Leading lines are one of the most effective and under-utilised compositional tools available to photographers. They’re used to draw a viewers attention to a specific part of the frame, whether it’s a person, or a vanishing point in the background of the frame.
Our eyes are naturally drawn along lines and paths in photos, as they tend to make us feel as if we’re standing within the photo itself.
It’s important to understand how to use leading lines effectively, because if they’re used incorrectly, they will be more detrimental than anything.
Leading Lines VS. Paths
To be honest, there’s not much difference between the two.
In my mind, the difference between a leading line and a path is that a leading line takes you to a point of interest in the frame, and a path tends to lead you to a vanishing point.
For example, the image below contains a leading line as it draws your attention to the persons at the top of the hill:
And the image below contains a path, as it winds through the frame, to the vanishing point in the distance:
How to Incorrectly Use Leading Lines
Where are your leading lines directing you?
This is the all important question that needs to be asked here. If the answer is ‘nowhere in particular’ or ‘our of the frame, avoiding the subject’, then you’re doing it wrong.
The other week I was out taking photos of a local viaduct, and walking around the adjacent field, trying to find the best angle.
As I made my way around the field, I noticed there were many leading lines I could use to direct my viewer’s attention to the viaduct. It was just a case of finding the right one. I eventually did find the right lines to use, but not until I had passed many others that would have only served to confuse a viewer. Here’s one in particular:
Pretty nice photo, right? Good use of lines, directing towards the bridge? Almost.
If you follow the lines through the frame, which you instinctively will, you’ll find that your eyes are taken out of the frame towards the left.
It’s quite easy to get excited about finding powerful leading lines, but if they’re not pointing exactly where you want them to, they’re doing more harm than good.
Now lets have a look at how you can use leading lines correctly.
How to Correctly Use Leading Lines
So, same location, only this time I’m a few meters further down the field. Notice the difference?
Instead of finding some lines which took the attention out of the frame, I found some lines which bring your eyes up towards the bridge, and down that path instead.
It makes you feel as if you’re standing in the frame, and looking at the path you have to follow to get to your destination. That destination is the bridge in the distance.
Notice how much more powerful this photo is, now that the leading lines are being used correctly?
Some More Examples
Here’s a photo I took on the Underground in London.
The wide angle lens places you in the frame, and exaggerates the length of the leading lines.
At just a quick glance, I can see twelve different lines which are drawing your attention up the escalators, to the final destination at the top. A great example of a path.
Here’s another one:
As the arches are repeated, this adds depth, and we follow each repetition as they form lines.
A very simple way of creating a path with leading lines.
If you want to the attention to a certain part of the frame, look for lines which already exist, that you can use to your advantage.
So that’s how leading lines work. Look for them, utilise them, and always ask yourself ‘where is my attention being directed?’.
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