How To Use Leading Lines in Composition

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Road leading lines through an arched bridge

Knowing how to use leading lines in photography is one of the key composition skills beginner photographers can acquire. Learning composition starts with an understanding of how we look at things and how we see things. When you look at an image, your eyes dart around to look for a message or focal point in it. Including a leading line to draw the viewer’s eye to your main subject, your photo will hold their attention.

Experiment With Different Viewpoints

Leading lines are a powerful compositional tool that you can use to improve the framing, composition, and mood of your photos. While the composition is used in other art forms, the term leading lines is rarely used outside photography. Leading lines are one of the simplest ideas in composition but also the most powerful because they draw a viewer’s eye into your photos.

Our brains are hardwired to unconsciously follow lines. As a photographer, you can use leading lines to your advantage. When you are aware of this, you know when someone is looking at your photograph, their eyes will follow the leading lines. If you place your main subject at the end of the lines, you can lead your viewer’s eye to it.

Why are Leading Lines Important?

Leading lines draw your eye to the point of interest and keep it from wandering. Used effectively, leading lines grab your viewer’s attention. The viewer’s eye will follow a visual path that points to something important in your image. It’s like taking a journey in a photograph to reach a certain point.

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Leading lines guide the viewer’s eye through the frame and can add depth to your photos. Using leading lines photography techniques will make your images far more interesting.

In most cultures, people learn to read left to right, top to bottom. This is the way our eyes naturally view a photograph. If you see a photo with strong leading lines, you’ll stare at that image a lot longer, you’ll view it differently, and you’ll feel different.

Use lines to create a sense of stability in an image. Lines often help make the structure of photo composition a lot stronger. Leading lines are not only used to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject. Used well, they also provide a sense of vitality to images. This is mostly when straight lines are used in compositions to draw a viewer towards the focal point of a picture.

Leading lines keeping the viewers attention.

Each time you find a leading line to use in your photo, compose it carefully with your camera. Interesting use of any one of the photography composition rules is not subject to what anyone thinks is the right or wrong way to apply it.

Be creative in how you use leading lines. Think about how a line leads a viewer’s eye through your picture. Does it help draw a subject in the background towards the foreground? Will it help your subject stand out in the frame? There are many clichéd examples of how leading lines are to be used. But you can always use lines to make more creative and interesting photographs.

Lighthouse highlighted by the use of curved leading lines.

Elements Used in Composition

There are several elements available to photographers when composing a photograph. Leading lines are only one of them. The use of one or more of these elements can dramatically change the look and feel of a photograph. Even though there are so-called rules of composition, they are better viewed as guidelines to help improve your photos. In any image, photographers can use two or more elements to create a compelling image.

Combining various photography composition techniques can create photos that are much more interesting. When you come across a scene you want to photograph, think about using any of these photography composition techniques:

Never try to force the use of a particular composition rule or technique for the sake of it. If you want to take a picture that does not lend itself to being framed using the rule of thirds, don’t use it.

Some photographers will encourage you to learn the rules of composition and then break them because rules are made to be broken. I think a better approach is to learn the rules so well that you can apply them without having to consciously think about them. You will see a scene and instinctively know if it contains good leading lines or any other elements that will combine to make strong images.

Leaning towards your intuition to use leading lines or any other technique well takes focus and practice. Take time to study good examples of how lines are used well in photos. Then get out with your camera and practice. Go out to find interesting places where you can frame a scene with lines leading a viewer to look straight at what you want them to.

Look for paths with people walking on them. Fence lines or railings that lead straight to an interesting subject. Aim to take a viewer from one point in your photo to another. Frame each scene, so there’s a natural attraction that leads the viewer right where you want them to look. Concentrate on practicing using this technique with your camera. Create strong leading line images until you are confident with them.

Full moon frames by trees leading to it.

What Types of Leading Lines are there?

Leading lines are in different forms and can be found almost anywhere in nature or everyday settings. Lines can be natural like a stream or unnatural like a bridge. There are five primary types of lines that you can use in leading lines photography.

How you compose them within your frame determines whether or not they become leading lines in your shot. Any of them have an impact on a photo. But there are aspects of how you manage your compositions that determine how effective they are as leading lines or if they are leading nowhere at all.

Vertical Lines

These lines suggest power, dominance, and growth. Examples include tall structural designs and trees. Vertical lines cannot begin at the corner of your image. As an alternative, keep the rule of thirds in mind to prevent your image from looking like it has been cut in half. Vertical lines should be kept as vertical as possible.

Strong line leading the eye upwards to a bird flying.

Horizontal Lines

Horizontal lines suggest peace, calmness, stability, and a sense of restfulness. The ocean, beaches, and fallen trees are some examples of horizon lines. They can strengthen the composition of the image and should be kept as horizontal as possible.

Diagonal Lines

Diagonal lines suggest action and can add depth to a shot. They are somewhat unbalanced and can help draw the eye to the photo. The best way to use diagonal lines is to present them from the bottom corner of the image to the opposite top corner. This is because it’s natural for our eyes to scan from left to right.

Curved Lines / S Curves Lines

Suggest elegance, sensuality, and a sense of balance. They don’t need to be S-shaped. Any form of a winding line can be used — for example, rivers, streams, roads, paths, or the human body.

Curved leading lines in architecture.

Converging Lines

Converging lines add flow or depth to your image. They also add a sense of distance or scale: stairways, power lines, and railroad tracks. Our eyes are drawn to where intersecting lines connect. To create a stronger impact in visual interest, it’s best to position your subject near converging lines. Sometimes converging lines can be a point of interest in themselves free of the need for additional subjects in the shot.

How do you find leading lines?

Lines in photography are not always leading lines. Any photo can contain a curved line or a straight line that does not lead anywhere. How you position your camera, the lens you choose, and other things you do will create a leading line in a scene. Leading lines in photography are what you make them. A leading line only has its function because of how a photographer chooses to use it to lead a viewer as they look at a photo.

Leading lines can be almost everywhere you look, from a fence to the ocean shore, a building, or trees. Sometimes lines are not obvious and may even be implied. A good start is to examine professional photos and pay close attention to lines and other composition elements.

As you start to compose your next image, survey the area around your subject. Look for potential leading lines in the road, buildings, walls, waterways, and any other element that creates a line.

Lines leading to a subject do so because of how you include them in your composition. There must be some relationship between the line and your subject. If you photograph a line that does not somehow guide the viewer to your subject, it is not a leading line.

Abstract modern black and white.

How you position your camera to take the photo in relation to the line and subject determines how effective the leading line is. You don’t always have to make a line intersect your subject. But the eye of the viewer needs to be drawn along the path of the line to what you are taking a picture of.

Is Your Eye Naturally Drawn Along?

Often, leading lines will begin in the foreground and lead the viewer’s gaze to something in the distance. A classic example of this is a country road leading off to distant mountains in the background. When using a wide-angle lens, positing it close to the line you want to use will create a natural point of focus. This can lead a viewer’s attention from the foreground to the background where your subject is. It can also lead across the image from one side to the other. Where your subject is in relation to the line determines how effective it is as a leading line.

If what you are photographing is far from the line, the line will not lead the viewer to look at it. There must be some direct or implied path created by the line or lines leading where you want a viewer to look. This has a lot to do with where you place your camera and the lens you use.

We see the world in three dimensions. Photography renders it in two dimensions because our cameras see through one lens, not two. So your point of view when taking photos is significant when you want to use leading lines. One of the best photography tips I can offer you for when you want to use leading lines is to use a wide-angle lens and get close to the line.

Coastal road with cliff and blue sky.

Leading Lines in Photography

Using leading lines in the composition is a great way to get your viewers’ attention and tell a story with your shots. Placing lines at the right spot in your image can significantly influence the way people will view it and will guide them through the scene.

I hope these photography tips on leading lines are helpful to you. Now it’s up to you to practice. Next time the light is right, and you head out with your camera, make a point to look at how you can use leading lines when you take some photos. As you line up to take a shot, look at the light and where it’s creating an interesting contrast. This can be a great example of somewhere you can make a leading line.

Position yourself so the line leads where you want it and take your shot. Then do it again with as many shots as you can until you are very familiar with how this composition technique works. The more you free up your mind to see leading lines, the more natural it will become to include them when you take your next shot.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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  1. Really informative article on leading lines! Explains the difference between “Lines” and “Leading lines” ( something I’ve had trouble with for quite a while!) very well – I think I understand it at last, thank you!

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