Leading Lines: photography’s most underrated composition device

Leading Lines: photography's most underrated composition device

Leading lines to convey movement


Leading lines to convey movement

It’s possible to compose abstract shots where the lines themselves are the subject, but in most normal photography our task is to make leading lines work in harmony with whatever real-life subject we’re photographing. It’s possible to do this in a number of ways.

The simplest and most obvious compositional trick is to get leading lines to point at your subject. This sounds like a pretty crude technique and yet, done properly, it’s not at all obvious.

You can do this by getting a street or avenue to point at a famous landmark – for example, when photographing the Arc de Triomphe from the other end of the Champs Élysées.

Or in a portrait shot, you can get your model to rest his or her chin on their hands so that their forearms point to their face.

Leading lines used to convey distance

Leading lines can be used in a subtler way, to emphasise perspective, for example. The converging lines of a road or track in a landscape shot can be used to emphasise distance and scale.

They also draw the viewer into the shot, prompting them to look first at the foreground and then into the distance.

How to use curved leading lines

Not all lines are straight, of course. Curved lines are often considered to have even more compositional impact than straight lines, while at the same time producing a more natural, flowing feel to the composition.

Compare, for example, the sinuous windings of a river compared to the zigzag arrangement of streets in cities.

And then there are some lines you don’t actually see at all. You might call these virtual or implied leading lines.

One of the strongest is the gaze of any human subject. This line is, of course, completely invisible, yet in compositional terms it’s probably stronger than any other type.

You may get weaker, implied leading lines in other subjects. If you have a landscape shot with a tall tree on one side and a smaller subject – a human figure, say – on the other, they form a kind of virtual triangle.

The leading lines aren’t visible, of course, but they exist in the pattern of eye movements of people who look at the photograph.

All this suggests that lines in composition are so complex that you might just as well give up now!

Multiple leading lines

In practice, though, most scenes have just one, two or a handful of dominant lines that are comparatively easy to spot and work with.

And it’s worth the effort, because this will make a big difference to the success of your shots.

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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