There are many compositional elements that we can use in photography; the rule of thirds, balanced elements, symmetry, and so on. Perhaps one of the most powerful, and yet easy-to-find in everyday life, is the compositional rule of leading lines. Everywhere we go in life, there are leading lines. Some are quite obvious, and some incredibly subtle, but all are capable of adding a new – some might say third – dimension to our two-dimensional images. In this article, we are going to take a look at what leading lines are and how we can incorporate them in our images to boost composition.
Leading the eye: a leading line in an image can be any device that draws the viewer’s eye directly towards the main subject matter in the scene. Leading lines are a primary compositional tool for landscape photographers, but their creative power can be applied to any aspect of photography: portraiture, street, or macro, for example.
Leading lines usually (but not exclusively) are physical objects. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are either the edges of a road drawing your eye into the image, or the converging parallels of railway tracks. However, a leading line can be any number of things: a fallen tree branch, the waterline on a beach, window frames. Whatever the device is, the primary goal is always the same: to draw the viewer’s eye into the shot and toward the subject.
This leads us nicely to another important element in leading lines: perspective. Before we go any further, let’s dispel one often-quoted myth about perspective, and that is that it changes when you change a lens. It does not. Perspective remains the same at any focal length; however, if we move our position because we have changed lenses, then our perspective changes. Perspective is an important element in leading-lines shots. It can dramatically change the way our composition works. The road or rail line shot is a classic case. In such an instance, the use of a wide angle lens and a low-down perspective can give a sense of depth to the image, rendering it almost three-dimensional.
Because leading lines are such a strong visual element in composition, perhaps the best way to explain them is by deconstructing some images that incorporate leading lines.
In the image above, we see the classic use of leading lines to draw a viewer’s eye to the main subject. There are several lines drawing us to the main building: the different colors of the foliage and the upper and lower parts of the old building to the left all work together to bring us to the base of the modern building.
Here, multiple compositional elements are working together. We have a double leading line at the bottom that leads our eye to the gateway. Framed within the gateway is the mosque in the background. This image was shot from a distance using a moderate telephoto lens.
In this example, we see how a change in perspective can dramatically change our image. This is the same mosque as the one featured in the previous image, but this time I have used a wide angle lens and low perspective combined with deep depth of field. Using the ornate pavement, the composition draws the eye directly to the mosque.
In this example, we see the use of leading lines not to draw your eye deep into the shot, but to move them to the statue on the right. The large block to the left naturally draws the eye to the praying statue.
At the same location, this time the leading line actually is used as a secondary compositional element, balancing the statue to the right and leading to the cabin over the water. By using a shallow depth of field, I have concentrated the viewer’s eye on the statue, whilst maintaining an overall story for the shot with the background.
This shot is a classic use of leading lines. The gentleman is quite small in the shot, but by using the leading line of the bottoms of the houses, the eye is immediately drawn to him. To stop the eye from wandering from the subject, I have used the wall to the right and a second subtle leading line in the steps to the left. This draws the eye up to the balcony, below which sits the man.
This example demonstrates that leading lines need not be lines at all. Here, the use of a wide angle lens, low perspective and careful positioning of the large flower has created a pseudo-leading line, drawing our attention to the opera house in the upper part of the image.
This last image is a personal favorite of mine, and demonstrates that leading lines do not need to be physical elements. In this case, the leading lines are the shadows of the cliffs on the green water leading your eye to the boat in the gap. The rule of thirds is also in use here, the boat being on the upper third.
Leading lines are one of the most powerful and easy-to-use compositional tools available. They are everywhere you look, and by incorporating them into your images, you can add depth and draw the viewer’s eye to the subject. Many shots can benefit from leading lines, but as with all composition, it will work best if used with other compositional elements as well.
All images copyright by Jason Row.