Finding Leading Lines
When you are creating images, the whole point is to make the viewers see and feel something. There are many different techniques used in photography to draw attention or to evoke certain moods and emotions within viewers, this is why it is much more than just getting out of your car, pointing your camera, and taking a snapshot. Photography is very much an artform that when done effectively, can inspire and move people in a very impactful manner.
Leading lines are a great way to guide the viewer’s eye in a certain direction and draw their focus to a certain area of the image. Leading lines should pull the viewer’s eyes from the very bottom of the image all the way throughout the scene, leading them directly to the subject. Leading lines can make your work much more interesting as they take your viewer on a visual journey throughout your image in a very natural way.
The most important step is to first have a subject in your piece. The subject is where you want all of the focus to be, it is the hero of the image, the star. If you don’t have a subject, your image will be confusing and people won’t understand your message. Subjects generally should be centered or placed along one of your thirds and closer to the top half of the frame. Once you find your subject, your next task should be to move around and find interesting foreground elements that help tell the story of the overall image, complement the subject with color or texture, and lead the viewer’s eyes to the subject. (Check out my article “Composition Put Simply” for more tips on drawing focus to your subject)
When you include leading lines in your composition that help lead the viewer's eyes, you can give your image a better sense of flow. Your image can have a strong sense of movement even if there is nothing actually moving in the scene. A static image can be brought to life by having effective, well composed, leading lines. When we hear the term “leading lines” in photography, the first thing that often comes to mind are long roads, walkways, or train tracks with a central vanishing point on the horizon. While these are great foreground elements that work very effectively as leading lines, I wanted to focus more on things that can be found anywhere in nature away from the highways and beaten paths. Many people don’t realize that objects such as plants, rocks, or even water can be used as effective leading lines that will naturally lead your viewers to the subject of your image.
Here are some different examples of unique leading lines that can be subtle yet very powerful in order to lead your viewers to a certain area of the image.
When shooting this scene, I noticed the tide form an interesting "S" shape every so often. I waited for it to happen again and used it as a guide to lead the eye from the bottom of the frame out to the sea arch.
Another example of using the tide as a leading line. When shooting seascapes, I feel the moving tide should always be utilized as a way to create formations that guide the viewer's eye through the subject. Once you find the right shutter speed, you can keep the crisp details in the water while getting a slight blurred effect, which keeps the form of the lines in the water and gives it a sense of motion.
Contrasting colors can create great lines in your scenes. In this image, the contrast of the red indian paintbrush flowers between the blue lupines creates a subtle, but effective line that leads your eyes from the bottom of the frame all the way back to the peak, the subject of the image.
Light and shadow can be used together to form lines in your images as well. In this image, the illuminated, curved rock surrounded by darker tones and shadows, stands out and acts as a leading line to guide the eyes to the Milky Way.
Practice Exercise: Can you distinguish the leading line in each of these images? What can you learn about where the line was placed within the composition? What elements help accentuate the leading line in the image? (Color, Light/Shadow, Texture, Shape)