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A Primer on Leading Lines

When we look at an image, the mind likes to make connections to see a whole concept. Leading lines help this happen by creating a continuance between the main subject and other elements in the photograph. 

In photography, lines are compositional tools that guide the eye. Photographers use them to bring attention to key areas in order to tell a story or create an emotion.

Leading lines are so-called because they ‘lead’ the eye. An unobservant photographer will often have unintentional lines that pull attention away from the main subject. Or worse, create unintended meaning. 

In photographs, lines can be created by areas of saturation, brightness, darkness, and things that are in focus. These can be used to draw attention to a subject or their effect might need to minimized in post-processing.

Direction of Lines

The direction that a line travels in has some fundamental connections in our subconscious. Artists use the line’s movement to create compelling images.

  • Vertical Lines go up and down the frame. They suggest strength, dignity, power. Think of the pillars in the ancient world that held up magnificent structures. This is the idea that the vertical line conveys.
  • Horizontal lines run from left to right in the frame. The left-to-right movement culturally comes from reading languages rooted in Latin. However, in the East, people are used to reading, right-to-left. This is something to keep in mind when you are looking at images from different cultures or creating meaning in your images. Horizontal lines suggest calmness and stability. They also suggest distance. Think of sitting on a shoreline looking at sand, water, sky. Or, lying down to rest.
  • Diagonal lines slant across the frame. They suggest dynamic movement and also instability. Try this: Stand up and balance on one foot. When you do that, your body is active and at attention. This is an example of the dynamic tension that is created by the use of diagonal lines.
  • Curved lines bend and change direction gently and slowly. They are natural, sensual lines found in nature. Think of flowers, shells, and the human body. 
  • Converging lines are lines that meet at a point. These can become distracting and confusing when not executed correctly. The best use of converging lines is the Vanishing Point. Think of railway tracks disappearing in the horizon. Even though the lines may not actually meet in the image, the mind makes a connection of distance. The furthest place of convergence is an excellent place to put your subject.
  • Implied lines are created by the placement of separate objects or by gesture created by body language. The place where the hands, or eyes are pointing creates a linear relationship. Think of Michaelangelo’s famous painting, The Creation of Adam, where the two figures have their arms outstretched towards each other, but not meeting.

Examples of Lines in images.

Vertical lines

The stalks of grass create Vertical Lines that act as pillars to the diagonal tops. They also fortify the meaning of the quote that accompanies the image. The rays of light coming in from the top left corner point to the subject and also act as leading lines here. Keyword: Strength

Horizontal lines

The horizon line and the line of figures walking across it create Horizontal Lines. The scene has a sense of grounded stability and peace. The figures appear to be walking in the distance. The low saturation in the image also helps to convey the idea of tranquility. Keyword: Calm

The angle at which these street light have been captured creates Diagonal Lines. The image carries a sense of action and imbalance, as if you are going to fall. Keyword: Tension

Photo by Diana Brown

Curved Lines

Curved Lines are gentle and soft. In this image the horizon curves the eye the brightest and most saturated area that has an area of interest. Keyword: Sensual

converging lines

The top, bottom and sides of the frame form lines. Even though the lines don’t meet in the frame, we think of them as Converging Lines. These lines work best when used as vanishing points. A figure is placed at the point of convergence, aids the sense of depth and distance. Keyword: Distance.

implied lines

There are three separate birds here. While two are connected by a branch, an Implied Line is made with the third bird by gesture. The two are looking with open mouths to the one who is looking at them. Their body language suggests connection. In this image, I feel that the shapes and brightness of the leaves in the top left area and the centre of the frame, are creating distracting lines. I can minimise their effect by using a dark vignette around the edges of the image, and lowering the highlights at the centre. Keyword: Relationship

Study other people’s images, identify intended and unintended lines. As your awareness of lines in images grows, so will your skill at using them. Leading lines is one of those fundamental elements of art that deepen with observation and practice.

Just as lines develop connections in your image, the image maker’s ultimate goal is to have the viewer complete the ‘line’ by connecting with hers. 

I am writing the Elements of Art articles to deepen the learning from Robin Griggs-Wood’s Art Basic Challenges.

More on Elements of Art

Jamuna Burry

Exploring ideas on creativity through digital art.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Adele Buttolph

    This is such a helpful post on lines in photography. By explaining the types of lines, how those types affect our interpretation and emotional response, as well as terrific examples of each type of line, you have provided an outstanding description of the power of lines. I plan to share this with the photography group that we have locally.

  2. Patricia

    Wonderful helpful post to refresh the importance of lines and how we photographers should keep our eyes well opened to their presence or their implication. I love the images. Perfect examples.

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