Leading lines are a creative compositional technique, which you can use to add a feeling of dynamism and depth to your photography. In this article, we’ll explain more about what they are, how you can use them, why they work and when leading lines can go wrong.
Be sure to check out our other articles on composition, including framing in photography and the rule of thirds and when to break it.
Definition of leading lines
Leading lines are – quite literally – lines that run through the scene you are photographing. Typically they go from the foreground towards the background, and in doing so they lead the viewer’s attention to the point of interest in your image.
Leading lines can be vertical, diagonal or – in some cases – horizontal. The lines themselves can be straight or curved. The key point is that they must lead the viewer’s eye towards the point you want them to focus on. You can also combine leading lines with other compositional tools, such as the rule of thirds.
In this image, the bench provides strong leading lines, which our eyes follow towards the subject. The lines also create a visual balance, with the bench having more prominence than if the photographer had framed the shot from a typical head height.
Why do leading lines work?
In the excellent video on composition below, Sean Tucker sets out four key things we are attracted to when viewing an image, according to scientific studies. They are:
Other research also shows that our eyes are naturally drawn to areas with more edges and to objects that are nearer to us, in preference to those that are further away.
Your choice of lines will, of course, depend on what’s available in your scene. At the least, they are likely to be the elements that start towards the bottom of the frame and therefore appear nearest to the viewer in our 2D representation of the world. They will also have edges that attract our eye.
The most powerful lines will have strong contrast, as in the bench above. It’s also easy to think of leading lines that could be the brightest part of the image – such as strings of lights – or that have the most saturated colour.
In this photograph, which I took in the Barbican in London, the walkway provides its own leading lines in the form of the wall, the brick path, the pillars and the roof.
However, the most powerful element in the image is the leading line created by the contrast between the bright sunshine and the shadow from the wall. All these elements angle towards the woman at their focal point, who would otherwise be easy to overlook given the tiny portion of the frame she fills.
Is it a line or a path?
You’ll have noticed from the discussion above that the purpose of leading lines is to lead the eye to the subject. Many photographs – including many of my own – use lines to lead the viewer into the image but without a subject at the point where the lines converge. In these photos, the lines themselves are the subject and they form a path through the photograph.
The pictures above, which I took in London Bridge underground station and at Waterloo, are classic examples of photos with strong lines that are paths rather than leading lines. In both cases, my aim was to showcase the location itself. If my intention had been to tell a story about the human experience of being in these places, I could have waited until someone moved into the right part of the frame to be at the convergence point of the lines.
How to find leading lines
We’ve already seen from the examples above that the urban environment is rich with different types of leading lines. Roads and road markings, railways, tunnels, stairs, canals, power lines, traffic, playgrounds – once you start looking, lines are everywhere. Parallel lines can be particularly strong, as they converge to a point as you look into the distance.
In this image, the diminishing perspective of the building itself naturally draws you towards the woman and the photo might work even on a less sunny day.
However, the most powerful leading line in the picture is formed by the patches of light coming through the windows. These are both the brightest part of the image and the areas of greatest contrast, so they immediately grab our attention.
This staircase in the Oodi Library in Helsinki is a great example of a using curved lines, which then lead past the walking woman towards the centre of the image, never allowing the viewer’s gaze to leave the frame.
I took the photo above on the South Bank in London, by Waterloo Bridge. The stairs, handrail and the wall to the left all act as diagonal lines and focus attention on the person at the top of the steps.
With a bit of ingenuity, you can also find leading lines indoors. We’ve already seen the example with a bench. How about a ventilation grill?
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Of course, there are also leading lines in nature and the landscape, although you may have to work harder to find some that point in the direction you want.
Rivers, streams, shorelines and human-made elements such as roads, paths and fences can all be highly effective.
This striking picture uses infrared photography to turn the grass white, resulting in a multitude of leading lines and strong contrast between the dark road and the pale grass.
In this landscape photo, the curved shoreline and the edge of the hill to the left both act as a leading line, helping to draw the viewer’s eye through the scene towards the mountains in the distance.
Getting the right perspective
Changing your perspective can make a dramatic difference to the leading lines in your scene. Getting low to the ground emphasises lines that start in the foreground, making them appear bigger and bolder. As we’re not used to seeing from low down, this perspective can create a sense of dynamism in otherwise quite mundane scenes.
Similarly, if you’re able to get your camera high above your scene, you’ll find different ways to incorporate lines that don’t seem obvious from our usual perspective.
The implications for post processing
If you use leading lines effectively in your composition, they should be prominent in your image straight out of camera. However, post-processing offers a second opportunity to emphasise the lines. Look for ways to boost contrast and emphasise the distinction between your lines and the ground.
In the RAW file of this image, the line painted on the floor is blue. When processing the file, I adjusted the brightness of the blue tones to make the line stand out significantly more. After the wall lights, it’s the brightest part of the image, as well as appearing nearest to the viewer, given its starting point at the bottom of the frame.
If I’d been working in colour, I could have increased the saturation of the blue tones to achieve a similar prominence, given the appeal of saturated colours discussed earlier.
When leading lines don’t lead
Leading lines need careful selection and placement, if they’re to work effectively. I took the photo below on a beautiful winter morning in a local park, with a hard frost on the ground and the rising sun just starting the catch the mist.
I wanted to draw attention to the tree, which is nicely enveloped in the mist and positioned in the brightest part of the image. Much to my frustration, though, there was no way of positioning the path in the frame so that it led towards the tree. I took the shot anyway, because I loved the conditions and the light, but ultimately it doesn’t work because of the path veering away from the tree rather than towards it.
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