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What Are Leading Lines? (And How to Use Them in Photos)

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 6 min read
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Leading lines direct the viewer’s attention to particular parts of an image. They are one of the most effective and underutilized compositional tools in photography.

By determining the point of interest, leading lines create dynamic compositions. By using such compositional techniques, your pictures will be more interesting. This is why learning how leading lines work can take your photos to the next level.

In this article, we’ll give you the information you need to use leading lines for better images.

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What Are Leading Lines?

Leading lines create a path for the eyes to explore the essential elements of your image. You can have actual lines or a succession of individual components that form an imaginary line.

Leading lines can have different effects on the image. Utilizing them is a great way to draw attention to your subject by using the surrounding scene. Leading lines guide the viewer’s eyes through the image. This movement adds a dynamic feeling to the photo.

black and white image of lines leading eye to building
The crossing lines add dynamics to the image while leading our eyes to the building

Why Are Leading Lines Important?

Leading lines have been in use for centuries to create visual flow. They have appeared in paintings such as the Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David in 1784. You can see the soldier’s arms and background columns guide attention to the center. This was the painter’s goal, as this is where the main subject stands.

an image of the painting Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David
Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David

This resulted in photographers applying this technique as well. If you have a crowded photograph, a leading line takes the viewer’s eye to the photo’s focal point. These lines also create depth, which helps separate the foreground from the background.

Symmetrical lines result in a balanced composition, making the photo more pleasing.

Being mindful of your composition is key to getting these effects. Whether leading lines have the desired results depends on how you compose your shot. If you have lines that appear in your scene, always frame them to your advantage.

a photo of a road through mountains and fog show how to use leading lines photography
The road leads the viewer’s eye into the fog, adding mystery to the photo.

Types of Leading Lines

Leading lines come in many forms. Types of leading lines can be vertical, parallel, curved, diagonal, and even strong horizontal lines. They tend to come in handy in landscape and architecture photography. But you can also use them in portraiture, especially in urban portraits.

You can create leading lines by using paths, rails, buildings, bridges, or streets. Even rows of trees or lampposts appear as lines.

a photo of a stairwell show how to use leading lines photography
The corridor and the building’s walls both lead our eyes to the center of the image

Leading Lines vs Paths

The difference between a leading line and a path is simple. Both techniques use lines to guide your attention, but they serve a different purpose. A leading line takes you to the point of interest in the frame. A path tends to lead you to a vanishing point.

For example, this image contains a leading line as it draws your attention to the snowy mountains.

Image of a wooden pathway between mountains
The wooden pathway serves as a leading line toward the focal point

In contrast, the road here serves as a path as it winds through the image, creating a vanishing point on the horizon.

a photo of a road as example of a photography path
The road serves as a path toward the photo vanishing point

How To Use Leading Lines

Leading lines are most useful in landscape and architecture photography. This is because lines appear in many forms around us, both in nature and in the surrounding infrastructure.

It’s important to use leading lines in a way that creates a more coherent composition. Being mindful when composing the image is the key. Misused lines can cause confusion as much as they can help a composition.

First, determine your focal point. Focal points are the essential parts of the image that you want the viewer’s attention to be drawn to. You need to know which lines you want to use to lead your viewer’s eyes and where you want them to end up.

This is where lines should guide your eyes. They should not lead out of the frame because that would misguide the viewer. It is also not ideal if the lines do not lead anywhere in particular. In this case, they only confuse the viewer and draw attention away from your focal point.

Whether you’re a landscape or architecture photographer, position and perspective are everything.

Image of a road cutting through the mountains to show how to use leading lines in photography
The curved road cuts through the mountains drawing the viewer’s attention to it.

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 many potential leading lines. I could use these to direct my viewer’s attention to my main subject—the viaduct.

I first passed many lines that would have only confused the viewer. This is visible in the first image. If you follow the lines through the frame, your eyes move out of the frame towards the left.

Now, look at the second picture. I found some lines that bring your eyes up towards the bridge and down that path. It makes you feel as if you are 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.

Do you see how much more powerful correct leading lines make the same image?

Conclusion—How to Use Leading Lines in Photography

Leading lines are powerful compositional tools that can add movement to your images. After finding such lines, it is important to pay attention to how you use them. They should guide the viewer’s attention to the focal point of the image.

Always ask yourself, “Where is my attention directed?” Look for these lines around you and use them to your advantage.

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