In this article and video, pro photographer Ian Plant discusses using leading lines to make compelling photo compositions. Ian draws on lessons from his Ultimate Photography Composition Course. Included at the end of the article is another video, available exclusively to PRO members, featuring an in-depth discussion of fifteen photos using leading visual elements.
Learn more by watching this video, which explores in depth using leading lines in photography composition.
What are leading lines?
Leading lines are lines that help facilitate the viewer's visual journey through a photographic composition. Leading lines often start at the bottom of the composition leading to the center or top, but they can come from anywhere, including the top, left, right, or corners of the image frame. Also, there's no need to be dogmatic about leading "lines," as there are a number of other shapes that can lead the eye just as effectively as lines (especially curves). So, I'll be taking a fairly broad view of "lines" in this article.
The lines formed by the ripples in the sand lead the eye from foreground to background, and from bottom to top, in this seascape photograph. Olympic National Park, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/640 second.
Try diagonal lines instead of vertical or horizontal lines
Diagonal lines are much more dynamic than vertical or horizontal lines, and they force the viewer to explore more of the composition. For example, a vertical line pushes the viewer from bottom to top, but if that line leans diagonally, it also pushes the viewer from left to right (or vice versa). I will often alter my position as necessary to put a diagonal skew on any lines I am incorporating into my compositions.
The diagonal lines formed by the pillars create a very dynamic composition. I made this photo looking down a colorful parking ramp in Minneapolis, USA. Canon 1DXII, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 1600, f/8, 1/40 second.
Look for converging diagonal lines
In art, the place where diagonal lines converge is known as a "vanishing point." You can use converging diagonal lines to powerfully lead the viewer's eye to the vanishing point, which becomes an extremely important part of the composition. The vanishing point traps the viewer's eye, refusing to let go.
The converging diagonal lines formed by the striations in this sandstone cave along the south shore of Lake Superior inexorably draw the viewer into the center of the composition. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.5 seconds.
Lines are great, and they can create a powerful visual effect, but finding leading shapes that curve or zigzag instead can be even better. These shapes meander, forcing the viewer to explore more of the composition. The effect is often not quite as strong as the immediate visual reaction created by lines, but curves and zigzags are more likely to hold the interest of the viewer over the long term.
This curvy frozen stream in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia gets the eye moving left to right and back (and so forth) as it leads from foreground to background. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/8, 1/4000 second.
If you want to learn more about how you can use visual design to make your photos better, check out my Ultimate Photography Composition Course. With almost four hours of video instruction and a 250-page ebook, you'll learn everything there is to know about composition. The course is available for separate purchase, but it is also available to PRO members as part of their subscription.
Leading Visual Elements: 15 Case Studies
In this next video, available to PRO subscribers only, I take a close look at fifteen different compositions where I use leading visual elements, explaining how each composition is constructed. A PRO subscription takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials (including my Ultimate Photography Composition Course).