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Composition Technique: Leading Lines

Mike Hagen (Mike_Hagen) on March 31, 2014


Keywords: composition, technique, guides, tips, tricks

A classic compositional rule called “leading lines” is used to direct the viewer’s attention through a photograph. Based on my experience teaching photography over the years, this isn’t an easy technique to master, so let me share some tips that might help you develop this skillset.

Leading lines can be literal, such as lines on the ground, or they can be implied, such as an imaginary line between people looking at each other. My approach to incorporating leading lines in my photographs is to first find an interesting subject like a building, flower, lake, or mountain. Once I’ve defined the subject, I then move around the foreground looking for leading lines and foreground objects that will direct the viewer’s eyes towards the object.

 

Leading lines in photography

Once you find the subject, look for a good background element to lead the viewer’s eyes into the scene.
Nikon D800, 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S. Click on the image for an enlarged view.

 

Wide-angle lenses are the prefered lenses for this technique because they allow you to get really close to a foreground object which increases its significance in the scene. For an example of this approach, look at the image above that was taken at a Seattle produce market. I wanted to show people shopping for fruit, so I decided that they would be my subject. Then, I searched for something in the foreground to point towards the shoppers. The trays of raspberries fit the need perfectly, so I pushed in really close to the berries with a 14mm lens to make them appear larger in the composition. The repeating patterns of the green containers serve as the leading lines that draw the viewer’s attention directly to the shoppers.

 

Leading lines in photography

Here I used the pig’s snout and body as the leading line. Nikon D800, 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S
Click on the image for an enlarged view.

 
The other images in this article also employ the use of leading lines. The pig’s snout and body leads to my wife and kids. The two young women taking a photograph on the fence lead your eyes to the Public Market sign in the background. The rocks in the water lead your eyes to the horizon and the beautiful sky.
 
 
Leading lines in photography

Here, the connection between these two young women form the leading line and direct the viewer’s eye towards the Public Market sign. Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S. Click on the image for an enlarged view.

 

There are lots of elements in our surroundings that can be used to lead your viewer’s eyes towards the main subject. Here are a few that you can use in your own photography:

  • Buildings
  • Sidewalks
  • Streams/rivers
  • Stairs
  • Trails/paths
  • Boulders
  • Flowers
  • Shorelines
  • Driveways
  • Mountains
  • Hallways
  • People gazing into the scene
  • People looking at each other

 

Leading lines in photography

This under water rock formation works perfectly to lead the viewer’s eyes into the scene.
Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S
Click on the image for an enlarged view.

 

I know that producing compelling images sometimes feels out of reach for many photographers. I often hear from participants on my workshops that their images don’t have depth or don’t seem very dynamic. If your landscape and travel photographs suffer from the same issues, then I highly recommend incorporating the basic rule of leading lines and begin including them in your shots.

 

Editor’s note: You may want to read more on Composition Technique, here

 


 

 

(11 Votes)
Mike Hagen Mike Hagen (Mike_Hagen)

Expert photography teacher

Gig Harbor, USA
Admin, 147 posts

8 comments

Debbie Carlisi (debE) on May 28, 2014

Expert photography teacher

Great article, love the examples...

Robert S Baldassano (robsb) on April 11, 2014

A timely article before the next Nikonians Photo contest whose theme is leading lines.

David Benyukhis (dovid701) on April 5, 2014

Fellow Ribbon awarded for his expertise in CNX2 and his always amicable and continuous efforts to help members Laureate Ribbon awarded for winning in the Best of Nikonians 2013 images Photo Contest

The old truth worthy of repeating over and over again. Thanks a lot

Zita Margit Kemeny (zkemeny) on April 4, 2014

As usual a good article. Thanks.

Peter S (PAStime) on April 2, 2014

Thanks for the article. The leading line that I see in the image of the two women at the market is the sight line from the photographer's eyes, through the camera and then subject then and onto the public market sign.

William Rodriguez (camerapapi) on April 2, 2014

Leading lines have been a popular and classic help to composition and your examples show the viewer how useful they are to direct attention to the main subject. I have my objections to two of your examples. The pig for me is an object, not a leading line and the young women are not the best example of leading lines. The iron fence in the background is more of a leading line to the market than their sight. Obviously, these are only my personal opinions.

Tomas Baer (tomradionut) on April 2, 2014

It is simply beautiful! It is so serene, nevertheless there is so much going on. Color is, in my humble opinion, perfect. I love the whole composition. I am talking about of the under water rock formation shot.

Dale Armstrong (Dgastrong) on April 1, 2014

Great examples Mike. Thanks for the post! Dale (your former student)

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