How-To Use Leading Lines in Composition

Leading Lines in Composition

Composition is complex, but if you understand how to use leading lines effectively you'll start seeing an instant improvement in your images. It's one of the rules of composition which is simple to learn, but makes a huge difference.

If you scroll down there's a video to accompany this article, but you'll learn more if you both read and watch. Science says so!

If you have any questions, don't forget to ask in the comments section below!

Cement your understanding of leading lines below

If you prefer to learn by reading, or if you like to cement what you've learned about leading lines by looking at it in a different format (this really can help things sink in) we’ve laid out some more lovely little nuggets for you:

Leading Lines in Photography

The concept of leading lines in photography is where we use naturally occurring lines to move the eye around our composition. We may want to direct the eye to a focus point, or create a sense of movement by making the eye travel through the composition.

Leading lines to York Minster

Images that use leading lines are pleasing to look at because the eye is drawn through a visual journey towards a visual payoff (your focus point / subject).

If you take this image for example all lines lead to the world famous York Minster (the visual payoff). The leading lines form the edges of the flower beds, the parallels of the road, the light streams, the markings on the buildings. The eye is drawn through the composition to the cathedral/minster.

How do you find leading lines?

Now you know the concept, how do you find these leading lines, and how do you apply them to your images?

Lines are everywhere, they occur naturally or can be manmade such as:

Natural lines

Examples of naturally occurring lines are rivers, trees and tree branches, bodies / arms / legs, shadows, mountains, cloud formations, rock formations, water boundaries, trodden paths.

Man made lines

Examples of manmade lines are walls, roads, road markings, architecture.

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Types of lines

There are 4 main categories of lines. The first two categories lend themselves far less favourably for use as leading lines as the second two:

Horizontal Lines 

e.g. horizons. Horizontals create peaceful balanced tranquil images, but can create a visual block to taking the eye THROUGH the frame. Draw your eye upwards through this shot. Did your eye stop at the horizon?

Horizontal line - peaceful

Vertical  Lines 

Vertical lines denote power and strength but keep the viewers attention limited to one side of the frame. With the strong vertical on the right of this image does your eye want to move to what's on the left?

Vertical Lines arrest the eye

Diagonal Lines 

Diagonal lines lend themselves very well to use as leading lines. They denote dynamism and movement. They will not block the eye and will easily move it through the composition. Here your eye is drawn through the branch to the kingfisher. (The kingfisher itself is a vertical line arresting the eye's movement).

Diagonals make great leading lines

Curved or s-shaped Lines 

Again curved and s shaped lines make great leading lines since they take the eye on a journey through the image. Here the eye naturally follows the train and the train trough the image bottom to top. 

Curved lines make great leading lines

Train your eye

Training your eye to see leading lines doesn't need to be difficult. You just need to be aware of your surroundings. Once you start really looking you'll see lines and leading lines everywhere. You'll develop a knack for seeing them where before you just walked past them. It will become second nature.

One little exercise which might help kick start this process is as simple as squinting. As things start to blur our a bit when you squint any lines present start to stand out.

Once you've identified the lines you need to think how best to use them in your composition for the best creative effect. 

How do you use leading lines?

Diagonal / Curved

As we've said diagonal and curved lines work best as leading lines. Not only do they lead the eye into the image better, they can add visual depth to a composition as they draw the eye in.

Left to right

Curved Leading Line from Left
Curved Leading Line from right

Our eyes naturally scan things left to right, so lines leading left to right are easy to follow. Look at the images above. Do you find the road which originates on the left easier to follow through the image?

Use your feet

Walk around your composition so that you can place your leading lines more deliberately. For example, you can shoot a road as a horizontal as if you were about to cross the road, or you could shoot the road meandering away from you.

It all depends on where you are stood and the direction you point your camera. You can, in effect determine the direction your lined lead.

Corners

Leading lines to York Minster

Where to start your leading line from will depend to some extent on what's in front of you. That said, it can be pleasing to the eye to be led in from one of the corners of the image. There are many leading lines in this image we saw at the start, but the most dominant line is the one that comes in from the bottom corner, left to right.

The other images above, with the road and the train use a similar technique.

Visual journey

With leading lines you are leading the eye on a visual journey. The journey you want to create depends on you. You are telling a story with your image.

The best leading lines flow into your image, create a visual pathway - telling a story - and end with a visual payoff, like the image below.

Visual Journey Leading Lines

Here's your video summary:

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