Better Composition – Use Leading Lines to Improve Your Photos

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Leading Lines are one of the simplest ideas in composition, but also one of the most powerful because they are used to draw your viewers into your photo, lead them on a visual journey through the image, and ultimately show them some kind of visual payoff.

What do train tracks, docks, roads, streams, and reflected clouds have in common? They can all potentially be used as leading lines to make your photos suck your viewers right into the frame.

Think about when somebody says “Holy sh*t, loookit that!” ….and points right at whatever it is.

Well leading lines are a way of doing the exact same thing in your photos, of grabbing your viewers’ eyeballs, getting them to travel a visual path and, ideally, pointing them to something cool. But before we learn how to do that we have to learn…

What Is a Leading Line?

The world around us is full of lines; the trick is learning to see it that way. For example, I’m standing next to this river, which looks like a river. But if I think about it more abstractly, this river is actually one big curving line that flows into the distance. Similarly, you can think of a road not as a stretch of pavement, but rather a series of parallel lines. Foam on a beach isn’t really foam at all, but really a long sinewy line. And once you understand that, then you’re halfway to understanding…

How to Use a Leading Line

The key to using LL effectively comes down to where they point. The best leading lines flow INTO your image, create a visual pathway, and end at some kind of visual payoff, like a mountain or a beautiful sunset. And to an amazing degree you can control exactly where your lines point. Even though I can’t physically move this river, I can make it flow from left to right in my photo by standing here and pointing my camera there. Or by moving just a little bit I can make it flow the complete opposite direction in my photo.

Where you stand and how you orient your camera makes all the difference in the world, so figure out what the visual climax of your shot is, and then find a way to point your lines right at it!

Another important thing to note is that leading lines are generally most effective when they appear as diagonal lines and curving lines, because these kinds of lines do two things. One, they break up the square format of our photos. And two, they help the viewer’s eye traverse the whole frame.

For these same reasons you often want to avoid horizontal and vertical lines in your frame.

  • Horizontals can create a visual roadblock that prevents flow INTO the photo and instead causes flow off the sides of the photo.
  • Vertical lines don’t work well because they keep your viewer’s attention limited to one side of the frame, and why include this stuff in the photo if your viewer won’t look at it?

Got another question? Check out our Landscape Photography FAQ here:

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