Leading Lines: photography’s most underrated composition device

Leading Lines: photography's most underrated composition device

Never underestimate the impact that leading lines have on your photo compositions. Even if you don’t plan on making lines a major feature of your picture, you can’t get rid of them. So you have to work around them.

Leading lines are powerful because they control the eye movement of the viewer. The classic example you see used a lot is the parallel lines of railway tracks leading your eyes away towards the distant horizon.

However, this is a simple example: few real-life scenes are quite so obliging!

Leading Lines: photography's most underrated composition device

Leading lines as structure


Leading lines have different photo compositional effects, depending on their orientation and direction. Horizontal leading lines induce feelings of restfulness and peace, while vertical leading lines evoke a sense of strength and power. Diagonal lines are more discordant and suggest movement.

It’s argued that the direction of a diagonal line has an effect too, and that a line going from upper left to lower right reflects the direction in which we read pages in the Western hemisphere.

Diagonal leading lines

By contrast, a leading line that goes from bottom left to upper right moves in a perpendicular direction and has a much stronger compositional impact.

You can try this out using a shot with a strong diagonal line and flipping it horizontally in your photo editing software to produce two versions that you can compare.

Not all scenes will have a single dominant line that you can exploit. Quite often you’ll be faced with a number of lines, which intersect at different angles.

Making sense of leading lines

How are you to make sense of complex scenes like these? As we’ve said before, it’s best to shoot instinctively first of all – framing shots so that they look right – and then analyse them later.

Slight changes in viewpoint can make a big difference to the way that lines in a more complicated scene interact, and it’s often possible to make one much more dominant than the others.

Making sense of leading lines

Quite often, though, you’ll be using small changes in position to find the most harmonious interplay between these elements. Leading lines can often provide a kind of structure to your composition, like the skeleton of a skyscraper.

Some of the time, successful composition means finding one strong element and focusing on it. The rest of the time, it’s about finding the perfect balance between conflicting elements, and that’s something you learn best by doing, rather than by theorising.

PAGE 1: Leading lines as structure
PAGE 2: Leading lines to convey movement
PAGE 3: Converging lines
PAGE 4: Tracing lines


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