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How to Use Leading Lines to Improve Your Composition

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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.

A low angle photo of a yellow bridge utilizing leading line photography[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]

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

When it comes to leading lines pictures vs paths, there’s little difference between the two. The same camera settings are used, such as the shutter speed, but the aperture might change.

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.

Road leading the eyes to snowy mountains through utilising leading line composition The image below contains a path, as it winds through the image, to the vanishing point in the distance.

A road in the woods demonstrating leading line composition

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:

A photo of a viaduct containing an incorrect use of leading lines

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.

A photo of a viaduct containing leading lines to draw in the viewers attention

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?

Whether you capture landscape photos or street photography, position and perspective are everything. If you didn’t get it quite right, there is always Photoshop.

Leading Lines Examples

Paths

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.

The Underground in London with a strip of white lighting demonstrating images of lines in photo composition
Image by Gabriel Sollmann -Unsplash

Here’s another one. The repeating arches add depth, and we follow each repetition as they form lines. You can even use these further by incorporating the rule of thirds.

This is a simple way of creating a path with leading lines. Make the lines in the image the main focal point.

Photo of arches on a hallway

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.

A man standing on a wooden pier
Image by Gabriela Palai from Pexels

In this image, the path directs us to the castle at the end.

A path as example of a leading line towards a stone castle

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.

Leading lines directing the gaze to a sunset on a mountainous landscape
Image by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Conclusion

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.

You can take your landscape photography even further with our Simply Stunning Landscapes course!

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