Leading lines are one of the most effective and under-utilised compositional tools. So, what are leading lines in art and photography? Leading lines are lines that guide the viewer’s eyes towards a particular point.
You might be wondering, why are leading lines important? This tool is important because you can choose where in the frame you want to take the viewer’s eye. This can be a person or a vanishing point in the background of the image.
I’ll give you all the information you need to start using leading lines for a better image.
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What Is a Leading Line?
What is a line in photography definition? A line in a photo is a point that moves, leading towards something. Some lines are obvious, and some are implied. The viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn along lines. This can be vertical lines, parallel lines, curved lines, diagonal lines, and even strong horizontal lines.
A leading line helps the viewer’s eye move from one part of the image to another. This creates movement in the photo and makes it more interesting. This movement draws the viewer into the image. If the photograph is very busy, you can use a leading line to take the viewer’s eye to the part of the photo you want him or her to focus on.
Photos with leading lines usually have paths, rails, buildings, bridges, or streets. Even rows of trees or lampposts create lines. Usually, leading lines start from the bottom of a photo and lead the eye upward or inward.
Leading Lines vs Paths
The difference between a leading line and a path is simple. A leading line takes you to a point of interest in the frame. 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 snowy mountains.
The image below contains a path, as it winds through the image, to the vanishing point in the distance.
How NOT to Use Leading Lines in Photography
How do you use lines in photography? It’s essential to understand how to correctly use a leading line. Misused, a leading line will be more detrimental than helpful.
The important question that you must ask is where are your lines leading your viewer’s eye?
If the answer is ‘nowhere in particular‘ or ‘out of the frame, avoiding the main subject‘, then you’re doing it wrong.
The other week I was out taking photos of a local viaduct. I was 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 these to direct my viewer’s attention to my main subject – the viaduct. But I had to find the right one first.
I first passed many lines 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, your eyes move out of the frame towards the left.
It’s quite easy to get excited about finding powerful photography leading lines. But if the lines are not pointing exactly where you want them to, they’re doing more harm than good.
Now let’s have a look at how you can incorporate leading lines in photography the correct way.
How to Use Leading Lines in Photography
So, same location, only this time I’m a few meters further down the field.
Notice the difference?
I found some lines which bring your eyes up towards the bridge, and down that path. 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 correct leading lines make the same image?
Leading Lines 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 lines.
There are a great number of lines in this scene. The lighting strip above and the pavement below lead the viewer all the way to the end of the tunnel. A great example of a path.
This is a simple way of creating a path with leading lines. Make the lines in the image the main focal point.
Other Types of Leading Lines
If you want to draw attention to a specific part of the frame, look for a line which already exists. Then, use it to your advantage.
In the image below, the seagull is a slight distraction. But the planks of wood on the jetty lead the viewer to the person.
In this image, the path directs us to the castle at the end.
The leading line doesn’t have to be so obvious. In this image below, the bend in the road leads the viewer’s eye to the subject, which is the sunset.
That’s how leading lines work. Look for these lines around you and use them to your advantage.
But always ask yourself ‘where is my attention being directed?’. A leading line should always point to the subject, not out of the frame or into nowhere.
Now, get out there and start looking for leading lines. It is one easy way to guide the viewer’s eye towards a specific point of interest.
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