What separates a great photograph from a good one is the ‘feel’ of the image — the atmosphere the photographer can create. And there are countless ways of doing that, ranging from long-exposure techniques or focusing on a repetitive pattern to a minimalist composition or complete symmetry.
Leading lines is one such tool that photographers use to create an immersive experience for the audience, making sure that their eyes are subtly drawn from one end of the image to the other. One of the most used compositional elements, effectively using leading lines, will help you hold the viewers’ attention and improve your photos drastically.
What are Leading Lines in Photography?
A photograph’s composition is a sum of many parts: foreground, background, subject, colors, patterns, and much more. Leading lines are one of those parts.
As the name suggests, leading lines lead the viewer’s eyes around the photo. So, instead of looking at the photo as a whole at once, the eyes will be guided by these lines, acting as a path, and the viewer will almost travel through the composition.
Leading lines are not literal lines or ‘markers’ but merely objects like roads, rivers, bridges, etc., that the photographer makes part of the image.
They are placed within the composition in such a way that the viewer will follow their outline subtly and finally reach the focal point of the image.
Generally, these lines begin at the bottom, somewhere in the foreground, and stretch out towards the background. But, like with all rules of photography, it is up to you to use them the way you like.
Why are Leading Lines Important?
A balanced and interesting composition will draw the viewers into the photograph. And leading lines are very effective at doing that.
By offering the audience some lines and patterns to follow, you will not only help them explore the whole composition step by step but also showcase how everyday objects can become artistic elements in a unique way.
Leading lines are also crucial because of the perspective they create.
Our world is three-dimensional, and our eyes can sense depth and distance. This ‘visual perspective’ cannot be recreated without special technologies like those used for 3D movies. Thus, a photograph of the Grand Canyon does not really show how vast it actually is, since it is two-dimensional.
But by using leading lines, you can create a sense of depth in your photos and make them more immersive.
Consider the above, simple example. This photo has been taken from a high vantage point, and the road passing through the village has been used as a leading line.
Our eyes naturally begin at the bottom half of the image, and we begin following the road. Slowly, we move up and watch as the road vanishes into the hills in the background. At a glance, it will seem that the hills are not very far from the village, and maybe a couple of hundred yards.
But because the photographer used the road as an element of the composition, we have a frame of reference. The long, narrow road provides some depth in the image and implies how far away the hills actually are.
Thus, the leading line also serves as a distance scale, creating an exciting image that grabs the viewers and carries them inside the scene.
Types of Leading Lines
There are numerous types of leading lines and can be created in various ways, from curved objects to straight rail tracks.
This section will describe a few examples, although you should remember that there is no definite distinction, and many of these categories will often overlap in practical situations.
Vertical leading lines are the most common and draw the eyes from the bottom of the image to the top. Usually made from straight, rigid lines like rails and highways, vertical lines emphasize distance and power.
One of the most effective ways of using these vertical lines is to place your subject right at the top, such that the lines lead straight to it. Also, if you can frame composition with two vertical lines, you can use their ‘convergence’ to increase the sense of depth in your frame.
The example above is a simple use of vertical lines to highlight the subject and the distance between the foreground and background.
Instead of up and down, horizontal lines will pan across the frame, from left to right. Although they won’t suit portrait-mode images, they work well in landscape orientation.
Leading the viewer from left to right, these lines can emphasize wide-angle shots and depict a sense of calm and peace. As the horizontal lines stretch out, the audience gets a feeling of openness in the image.
Diagonal lines connect the corners of the frame, leading the eyes into the scene. While they may be tricky to create, diagonal leading lines are perhaps the most effective at creating depth in a landscape photo.
The image above is a perfect example of the sense of depth that diagonal lines can create. The bridge starts in the corner closer to the audience — giving them a feeling of being inside the scene — and goes off into the background, creating a long, visual journey.
A mix of different categories, intersecting leading lines can create images that are both chaotic and aesthetic at the same time.
By giving viewers many visual paths to follow, intersecting lines attract attention and demand that viewers spend a few extra seconds while taking in the image.
Another prevalent example of leading lines is a curved line, like a river cutting through a valley or a massive sand dune in the middle of a desert.
Instead of hard, straight lines originating from man-made objects, curved lines are more commonly found in natural subjects, exhibiting tranquility and peace.
Look for an S-shaped curved, which is easy to compose and makes for extraordinary images.
The categories we saw above are tangible lines, which can be seen physically within the image. On the other hand, implied lines do not actually exist.
They act like ‘stepping stones,’ existing in the viewers’ minds and requiring them to connect the dots and trace the path. Implied lines are fun to create because there are no rules for them.
Your implied line can be created by the gaze of your model looking into the distance, or simply by the negative space created by objects scattered around in the photo, or by the way light falls on the ground in a low-light photo.
Like we had already learned, two vertical lines going off into the distance seem to converge into one single point. This is nothing but a special case of ‘converging’ lines.
For example, the first image of an empty road along the mountains contains two white lines. Although they are parallel in reality, we can see them almost intersecting after a while. Such converging lines bring out the distance and depth of a photo.
While converging lines create the impression of intersection and a common end, diverging lines will split up and take you in two different directions.
How Do You Find Leading Lines?
The examples and descriptions above would have already given you a fair idea of how to find leading lines.
The best thing about this compositional tool is that you don’t have to look very hard to find them. Our eyes are already inclined to follow obvious paths and visual cues.
These markers that we notice in our daily lives — be it curving roads, tall lamp posts, or hiking trails — become natural leading lines in a photograph.
The following list should help you in figuring out a few more examples.
Man-Made Leading Lines
Man-made objects often make the most obvious leading lines. They are not only significant in size and distinct from their natural surroundings, but they are also easy to spot.
Think of wide highways, power lines, and train tracks. These are all leading lines that guide your eyes and take them towards the horizon and can be vertical and diagonal.
There are other examples too. Have a look at the bridge photo under the ‘diagonal lines’ section or the image of the highway lanes under ‘intersecting lines.’ You can even compose your image in such a way that buildings or staircases become the leading line, as they are often uniformly positioned and highly symmetrical.
Another unique method is to create your own lines using long-exposure photography. Using slow shutter speed, you can convert moving lights from cars or stars into ‘light trails,’ like the example we saw under ‘diverging lines.’
Natural Leading Lines
On the opposite spectrum are natural leading lines, which are not as apparent as hard-edged and straight manufactured objects.
Some of the common leading lines that nature provides us are rivers, tree branches, and beaten paths through the grass or hiking trails. These visual paths mainly fall under the ‘implied’ category since they are very subtle and leave something to the viewers’ imagination.
You can enhance the effect of these lines by adding other natural elements like fog and storm clouds. Allowing the leading line to guide the viewer into the sunset or towards the clouds will add mystery and drama to your image.
How to Use Leading Lines in Your Composition?
Although leading lines can create an excellent composition, one must be able to position them effectively to complement the subject and other elements.
Simply taking a photo of the road will not lead to anything until appropriately placed. You can keep the following suggestions in mind while framing leading lines:
1. Follow the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a guideline generally followed while composing an image.
You divide the frame into small blocks by imagining two vertical lines and two horizontal lines equally spaced.
Once you have this grid, you have to place your subject on one of the intersection points. Basically, your subject gets placed in one-third of the image, and the two-thirds left shows the surroundings and the background.
The leading lines can get incorporated along the vertical or horizontal lines and lead up to the intersection where your subject is.
Take this typical example. The road functions as the leading line, but it begins in one corner and goes up along an imaginary vertical line, leaving almost two-thirds of the image empty. It finishes at the bottom-right intersection of the rule of thirds.
2. Explore the Ground
If you’re taking photos outdoors, one of the best ways to spot leading lines is to be aware of your surroundings and pay close attention to the ground. Objects like fallen tree logs, colorful pebbles, or even reflections in a puddle can become interesting leading lines.
All you will have to do is crouch down and place such objects in the center or one corner of the frame, and you get both a foreground and a leading line.
3. Adjust According to the Light
Leading lines can be of various types, and sometimes, they do not even have to be actual lines. The job of guiding the audience’s eyes can be done by shadows and light too.
Shooting late in the day will mean specks of light all around. If you are lucky, you might be able to frame your subject in such a way that the sun rays and the long shadows cast lead up to it.
Consider the image below; the gentle curves of the walls are emphasized by light and take your eyes straight to the window in the center.
4. Determine Where the Focus Will Be
With all this talk of leading lines, it’s easy to forget that your photo has to ultimately focus on your subject. You should avoid using a leading line that does not align with the subject itself, as it would serve only as a source of confusion for the viewer.
Compelling compositions require a balance between the foreground, background, and the subject.
Leading lines in photography will help you achieve that balance by bridging all three elements. These lines function as ‘visual markers,’ guiding your audience from one end of the image to another and creating an immersive experience.
Since photographs are flat, two-dimensional representations of the natural world, it is vital that one uses leading lines to create some depth and distance. A typical example would be a landscape photo, where a river meanders through a forest and ends deep at the base of some mountains. Here, the river becomes the leading line — taking the viewer across the frame.
While leading lines can be vertical, horizontal, curved, or implied, they must be positioned to complement the subject without becoming a distraction or obstructing the background.