Having a great smartphone camera, using the best camera apps, researching your subject, or waiting for the optimum moment is all well and good, but if you frame or compose your shot badly you may end up with a disappointing result. In this article we’ll look at another powerful composition technique – Leading Lines. The most clichéd example of leading lines might be a road.
The black and white photo below employs a strong leading line using the wooden walkway to pull the viewer into the scene.
What Are Leading Lines?
Leading lines are anything linear, or even vaguely linear, which lead the viewer’s eye into, out of, across or around the scene.
The primary benefit is that it helps take the viewer on a journey, however brief, along the leading line. And because a journey has a beginning and an end, there’s the added benefit of holding your viewer’s attention during this short journey – which can heighten their enjoyment of it.
In the photo below the winding River Thames provides our leading line and guides the viewer’s attention into the cityscape, towards the horizon and the clouds above.
Additionally leading lines can help break up the scene into geometric shapes. In the black and white example below, the leading line separates the strongly lit concrete from the parts of the scene in strong shadow. This creates a geometric structure to the composition while still leading your eye into and across the scene.
How To Use Leading Lines
Leading lines can be straight, curved, continuous or broken, regular or irregular, singular or multiples – anything that influences the viewer to follow a predetermined path through the image.
You can use leading lines to influence the viewer’s eyes to start in one place and end in another, rewarding the effort with a subject they might have missed without the leading line. The tiny surfer in the beach scene opposite might not be immediately apparent, however, the winding line of the water’s edge gently leads the viewer’s attention from the bottom right to the top left – introducing the surfer along the way.
Don’t be afraid to use leading lines to lead the viewer to a more obvious, larger subject. Nobody would miss the church in the distance, but the path creates a leading line which effectively delays the viewer in focusing on the church and provides the sensation of travelling along the path to the destination. This creates a much more engaging and rewarding experience for the viewer than just presenting them with the church to look at. Additionally the path effectively joins the wild flowers in the foreground to the church in the background, strengthening the overall composition.
You can also use leading lines to connect multiple subjects – in this case, hundreds of books in a library – but it could easily be several interesting yet different types of subject along a road – e.g. a letterbox, a tree and a signpost.
Leading lines are everywhere! Obvious examples are roads, paths, walls, railway tracks and river banks. But many other more subtle lines can be found, such as coastlines, rows of trees, and footprints or tire marks in mud, dirt or sand.
The muddy track opposite offered a more subtle leading line. It’s less obvious than a clean-lined pavement, road or wall, yet I think it works because it’s having the same effect of leading the eye into the scene, through the richly colored and detailed foreground to the less important horizon.
Most leading lines are immovable – you have to move to include them – but don’t overlook the opportunities for leading lines presented by objects you can move, like a length of rope or chain, a fallen branch, or an artistic arrangement of natural or man-made objects.
In the example below there were dozens of different positions to photograph the boat from – but only this low position allowed me to incorporate a leading line in the form of this long metal chain.
When To Use Leading Lines
There’s no hard and fast rule about when you should use leading lines, but try not to use them unless they serve a purpose. Ask yourself whether the inclusion of a leading line will enhance the image or distract from what was already a well-composed scene. Just because an obvious leading line is available, it doesn’t mean you should use it. Equally, just because there isn’t an obvious leading line available, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for one if it will improve the resulting image.
Leading lines sometimes present themselves, i.e. you just find you’re in the right position and notice an obvious leading line that you can use. However that’s down to luck, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of looking for leading lines so you don’t miss an opportunity.
You might have found the perfect subject to photograph, but a change of position could allow you to include a leading line that will enhance the overall image.
Remember that leading lines are merely another tool in your composition toolbox – only to be used when it will enhance the image. Don’t rely solely on leading lines – use them in conjunction with other composition tools, such as the Rule Of Thirds. For example, you could position your leading lines on or near the horizontal or vertical gridlines a third of the way up or across your scene. Or have the leading line pass through, or start/end where two of the gridlines intersect.
To recap, remember to look for opportunities to use leading lines in your photography. Rather than just shooting from where you happen to be, shoot from different angles and positions to increase or decrease the effect of your leading lines. Lastly, the only “rule” about leading lines (and any other compositional technique) is only to use them when they’ll improve or enhance the image.