How To Use Leading Lines To Improve Your Photography

Do you struggle with composing shots? You’re not alone as it’s actually quite difficult to turn what you see into a good photo. There is however one simple trick that you can use to improve composition. That is to use leading lines.

In this article, you’ll learn what a leading line is and how to use leading lines to make stunning photographs.

A railway track used as leading lines in a photograph in a spring afternoon
Use leading lines to improve your compositions

What Are Leading Lines?

Quite simply, a leading line is something that directs the viewer to a specific part of an image.

A viewer can be directed to a key element of the scene. On the other hand, you can also lead the viewer from the front to the back of the image–adding depth to the scene.

So why do leading lines work so effectively?

We are naturally drawn to lines and to follow them when viewing an image. So use lines in photography to improve how the viewer interacts with the image.

A shoreline used as a leading like to draw the viewer's eye to the scene
The shoreline draws the viewers through this photo

A leading line can be a physical line in a scene. This could be a path, a road, a fence, or part of a building.

In contrast, leading lines may not exist physically. For instance, shadows created by bright light create strong lines.

Furthermore, leading lines can be inferred. The direction of a gaze of someone in the shot will likewise lead the viewer.

We’ll look at these different kinds of leading lines in more detail a bit later.

a leading line used in a landscape photo
In this photo the track leads the viewer to the lone tree on the horizon

Use Leading Lines For Direction

Lines are great for giving direction because they point the viewer to the key elements of the scene.

They are a simple and effective way of getting the viewer’s attention where you want it.

When assessing the scene, as well as your subject, do you see any lines that can be used in your composition?

When you’ve found a line you’ll then need to decide if it is enhancing the composition. If you feel the line is taking you away from your subject simply change your position to redirect the line.

a shorewall leading up to a lighthouse. The leading line act to direct the viewer's eye to the lighthouse.
The brick lines on the wall draw the viewer to the tower and give a three-dimensional feel to this shot

Use Leading Lines For Depth

Do you sometimes feel that your photos are flat? That is that they don’t truly represent a three-dimensional scene.

Well, there’s one simple composition technique that will change this. Yes, you guessed it – leading lines.

Leading lines can be used to create a sense of distance and depth. Look for converging lines to include in your shot. They give your image a three-dimensional feel that results in a sense of perspective for the viewer.

Ultimately the lines will come together on the horizon. This point of convergence is known as the vanishing point.

Examples of converging lines are roads, paths or even railway tracks. As the viewer follows these the distance between either side decreases.

Compose your shot with the line stretching out in front of you. As a result you’ll connect the foreground to the background in the scene.

A road converging at the horizon to give a sense of depth to the image
As the two sides of this road converge the viewer is transported into the distance

Use Leading Lines To Explore The Whole Scene

A leading line doesn’t have to take the viewer straight to the point of interest.

Use curved lines to add interest to an image. They’ll encourage the viewer to linger a little longer as they wind their way through the entire scene.

Curved lines take the viewer to parts of an image that may have otherwise been overlooked.

A landscape photo of a rugged mountain area with many leading lines.
The winding path ensures the viewer explores the foreground before reaching the main subject

Use Leading Lines To Change The Mood

Leading lines can even change the way a viewer feels when they look at an image.

Above all, it’s the direction that’s responsible for evoking different moods in leading lines photography. For instance, direction and mood are linked as follows:

  • Horizontal lines draw the viewer across the image. Horizons in a landscape provide an example. They typically evoke a sense of calm.
  • Vertical lines, on the other hand, are imposing and strong. Tall buildings and trees bring a sense of scale and make great backdrops.
  • Diagonal lines make an image feel less static because they add a sense of movement. For instance, align a footprint trail diagonally across an image.
  • Converging lines provide a sense of drama and mystery. As two sides of a track converge to the vanishing point the viewer is left wondering what exists beyond.
  • Curved lines are common in shots in natural settings. Winding rivers offer a soothing feel to an image.
A women walking across sand dunes while her footsteps act as a leading line to compose the photo
Lines such as these footprints positioned diagonally give a sense of movement

When Not To Use Leading Lines

So we’ve looked at how leading lines can improve composition but used incorrectly they’ll leave the viewer feeling disappointed.

As we’ve discovered, leading lines should take the viewer to a specific point of interest in an image. When a line takes the viewer away from the main subject it ends up doing more harm than good.

So whilst you might come across the best line ever make sure it is going to where you want the viewer to look.

Lines that lead the viewer out of the frame or to nowhere in particular also fail. The viewer’s attention will miss the point of the shot because they are directed out of it.

Similarly, too many lines will disorientate the viewer. Unsure in which direction to look the image will be chaotic and far from pleasing for the viewer.

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