How to Use Leading Lines in Photography

By September 19, 2019 April 21st, 2020 Composition, Photography

Leading lines are one of the most popular visual tools used in photography. By including them in your composition, you can influence the order your viewers will see the elements in your photograph. They are also powerful tools used to enhance an image’s sense of depth and structure.

In this guide, we will talk about the different ways you can use leading lines to create unique and engaging images. But first, we need to understand what they are.

What Are Leading Lines

Leading lines are visual tools used in photography to guide the viewer’s eyes through an image. In particular, they are used to draw the viewer’s attention to the image’s focal point.

Because our eyes naturally follow lines, placing your focal point where lines meet or vanish is an effective way to elevate their visual importance.

Leading lines can be both physical and implied. That is, they can be physical objects such as rivers, streams, and bridges. Or, they can be implied lines, such as light, water ripples, or a pattern of stones.

Leading Lines vs. Visual Paths

Don’t confuse visual paths with leading lines. These two are different compositional tools and have different visual effects from each other.

As established above, leading lines guide the viewer to the image’s focal point. Visual paths, on the other hand, are tools used to direct the order that the viewer sees different elements within a composition.

A visual path helps establish a beginning, a middle and an ending, similar to telling a story. 

Visual paths are not necessarily made of lines. They can take the shape of patterns, color, differences in scale, and light, among others.

All visual paths act as leading lines. That is, you can use a visual path to direct your viewers’ attention to the focal point. However, in the process, they will also notice all the other details in your photograph.

The image below, for example, uses a visual path to encourage viewers to explore the image, starting from the bottom of the frame to the background. 

Using a visual path in a composition such as this one is particularly helpful since the focal point, the hedge stone is located in the image’s foreground.

Because of the hedge stones’ size and level of detail, it naturally keeps the viewers’ attention in the foreground of the image. But, by using a visual pathway, viewers are likely to stroll around the image, despite my focal point being in the foreground.

Types of Leading Lines In Photography 

Leading lines come in many forms. Different types of lines will convey different visual tones and moods in a photo.

Curved Lines

One male cyclist riding along a paved mountain road on a road bike. Back-light effect, vertical frame

Curved lines are another great visual element to use as leading lines. 

These lines have an inherent sense of movement, which is great for creating dynamic images.

Because of their natural flow, objects placed along the curve are likely to get the desired attention. This makes them ideal to use not only as leading lines but also as visual paths.

To introduce curved lines in your photographs, look for winding pathways or meandering rivers and include them in your scene. Then place your subject at the end or along the curve to give it more importance and draw the viewer’s attention to it. 

 Converging Lines

Converging lines are another compositional element used to guide the viewers toward the focal point of an image. 

Our eyes naturally follow converging lines to where they meet. This tendency makes converging lines a great navigational tool for drawing your viewers attention to your subject.

By placing your subject where these lines meet, you can effectively direct your viewers’ eyes to it. 

Converging lines also works to enhance the sense of depth in an image. When two parallel lines meet, they create a vanishing point. 

Vanishing points helps viewers to understand the spatial relations in a photograph.

When the viewer sees parallel lines coming together, they perceive it as distance. The more lines converge, the farther away the viewer perceives them to be.

Converging lines give images a sense of depth. Although in actuality, there is no depth, and the image only has two dimensions.

Implied Lines

As the name suggests, implied lines are not physical lines but implicit lines found in an image. Some examples of implied lines are sun rays, coastal waves, patterns, and shadows. 

Despite not being “real,” implied lines are some of the most powerful forms of leading lines. 

You’ll often see these lines used not just as a navigational tool, but as a way to influence the overall mood and tone in an image.

Sunrays, for example, are often used as a leading line, but also a way to add an ethereal, dream-like effect in a picture. Shadows, on the other hand, are great for conveying an ominous and eerie mood in a photo. 

Diagonal Lines

Of all the lines, diagonal lines feel the most dynamic. They are often associated with feelings of movement and speed. 

Including a diagonal line in your composition can introduce a sense of action in a scene that is otherwise dull or static.

An excellent way to include a leading diagonal line in your composition is by looking for triangular elements in your scene. Since triangular shapes have diagonal lines, you can use them heighten the sense of activity and tension in your image.

Naturally occurring triangles such as dunes, rock formations, and wakes in water are excellent examples of diagonal leading lines.

When scouting for diagonal leading lines, remember that they do not need to have straight lines. Even elements with the slightest hint of a triangular shape can be effective.

How to Find Leading Lines

Most settings will contain lines in some form. So the main challenge is to be mindful of them.

Spotting them may require some effort in the beginning, but as your practice, this will eventually become second nature to you.

One of the easiest ways to find leading lines is by navigating for possible compositions through your viewfinder. This will help simplify the scene and make eliminating distracting elements and highlighting essential ones much easier.

Looking through the viewfinder will also help you see subtle changes in perspective, angle, and distance in your composition. This way, you can easily find leading lines that best capture your desired scene.

I also recommend determining your focal point first, before scouting for leading lines. Leading lines are meant to emphasize the presence of your focal point and not the other way around.

The best leading lines are the ones that converge. This is true whether they are of straight, curved, diagonal, or implied. 

Converging lines are excellent because they not only highlight your subject, but they also elevate the sense of depth in your image. I highly recommend developing a keen awareness for these types of lines where they are present. 

Leading Lines in Landscape Photography

San juan de Gaztelugatxe in Basque Country

Leading lines appear everywhere in our surroundings. From human-made structures, such as boardwalks and bridges, to natural elements such as rivers and trees, there’s plenty you can use for your landscape photos.

Leading lines are particularly helpful in landscape photography since images of vast scenes are often taken with a wide-angle view lens. Using leading lines in wide shots eliminates the risk of your audience to wander loosely around the frame.

Some of the most effective leading line in landscape photography come in the form of converging lines.

Converging lines enhances depth, which can add a tremendous visual impact in landscape compositions. 

Augmenting the three-dimensionality in landscape images create life-like scenes. This helps the viewers connect with the image and makes them feel as if they are standing in the midst of the landscape themselves.

Converging lines that extend into the background are mesmerizing and awe-striking for viewers. 

As the converging line in your landscape image extends to the background, viewers are left awestruck and mesmerized.

Leading Lines in Food Photography

Similar to landscape photography, there are plenty of visual elements you can use as leading lines in food photography. 

Some of the most common are silverware, whisks, pot handles, and spatulas. You’ll also often see colorful spices, bread crumbs and crystal salts spread out to form implied leading lines. 

Leading lines are wonderful tools to use in food photography, especially when it comes to organizing a cluttered scene.

As mentioned, photographers use leading lines to influence the order in which viewers see the elements within an image. They have the power to connect different elements in a scene, enhancing a compositions’ structure.

Food photography often involves multiple separate elements, most of the time, with varied contrast and color.

If you’re struggling to convey your message due to competing visual elements, keep this idea in mind. Using leading lens is one of the most natural and effective methods to add structure within an image.

Leading Lines in Portrait Photography

Woman in swimsuit relaxing in water with closed eyes. Woman swimming backwards facing the sky in a lake.

Leading lines are also widely used in portrait photography. They are often used to lock the viewers’ attention on the main subject and keep them from wandering around the frame. 

Walls, railings, windows, and steps are some of the most common leading lines portrait photographers use. 

For instance, you may position your subject in the corner of a window and use the windowsill as your leading lines. Or, you may position your subject in the corner of a room and use the converging walls to draw the viewer’s attention towards your subject.

Using implied lines such as light rays and shadows are also classic examples of leading lines in portrait photography.

Light, when placed strategically, is one of the most powerful visual tools you can use to arrest your viewers to your focal point.

More than lines, bright elements naturally draw us in. That is, when looking at an image, our attention will gravitate towards the brightest parts first. 

By finding ways to utilize light rays as a leading line, you can ensure that viewers will notice your subject before anything else.

Some other examples you can use for leading lines in portrait photography are the models’ arms and legs. Although less common, they are every bit as effective in drawing the viewers eyes. 

Final Thoughts

When scouting for leading lines, don’t forget to look for other visual elements that can highlight your subjects even further. Try to find ways to use light, color, and contrast along your leading line for added visual impact.

Next time you’re out with your camera, be mindful of these elements in the scene. Use them to help you create exciting compositions that take your audience on an impactful visual journey. 

About The Author

Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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