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As a photographer, you want to engage viewers with your images and draw them to specific points, people, or places within them. One of the best methods of doing this is to use a compositional tool called leading lines.
As the name suggests, leading lines are lines in your photograph that grab a viewer’s attention and guide their eyes to a specific focal point. Leading lines are organic, meaning they appear in a photograph without needing to be drawn there; they already exist. We’ll take a look at some of the best uses of leading lines and, hopefully, inspire you to use them the next time you’re shooting photos.
It’s helpful to know the different leading lines to use them more fully in your photography. There are 4 of them, including:
Remember that you can use all four leading line types in various ways, as we’ll see below!
Straight lines are everywhere you look, both natural and human-made. The lines created by railroad tracks, for example, are very popular leading lines. So are the lines of a pier, railings, a straight road, trees, flower stems, and more. Straight lines used as leading lines can be converging, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal.
Typically they are equidistant, but for photos of railroad tracks and other straight lines, that distance shrinks or expands. This example of using a straight line as a leading line is stunning, engaging, and intriguing, drawing the viewer in and pushing them to ask questions about the subject.
Like straight lines, curved lines are all around us and are a popular subject for leading line photography. While straight lines can sometimes seem a bit too “clean,” curved lines are more organic and wild. The curve of a winding road through a lush forest is a wonderful example, as is the curve of a walking path leading to a castle, beach, or other romantic and inspiring location.
The curved line of this suspended rope bridge in the forest is a spectacular use of curved leading lines. The subject’s position at the bottom of the curve is brilliant and, as you might guess, leads you right to them as they walk across this enchanting spot.
Diagonal lines are usually inorganic, which means that the photographer chose to photograph them diagonally rather than vertically or horizontally. Inorganic or not, diagonal lines are a fantastic way to draw a viewer’s attention from one side of your photo to the other, typically with a centralized subject.
Trains on a track are a prevalent diagonal leading line method used by pro photographers, but it doesn’t matter what the subject is. The lines of a sand dune, for example, or the balconies in a condominium complex are both excellent examples. The latter makes for an interesting and eye-popping photo below, showing that even the most mundane items can engage viewers if shot diagonally.
A line of straight trees going off into the distance is a vertical leading line method used by many photographers. Although they’re elegant, organic, and eye-catching, vertical lines often converge, leading the viewer from one area of the photo to another, usually off into the distance.
This photo of the vertical lines made by simple grocery carts shows how even a simple subject can be brought to life if shot by a well-trained eye. Notice that, although equidistant, the lines are also convergent.
Even in a big city like New York, Chicago, or Atlanta, you’ll find plenty of examples of natural lines. Flowers, trees, rows of corn, and layers of rock in stone can create powerful, inspiring leading lines. One method of shooting natural lines is from a low perspective, giving them a dramatic effect and further drawing in the viewer.
Natural lines can be found in many locales, from the ripples on a lake caused by a pebble to the lines made by baby sea turtles making their way to the sea for the first time. The author’s photograph is a fantastic example of using natural lines from a low perspective. They are also converging lines, making for a dizzyingly spectacular and stunningly beautiful photo simultaneously.
While finding vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines and shooting them can make captivating photos, an imperfect line is often even more interesting. The craggy outcropping of a mountainside can lead the viewer up and into the heavens, as will the gnarled branch of an old-growth tree in the woods. In this photo, a winding wooden path through the forest takes your eyes on a trip into the unknown.
While many leading lines are either natural or man-made, there’s no way to move them in your photo in any way but the way you find them. However, when you have objects that form lines, you can often use them in any way or position to create interest in your photos. In the author’s photo, they artfully use a pole vault pole to lead you directly to their subject (the pole vaulter) and create a stunning photo that the athlete will no doubt cherish for years to come.
Leading lines can be found in various architectural objects, from bridges to roads, buildings, stadiums, furniture, and many more. Architects are the masters of leading lines and use them every day in their work! That’s why it’s not surprising to find examples of leading lines everywhere, from big cities to small towns, parks, and even your own home.
This photo of elegant spiral steps shows that, even indoors, architectural leading lines can be found and shot with striking effect. Notice how your eyes follow the steps upward from the floor with little effort.
You might not think that food would have leading lines, but creative photographers have been using them for years, especially pros who shoot food for a living. The methods for using leading lines in food are as varied as the food itself. Dill pickle spears can lead the viewer’s eyes to a mouthwatering hamburger, while a toothpick can do the same for a decadent mixed drink. Hansel and Gretel famously used leading lines to create their path back home with bread crumbs, thank goodness! In the author’s photo, chicken salad wraps are lined up, creating a visual feast for the eyes and, as expected, a mouthwatering reaction by the viewer.
Using implied lines in your photography is usually accomplished with a person as your subject. The implied lines come from how their head, face, and eyes are positioned, which is why they’re implied rather than actual, physical lines.
A man and woman gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes is a beautiful example of implied lines. This photo below is a perfect example of implied lines without needing an actual line.
Leading lines have been used by professional photographers since the first cameras were invented. They lead viewers on a visual journey through a photograph, bring a subject into view, and engage the viewer much more than a random photo. If used well, leading lines will create more engaging and visually striking photos and encourage the viewer to look even more closely at your art.
Feature Image Credit: Boryana Manzurova, Shutterstock
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Greg Iacono is a self-taught writer and former chiropractor who, ironically, retired early due to back problems. He now spends his time writing scintillating content on a wide variety of subjects. Greg is also a well-known video script writer known for his ability to take a complex subject and make it accessible for the layperson.
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