Leading lines are one of the most powerful composition tools in a photographers arsenal. They are powerful because they can be used to direct the viewers attention towards particular areas of the image - this could be a person, a point of interest or a vanishing point. Like in the image above, although the line of the curving river and buildings do not lead you to a subject, it does subconsciously encourage the viewers eye to move through the image in a particular way. This means you naturally read the image from bottom right to middle left - encouraging you to take in all the colour, light and texture that the image has to offer.
Using leading lines effectively will allow you as the photographer to control the way that a viewer scans your image. As with all composition 'techniques', if used ineffectively, it can also be a detriment to the scene you are capturing.
Obvious Leading Lines:
How could you discuss the compositional technique of Leading Lines, without mentioning the ‘Master of Landscape Photography’, Ansel Adams!? Here I would like to use one of Adam’s most famous images to discuss the effectiveness of an ‘obvious leading line’. This technique is very commonly employed within landscape photography, using the natural forms of a scene within the composition to draw the viewer’s eye in a certain direction. Often, these ‘lines’, as seen in the river above, lead the eye to a point of particular interest (the subject of the photograph), in the case of this image we are drawn to the central mountains. Our eye will then scan left toward the brightest point of the image. The leading line in this image is emphasised by its bright tone in comparison to its surroundings. Thus the line is made more prominent within the scene, forcing you to follow it. In addition to this, the angle of the line is important, as it moves diagonally through the image, first left then right, snaking upwards toward the mountain, we are taken on a journey which observes the contents of the entire image.
So how would you use this in your own approach to composition? You would start by first deciding what your ‘subject’ will be; usually an area lit by interesting or beautiful light or a fascinating object or structure. Then, move yourself around the scene, looking for naturally forming shapes that you can use in the foreground to lead your viewer’s eyes to the subject. Rivers, roads, fences, treelines, paths etc are all common aesthetic tools used in this manner. Once you have found a compelling angle, use any other appropriate composition techniques to finesse your approach. No approaches are necessarily wrong, however there are always going to be more powerful ways of presenting the scene to your viewers. This is something that takes time in the place you are photographing, and from practice looking at both your’s and other’s images beforehand. Building up a bank of practice and experience is always going to be how you improve. When you go out to photograph, aim to have these discussions and thoughts in your mind so that you can implement however much of it that you wish to in each scenario.
Leading Lines as ‘Framing’:
Here I wanted to show you an example of leading lines which create a frame for your subject. In the image above I have highlighted all the lines which are being used to push the eye to the centre of the image, where the man is walking. This method of composition, although is using leading lines, differs in style from the previous. Here, many lines are all pointing the eye in the same direction, from different areas of the image. This creates a directional ‘frame’ for the subject, surrounding him with guiding lines. Use objects or buildings around the city or other urban environments to create this perspective and add a new powerful element to your street photography.
Inferred Leading Lines:
As I am sure you are quickly realising, there are many forms and levels to the use of ‘leading lines’. From the obvious utilisation of rivers, roads and paths in Landscape photography to guide the viewer, there are also more subtle ways to use this composition tool! In the two images above, motion has added this idea of leading the eye. In the urbanscape on the left, the front to back movement of the clouds in a long exposure, draws the eye in the same direction. It almost acts as another form of frame, by pushing the viewer’s eye down to the central building. The motion in the image tells you where to look.
In the image on the right, although you could definitely argue that leading lines are not the most prominently obvious part of the image’s composition, it does play its part in the image. Again the motion of the panned image, gives everything apart from the ‘Uber Eats’ bag the sense of right to left movement due to the direction of the blur. This is emphasised by the yellow lines following the direction of the road, and subsequently the cyclist. In combination with the light and colour in the image, we are also encouraged to look to the centre by the angle and blur.
Look out for man-made objects/structures such as:
Bridges and stepping stones
Bricks and paving stones
Rows of lights, posts, poles etc
In nature, look for:
Leading lines are the most important compositional element which carry our eye through the image. They can be used to tell a narrative, make a connection between two objects and take the viewer on a visual journey.
Use these techniques creatively and expressively to create unique and powerful photographs, which convey who you are and what you see in the world!
Article written by: Tom Chaplin
Tom Chaplin is a young photographer and educator based in London, UK. He runs ‘Master The Light’ offering photography workshops, tuition and tours. He also works as a commercial photographer, specialising in portraiture and travel images.