Composition and the Power of Line

Composition and the Power of Line

Composition and line

Lines are all around us in photography. Conscious use of line can add depth or dynamism to your composition. Let me show you what I mean. Take a look at the following image:

Composition and line

It’s an okay landscape. l like it, but it’s nothing special. Maybe what it lacks is a sense of depth. Now compare it to this landscape:

Composition and line

See how three-dimensional it looks by comparison? The lines in the composition create the illusion of depth. They converge as they disappear into the distance creating a sense of distance and space. I’ve marked the lines so you can see them clearly:

Composition and line

Not every landscape has lines that are so easy to find. Most of the time they are more subtle. In this landscape, the triangular shapes of the rocks in the foreground are like arrows that point to the island in the distance and the setting sun:

Composition and line

It is almost a case of implied line, rather than actual line. The shape of the rocks is a visual clue that directs the eye along invisible lines to the horizon:

Composition and line

Let’s look at this image again in a different way. There is a strong horizontal line in the distance created by the horizon. What happens if we crop the image to a panorama? The ‘feel’ of the photo is completely different. Horizontal lines direct the eye from side to side and create a sense of stability and peace. The panoramic crop emphasises that:

Composition and line

Composition and line

Whereas in the original image the implied lines create a sense of motion. The composition is more dynamic. The principles here are:

  • If you want to create a landscape with a peaceful, tranquil feel, then use horizontal lines.
  • If you want to create a more exciting, dynamic landscape then use diagonal lines.
  • In landscape photography, wide-angle lenses emphasise lines that lead from the foreground to the horizon.

Line outside the landscape

Line comes into play in subjects other than landscapes. You need to train your eye to look for lines, and then figure out ways to use them in your composition. Remember lines are not just straight. They can be curved, they can even be implied. Here’s a photo I took with a very powerful diagonal line that creates a dynamic, exciting composition:

Composition and line

Composition and line

Next, here’s a photo that uses a strong vertical line. The line created by the shape of the red sign is echoed by the lines in the wooden wall. The red string creates another line that intersects the others. See how the vertical line isn’t nearly as dynamic as the diagonal line in the previous image?

Composition and line

Composition and line

Lines in portraiture

The most obvious use of line is in landscape photography, but is it useful in portraiture? I think so, although again it’s a case of subtle use of line. In this example, the woman’s arms create lines that lead the eye up through the image to her face:

Composition and line

The lines are created by tonal contrast – her arms are a light tone and contrast strongly against her black dress and the dark background:

Composition and line

Final thoughts

Lines are all around us and are a very useful tool that can help you create strongly composed images. One way of making the most out of line is to keep the composition of your images as simple as possible. A busy image has lots going on that may distract the eye from elements such as line. Simplifying the composition makes elements like line stronger and more effective.

Mastering Photography

Composition and line

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • Barrie Brown August 26, 2013 09:35 pm

    Isn't it interesting that this has to be TAUGHT to those that shoot in 2D; whereas 3D photographers intuitively look for Z space? This was a well written article, the only thing missing was a caution to those that shoot with stereo rigs not to point at the camera, or throw things at it!

  • marius2die4 August 23, 2013 08:33 pm

    A good photo need a point of interest and also something to drive Your eyes there (if You want to called this "Lines".....)

    Some of my pics:

  • Carlos Comesanas August 23, 2013 04:04 pm

    I know this will be kind of a weird question but, what is that third example picture with those square ponds carved of?
    What are they for?

  • Marnie August 23, 2013 01:38 pm

    I will start to practice looking for lines in my photos, thank you for the post. The photos are very helpful.

  • David white August 23, 2013 08:50 am

    Very informative article, the add is very annoying I can't close it and it always seems to cover a photo.

  • J. Daniel Horvatin August 23, 2013 04:24 am

    Great article and tips but the ad that continued to jump in my face after each time that I closed it was a total distraction .

  • Violet August 23, 2013 03:55 am

    Great Article. I have a question about the 3rd photograph. Did you take it? I mean I'm from Argentina and i've been to that place, where you can see the pools, recently. Have you been there? it's called Salinas Grandes in Jujuy, Argentina.

  • jensaddis August 23, 2013 03:01 am

    I always think of Albrecht Duerers way of composing with lines and what he said about the importance of perspective and the golden ratio/ golden section. In my opinion one doesn't go without the other. Our eyes want to be guided. And this then meets our sense of aesthetics. Therefore it applies in all contexts, if it' s about people, groups, streets, cities, ... and, of course, landscapes.
    Thanks for the article.

  • Brian Fuller August 22, 2013 04:45 am

    I always look for the lines and the natural background parts that can "frame" my subject.
    Thanks for the article.


  • Steve August 21, 2013 03:30 am

    The lines of this stream make a good lead in

  • Mridula August 21, 2013 02:58 am

    I do try to include them in landscapes but did not really think about them outside the landscapes. So thank you for pointing it out.