Leading Lines in Photography: A Complete Guide

“You don’t take a picture, you make it,” Ansel Adams once said. Excellent point, but let’s go a little further. One important thing to remember is that photographs are just one type of image and images are made up of lines.

As photographers, we use lines to create visual interest with pattern, rhythm and flow, and to draw attention to things. Learning to see lines and using them in your compositions is an important step in moving from “taking pictures” to “making photographs”.

One of the most important lines in photography is the guideline. A leading line is a line in a composition that guides the viewer’s eyes from one part of the image to another. It’s often used to point to the main subject or region of interest in the frame, and it’s a very effective tool for controlling how a viewer reads your image.

The photographer in this image uses the dock as a guideline to draw the viewer’s attention to the image and to the sun.
Leader lines are generally used to point to the main subject of an image. In this case, the sandy path is a queue to father and son.

How Guidelines Work

Leading lines are used in all types of photography to guide the viewer and organize the frame. You see them in landscapes, astrophotography, landscapes, sports, wildlife, architecture, photojournalism, portraits, and every other genre. A road leading to a house is a guideline. A fence stretching across a field that draws you to a barn, a cow, or whatever, is a guideline. A branch pointing to a bird is a guideline.

Other examples include a path or path, power lines, arms, legs, reflections, ripples in the water, a flock of birds, a line of people, cars, a shore, a wave , a river or stream, rocks, a horizon, mountains, footprints… the list could go on and on.

Leading lines can be a literal line like a road or an arrangement of individual elements, like the Milky Way in this image, that point to a subject.

How to find guidelines

As mentioned, roughly anything can be used as a guideline. It doesn’t have to be an obvious solid line like a road. It can be a series of rocks, flowers or even stars like the Milky Way. The trick is to see these things not as rocks or flowers or stars, but as lines and to make them point to something.

Claude Monet, the great Impressionist artist, has some helpful advice on this. “To see, we have to forget the name of the thing we are looking at,” he said. I don’t know if he really said that quote which is widely attributed to him, but if he didn’t, someone should have. This is good advice for “seeing” in composition and “doing” it rather than taking pictures. So forget the names of things for a moment and treat everything as a design element when composing your images.

Your phone or the LCD screen on the back of your camera can help you change your mindset and see things that way. Screens compress scenes into two dimensions, making it easier to see things as images with lines rather than objects with names.

Technically, guidelines are meant to point to something, to take you somewhere. However, like any so-called “rule”, this is just a guideline and you don’t have to be a fanatic about it. The “something” to which the line leads does not always have to be emphatic. Sometimes the destination looks more like a clue than a big bang.

For example, something as simple as a splash of beautiful light can be enough to create a sense of destination for a line. Look at the image above. The dirt road goes nowhere. He just disappears into the woods. So I used Lightroom’s radial gradient and mask to brighten the area in the background. It helps draw the eye through the image and create a sense of place. We have the feeling that there is something behind. We don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s okay. Sometimes it helps to leave something to the viewer’s imagination. Let them finish the picture.

The guidelines should take you to some destination. Thinning out the end of the line, like it’s been done in this image, can help create or emphasize a destination, giving it a bit more pop.

The decisive moment

Or let’s say you find a big line, but nothing happens at either end. You could follow Henri Cartier Bronson’s approach and wait for the decisive moment. In other words, sit at one end of a line and wait for something to happen at the other end.

In the photo above, I liked the pattern created by the line of buoys in the water. It was interesting, but it was just there. Then I saw a swan coming towards me. I watched and waited for the swan to be in position at the end of the line to press the shutter.

Sometimes you start with a line and then have to wait for the destination to appear. The buoys in the water looked interesting, but I had to wait for the swan to pass by to complete the picture.

Modification of main lines

Sometimes a photo can be helpful if you add a bit of emphasis to your guideline. For example, if you have a trail leading somewhere, use Lightroom’s adjustment brush – or whatever tool your software has – and dodge a bit to lighten the line a bit. Don’t overdo it. You want it to be a fairly subtle adjustment, just enough to make the line stand out a bit and grab the viewer’s attention.

There are always exceptions. There may be times when you want the line to scream “here I am!” If so, increase the brightness. However, less is usually more.

Use an adjustment brush or other editing tool to highlight your main line to make it stronger and easier for the viewer to see and follow.

Create your own guideline

You can even use a subtle brightness adjustment to create the impression of a main line if one doesn’t exist. For example, let’s say there is an old car in a field of grass. Use Lightroom’s adjustment brush to draw a line through the field to the car. It doesn’t need to be precise. Use a soft feathered edge and shake it a bit as you paint the line. Then drag the Whites or Exposure slider slightly to the right to create a small brightness adjustment and you’ve created a path to the car.

You can even use a brightness adjustment in post-processing to create a guideline. In the image above, I used the adjustment brush to create a line by highlighting the dried grass.

The lines do more than lead

In addition to acting as an arrow pointing to a topic, the form of a guideline can affect the emotional impact of an image. For example, diagonal lines create a dynamic sense of energy and flow through an image. Horizontal lines tend to look static while a vertical line can look rigid or imposing. Curved lines like an S or C curve have a relaxed flowing feel, while a zig-zag can feel more edgy or taut. A wide line will look bold while a thin line can look precise and surgical. Converging lines create a sense of distance and perspective while diverging lines are expansive.

Diagonal lines, like the road in the first photo (left), have a lot of energy and a strong sense of direction. Curved lines, like the coyote footprints in the second image (right), have a more relaxed flow.
Converging lines, like those created by the walkway, create perspective and a sense of distance.

Sometimes a line or lines can be the star of the show and not just get you somewhere. Properly framed, the lines create interesting patterns and textures that can stand on their own as designs.

Lines create patterns, rhythm and textures, which can create interesting images whether or not they lead anywhere.

Conclusion

The challenge we all face as photographers is to turn a scene or a moment into a photograph. Lines are a fundamental element of design and are used in all forms of visual art, from architecture and landscaping to sculpture, graphic design, painting and photography. They are part of the visual grammar that helps images communicate. Learning to use lines will help you create more compelling compositions and move you from “taking pictures” to “taking photographs.”

The shadows of the branches create an interesting pattern and a set of converging leading lines that draw the viewer towards the tree and towards the sun.

Picture credits: Header photo from Depositphotos. All other photos by John Tunney.

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