How to Use Lines (Leading and Otherwise) in Photography

Lines are some of the most fundamental elements of photography, and some of the simplest, too. But don’t let that fool you. Lines come in many varieties – sometimes leading lines that guide the composition, other times barriers segmenting a photo. They also impact an image’s sense of emotion and structure. In this article, I will cover the best ways to use leading lines and other lines in photography, including how to put them into practice in your own compositions.

How to Use Leading Lines in Your Composition

The most obvious effect of lines is that they guide a viewer’s eye. They point from one area of the photo to another, often from the foreground to the background. This is why you’ve probably heard of “leading lines” before – lines that sweep through the photo and make it more interconnected.

Some of the most common leading lines are roads, fences, rivers, canyons, and so on. They physically stretch through space, not just providing a compositional link from foreground to background, but also creating the actual route you’d follow to get there in the real world. This is why they’re so powerful in composition. They give the viewer a very literal trail to follow through an image.

Leading Lines in Photography
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm, ISO 100, 1/13, f/16.0

There are a few ways to use leading lines when you are composing a photo. First, you can make them the primary subject of your photo, taking up a lot of space and attracting high levels of attention. The image above is one example. To do this, you generally need to get very close to the leading line in the real world. It often helps to use a wide angle lens to exaggerate its size compared to the background.

However, leading lines can be more subtle elements of composition, too. Take a look at the photo below, which clearly has a leading line – the footpath at the bottom – yet isn’t dominated by it. This still counts as a leading line because it provides a path for viewers to follow from one part of the image to another. But it also demonstrates that even small elements in the composition can fill a similar role:

Photo of Footpath Going into the Distance
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/80, f/16.0

Leading lines don’t always need to be paths that you could actually follow, manmade or otherwise. Sometimes, they’re just patterns on the ground, or shapes in the sky, that guide a viewer’s eye nonetheless. It can be tricky to differentiate between leading lines and, simply, lines. A tree branch spanning from left to right can guide your composition, and so can two people’s arms when they hold hands.

So, the next section dives other important uses of lines in photography, whether they count as “leading” or not.

Lines Provide Structure to a Photo

Composition is all about structure. You’re organizing elements of an image to convey your message as effectively as possible. Lines are among the best tools in your kit to make that happen.

If a road links the foreground and background of a photo, you just created a compositional structure. If a cloud encircles your subject and keeps the viewer’s eye trained to the center of an image, it’s the same result – a structure to your composition.

Because lines have the power to link two different parts of a photo (or more), they’re one of the most natural ways to organize your composition. Although this sometimes comes in the classic form of a leading line from foreground to background, it doesn’t always. In the photo below, the canyon lines form a heart shape that gives this composition a reason to exist:

Sony NEX-7 Image Sample (16)
© Nasim Mansurov

In other cases, the line itself is your subject. Sure, lines are simple elements of composition, but they still have a lot of interest and emotion. A gentle, curved line tells a very different story from a sharp, jagged line. So, even the simple image of an angular mountain silhouetted against the sky can convey strong emotions. The same is true of the pleasant shape of a winding line in the sand.

Curved dune
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 75mm, ISO 100, 1/8, f/16.0
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

Also keep in mind that lines don’t only set paths in a photo; they also set boundaries, as you’ll see in the next section.

How to Use Lines as Barriers

The eye has an easy time flowing along lines. It has a much harder time flowing across them.

Horizons, if not dealt with properly, can divide the top and bottom of a photo in an unpleasant way. It’s why I often look for soft horizons, or cases where a different element crosses between the sky and the land to make them feel more connected (say, a lightning bolt, rainbow, or cloud – and note that all of these, themselves, could be considered leading lines).

Leading Line and Horizon
The leading line from the foreground to background in this photo is very important to its composition. So is the cloud of steam that traverses the horizon line – which otherwise would have blocked the eye and divided this photo very sharply from top to bottom.

So, if you want your entire image to feel interconnected, “barrier lines” are worth paying attention to. A line going the wrong way can divide an image rather than connect it.

Then again, used properly, the barrier property of lines can be an effective way to make your photo feel self-contained and deliberate. For example, look for natural framesaround your scene – elements such as trees or clouds that create barriers near the edge of a photo. Because photographers often don’t want to lead the viewer’s eye out of the frame, putting a barrier can be a powerful way to contain or close your composition.

Natural Frame Example
This photo has a natural frame due to the trees on the left and right, as well as the lines of rocks on the ground

Case Studies

Here are some examples of lines used in photos – from traditional leading lines to broader compositional structures. Examine the compositions below and pay attention to how the lines guide or block a viewer’s eye:

Soft Horizon Line
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1.6 seconds, f/11.0. Note how the horizon line, which could have divided the photo very strongly, grows soft and fades away completely along the right-hand side.
Southern Alps Landscape
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 0.8 seconds, f/16.0. An obvious leading line created by foreground patterns, and exaggerated with the use of a wide-angle lens.
Lines in the Shadows
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/250, f/11.0. Backlit subjects often have built-in leading lines simply because of their shadows.
Leading Line Example
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 18mm, ISO 100, 1/60, f/13.0. The frozen log complements the frozen landscape, making for a very natural leading line.
Light and dark
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 95mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/16.0. Another example of how shadows can create lines in a photo, leading and otherwise. The lines also segment this image into a checkerboard pattern.
Abstract Landscape Photo of Sand Dunes
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 86mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/16.0. When your photo is nothing but a series of lines, you can end up capturing some very interesting abstract patterns.
River Leading Line
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1/13, f/16.0. The leading line of a river, as well as a natural frame thanks to the trees on the right and left at the top.

As you can see, almost anything can create a line in your photos. If you’re after a classic foreground-to-background leading line, here are some of the most common subjects to look for:

  • Manmade roads and paths
  • Rivers and ocean waves
  • Sand dunes
  • Rock formations and lines on the ground
  • Shadows from backlit subjects
  • Footprints going into the distance
  • Fallen trees
  • Patterns in ice
  • Canyons

And lines, more generally, can be formed in countless other ways, including:

  • Rainbows
  • Tree trunks
  • The Milky Way at night
  • Waterfalls
  • The shape of people
  • Columns and edges in architecture
  • Horizon lines
  • Clouds
  • Implied lines (like someone looking at an object)
  • Exaggerated lines from wide-angle lenses
  • Lightning
  • Hard-edged shadows

If you want to use lines as an element of composition, keep an eye out whenever you see these subjects.

How to Compose Lines Effectively

After you’ve found some interesting lines to photograph, or a nice leading line from front to back, how do you make it look as good as possible in your composition?

The first step is to ask yourself if it actually helps the image. Although it’s nice to connect the foreground and background of a composition, don’t force it. Not every photo needs a fallen tree or a set of footprints wandering to the horizon. Sometimes, lines are more subtle (such as the natural stretching of a wide-angle lens), or even not important at all in a given photo.

Nasim has shared the following two images before on Photography Life, and they illustrate this perfectly. The first photo, with the log in the foreground as a leading line, is actually quite distracting. The second image simplifies the composition and is much stronger as a result:

Maroon Bells
NIKON D700 @ 28mm, ISO 200, 1/320, f/8.0
Maroon Bells with Snow
NIKON D700 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 44mm, ISO 200, 1/30, f/8.0

This isn’t just true for leading lines, but also for frames at the edge of a photo. Natural frames aren’t always ideal or worth searching for 100% of the time. I see some photographers try to put a tree branch over the top of their composition whenever they can, closing off the composition with lines whenever possible. This sometimes works, but other times the tree doesn’t have any significance given the context of the rest of the image; it just looks insincere somehow.

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