.

Ben Novoselsky

Ben Novoselsky

CEO and Founder at Phowd.com
Entrepreneur, geek, photo enthusiast.
Ben Novoselsky