What are leading lines in photography, and how can they improve your compositions?
In this article, you’ll discover everything you need to know about leading lines, including:
- Why every photographer should learn how to use leading lines (hint: they can majorly increase a photo’s impact)
- Plenty of easy places to look for leading lines
- How to use lines for beautiful, three-dimensional images
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to become an expert, then let’s get started!
Leading lines in photography: a definition
Leading lines refer to lines that lead the viewer’s eye from one part of a composition to another. Usually, these lines start at the bottom of the frame and guide the eye upward, from the foreground of the image to the background.
When used as a compositional technique, leading lines generally move toward the main subject of a photo. For instance, a river might lead the eye toward a fog-covered mountain in the background, or a log might lead the eye toward a stunning sunset.
Note that leading lines can be anything: rivers or logs, as mentioned in the examples above, but also marks on a road, pointed rocks on a beach, lines in the sand, the walls of a house – if it looks like a line and is capable of guiding the viewer’s eye, then it can work!
Why are leading lines important?
Leading lines guide the viewer through a composition.
So by carefully positioning leading lines in the frame, you can draw attention to areas of a photo that matter, like a beautiful mountain or sunset on the ocean. In other words, you can use leading lines to get the viewer to look where you want them to look – and avoid areas you’d prefer they avoid.
You can also use leading lines to create flow, often referred to as dynamism, throughout a composition. Leading lines naturally take the viewer on a journey around the photo, which keeps them engaged (always a good thing!).
Plus, leading lines are a great way to create three-dimensionality (i.e., depth) in an image. By emphasizing the start of a line before letting it fall away into the backdrop, you create a 3D illusion that looks incredible in scenic landscape photography.
How to use leading lines: the basics
Working with leading lines requires two simple steps:
- Find a leading line
- Incorporate that leading line into your composition
Of course, this is easier said than done, but neither of the above steps is actually difficult; they just take a bit of perseverance. Let’s look at each step in turn.
Step 1: Find leading lines
No matter where you live, and no matter where you like to take photos…
…leading lines are all around.
It might not seem likely, but it’s true. After all, remember that leading lines are just lines, and plenty of those exist, right? The key is to find them (and incorporate them creatively into your compositions, as I discuss in the next section).
So where, specifically, should you look for leading lines?
Personally, I think the best place to start is with a path; paths are inherently leading because they go somewhere, and the path edges often create a vanishing point on the horizon (the place where two or more lines converge at theoretical infinity). Plus, you can find paths all over the place – in forests, at parks, in the city, even in the countryside (roads count as paths!).
But you can find plenty of other leading lines, too. While photographers certainly use paths in their compositions, they also work with patterns in the sand, fallen logs, bunches of flowers, interesting rocks, bridges, fences, and more. Here’s a whole list of items to consider:
Human-made leading lines
Natural leading lines
Of course, the list is hardly exhaustive; there are always more leading lines out there just waiting to be found! So the next time you’re setting up a shot, take a moment to examine the scene for prominent lines. You’re bound to find some good ones, even if it takes a bit of searching.
Step 2: Incorporate leading lines into your composition
So you’ve found a leading line or two. Well done – but the work isn’t complete! Now it’s time to actually incorporate the leading lines into your composition, a deliberate, thoughtful process.
First, ask yourself: Where do I want this leading line to take the viewer? Oftentimes, the answer will involve an interesting feature in the background – such as a sunset – so you’ll need to adjust your camera position until the leading line points roughly in the right direction.
(If the leading line isn’t going where you want it to, you can try moving forward and backward or side to side along the line, or you can find another leading line that works better in your composition. A leading line that points away from your main subject is likely counterproductive.)
Next, ask yourself: Is the leading line interesting enough that it can act as a foreground subject? And can I get close enough to make it large in the frame?
If your leading line is interesting and you know you can get close, do it. The best photos often involve a strong leading line, one that draws the viewer into the foreground then leads them from foreground to background, like the stones in the photo below:
Of course, some leading lines just can’t hold the viewer’s attention, or they’re not accessible, and that’s okay – leading lines are always powerful, even if they aren’t showstoppers. You can still use them, but make sure you find an interesting foreground subject that catches the eye or really tighten up your composition to focus on the main subject.
Finally, once you’ve roughly positioned your subject and any leading lines, evaluate the scene one more time. Think about ways that you could enhance the effects of the leading lines, perhaps by changing your camera position, by getting lower or higher, or even by using a wider or longer focal length.
Then take your shot!
Tips and tricks for working with leading lines
Now that you’re familiar with the basics, let’s discuss a few tips to improve your compositions with leading lines, starting with:
1. Use the widest lens you have available
You don’t need a wide-angle lens to create stunning leading line compositions.
But it really, really helps.
Why? Well, a wide-angle lens lets you capture an expansive scene – so you can position leading lines toward the bottom of the frame, then let them flow into the shot, slowly getting farther and farther away until they disappear (or reach your main subject).
Compare this to a telephoto composition, where the leading lines generally start close to the subject, then quickly terminate. Less dynamic, less interesting, and less three-dimensional.
Many landscape photographers shoot with ultra-wide focal lengths for this exact reason. They often find a leading line, use a wide-angle lens to emphasize it, and create a stunningly deep composition.
2. Don’t be afraid to incorporate multiple leading lines into a single composition
A single leading line is nice…
…but if you can find multiple leading lines, all guiding the viewer toward your main subject, your composition will be insanely strong.
For instance, you might use both edges of a road to point toward a distant mountain. Or you might use two lines in the sand – one starting in the bottom right, and one starting in the bottom left – to point toward a blue ocean.
Note that all of your leading lines should point toward the subject as much as possible. If the lines deviate from your subject, they’ll guide the viewer in the wrong direction, which will prevent them from fully appreciating the image. Getting two or more lines to converge toward your subject may take some creativity, but the end result will be worth it.
3. Use the near-far technique to create plenty of depth
The near-far technique is especially common in landscape photography. It’s a simple way to create tons of depth in your photos, and it’s how you can capture powerful photos like this one:
It’s also really simple to use. Here’s what you do:
First, make sure your leading line is suitably eye-catching. It should act as a subject in its own right – like an interesting rock or a patch of colorful flowers.
Second, make sure you use a wide focal length. I’d recommend working with at least 35mm (on a full-frame camera), but 24mm, 18mm, or even 14mm is better.
Third, mount your camera to a tripod and get down low over your subject. You want to make the leading line prominent in the frame, even if it means getting a few inches from your subject. And you’ll want to dial in a narrow aperture, such as f/8, f/11, or even f/16, in order to keep both the foreground and background sharp.
Your final shot will look incredible – with an interesting foreground subject, a line that leads the eye, plus (hopefully!) an interesting background subject to complete the composition.
How to use leading lines for better compositions: final words
Leading lines are the key compositional elements that carry our eye through a photograph. They can be used to tell a story, place emphasis, and draw a connection between two objects.
So start thinking about leading lines wherever you go. Practice finding leading lines in the chaos of everyday life. Your compositions will get very good, very fast!
Now over to you:
What do you think about leading lines? Do you plan to incorporate them into your photos? Do you have any examples of leading line photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!