Leading Your Viewers Through Your Photos

Leading Your Viewers Through Your Photos

When viewers take a look at your photos, they often want to go some place. And they don’t even know it. You can help take them on a journey within your photo by leading them in a number of ways. At times people love to be guided by art and not have to think too hard. That were is the technique of leading comes in.


The first tool, or trick, is to create an actual path in your photo to guide the viewer. Front to back, side to side, top to bottom. Make the path something distinguishable such an actual path (pictured here in Olympic National Forest in Washington state), road, valley or even a river course. With imagination, you can see other paths in nature as well as in the man-made world.
If you are starting out in photography and are wondering how to use a path, start with one of the most basic techniques; The Rule Of Thirds. This rule is an easy way start getting your feet wet. Take the path from one point to another, often having it start or stop on one of the meridians of the Rule. A river starting in the distance from an intersection of the meridians on the upper right third then flowing towards the foreground and finishing in the bottom left third. Foot prints in the sand along the bottom third meridian.


Action will lead your viewer through a photo as well. Take a look at this hippo for instance. It’s moving in one clear direction and you know where the photo is heading. Most people I’ve shown the picture to admit to not really seeing the tail but certainly remember what the head and nose looked like. That’s because the sense of action and motion gives viewer’s eyes some place to go. It also brings up another point about eyes.


Whether actual eyes are in the frame or not, having a subject which is looking off to one side or the other, even slightly, helps lead viewers inside the frame. It’s part of that ‘wanting to be led’ mentality when we are viewing art for pleasure. Seeing someone, or something, looking off to a side will guide us.

Here is where focus inside the frame becomes important. You may want to highlight what is being looked at by achieving a tight focus on it, or make it more abstract, as I did in the photo above of the Legal Nomad Jodi Ettenberg  (although you can obviously tell it is a sunrise). Focus can also be held on both near and far subjects if you desire. The choice is yours and, as always, experiment with picking one or the other to see how the finished image feels to you.


Position inside the frame is also important to leading. Take a look at these two photos from Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

The first image is specifically cropped to place the safari truck at the intersection of two Rule Of Thirds meridians. It is also pointed to the open ground to the right. Viewing this, you know which direction the truck is traveling and what it’s going to encounter.

The second, vertical shot is not framed as well. The truck is getting close to the edge of the frame and on a subconscious level, we don’t like not knowing what’s next. Most people get anxious when faced with a new, unknown situation and photographs often cause the reflex to inject itself into our like or dislike of a photo. There will be some who like the second photo more than the first, for sure, but for the majority, knowing where an object is going helps in enjoying a photo.

Lines and Patterns

I’m not going to use the tried and true (and maybe a bit pummeled) railroad track photo here. But I’m guessing just mentioning that image helps you to understand the use of lines. While lines can be considered a path (and certainly would be in the case of a railroad), they can be more abstract, such as railings or horizons as in this shot of a ferry boat on a gray Puget Sound day.

Patterns are also used in the railing covers and the seats on the right side. Another example of patterns and lines, although in this case not pointing the way.

Leading your viewer through your photo takes the forethought of setting up the shot when in the field (or studio). Rather than a static “Here’s a hippo,” photo, give your viewer some place to go inside the photo. It is one more tool to use to make your photography more engaging.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Anna Patrick June 4, 2011 02:38 am

    I love travel photography, and especially the photographs capturing the sea. I put together a collection of photos having the fantastic Greek Blue as subject http://www.photographymojo.com/2011/06/looking-for-the-true-blue-greek-islands-photography/

  • June June 2, 2011 01:04 am

    Thanks Peter, Great article!

  • peterson Gwaro May 30, 2011 05:54 pm

    I am very happy with the way you are simplifying some technical elements when shooting. Photo giving direction to the viewer is what i have come to realize that many photographers have been escaping without knowing. For example ,two photos of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania emphasis on Rule of thirds whereby positioning of the image determine the point of view in terms of direction that the viewer should have in mind. i could to comment that vertical framing sometimes makes sense when one try to a void a long shot of the same element in order to enter into another shot that will give the story more insight . The important thing here is to know the sequence of events when shooting so that to effectively determine the manner in which you should embrace the photo.
    Thank you for your effort.

  • Peter West Carey May 29, 2011 03:19 pm

    Thanks for the laugh at myself. All fixed and I know I know better, just get tripped up sometimes.

  • Colleen May 29, 2011 01:13 pm

    Great post and photos to illustrate your points!

    One nit-picky thing, though: viewers don't really want to be a metal, they want to be flesh and blood. Thus, they are not "wanting to be lead" but rather, "wanting to be led." ;-) I usually avoid correcting such things, but it's a common error so a note may be helpful to some people.

    Thanks for the article!

  • Paul May 28, 2011 06:16 am

    Nice article, liked the section on lines and patterns. Thanks.

  • Marcelo May 27, 2011 11:09 pm

    I really like the post. I have an example I took with footprints.
    What do you think?

  • Jojo Serafica May 27, 2011 02:49 pm

    nice photos! thanks for sharing... i sometimes do some of the photos your just shared. especially the "looking" photo... and i just love taking photos of nature wherever i go :)

  • joann, sidewalk chic May 27, 2011 10:47 am

    Great article, and it's one of my favorite things to do in posts. Another way to do it is to start and end a photo set with the same location, but of different angles or directions.

  • John May 27, 2011 07:52 am

    Like Tony, I too find interest in the second truck. There is a potential convergence of both the ravine line in hills and the patterns in the landscape below. There's action in the truck approaching that convergence. I suppose I'm also saying that is O.K. to toss the 'rules' if there's method in the madness.

  • Martin Soler HDR Photos May 27, 2011 06:13 am

    Thanks for the tips. I just took one of a tree on a road with some arrows leading to the tree that I thought was pretty cool. Vanishing points etc make great "leaders".

  • Valerie May 27, 2011 02:45 am

    Thanks for the great tips. The psychology behind the 2 versions of the Tanzania shot is interesting and something I never considered before. I will certainly keep these tips in mind when composing my shots.

  • joseph May 22, 2011 03:05 pm

    I like the second portrait shot of the truck. It gives better sense of landscape. Anyways, got some very useful tips here.


  • Leonidas May 22, 2011 10:17 am

    gorgeous pics

  • Tim May 21, 2011 04:24 am

    I think this two photos lead the viewer through story

  • Jarrod Whitehead May 21, 2011 02:56 am

    I think one thing not mentioned here, (or at least not that I interpreted from the article) is using elevation. As in a steep grade up a path up or down a mountain, or stone steps or a staircase. Also something to consider is a 'gateway' within the image that invokes the desire in the viewer to travel into something or someplace. Great article and great images that are sure to inspire us to challenge ourselves to make our images lead our viewers on a journey.

  • Dewan Demmer May 21, 2011 02:30 am

    Interesting and true how a good photo can borrow so much from simple psychology, and we can adjust the photo to appeal to a certain set of emotions, then again what good artist does'nt ?

  • cpando May 21, 2011 12:33 am

    great post as usual.
    I think that the second photograph of the truck tells a different story, in the sense that it gives a sense of end or conclusion like when you feel justa few pages on your right hand when reading a book, you know the end is coming. I feel that the second photo is teling something like "at the en of our safari..." while the fist is telling something like "and we began our adventure..."

  • Roger May 21, 2011 12:22 am

    I like the notion of viewers subconsciously preferring knowing what is coming. I am curious if its related to how we read, left to right, and if its reversed for cultures that read right to left. Or is it simply related to the direction the truck is heading?

  • ScottC May 20, 2011 01:51 pm

    An excellent rundown on using composition to lead the veiwer thru a photo.

    I agree with the poster above (Erik) on providing a description, an informed perspective can be leading as well.

    Not the greatest photo, but I did attempt to compose based on some of the concepts mentioned.


  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 20, 2011 12:17 pm

    This image uses the strong lines of the Brooklyn Bridge to draw the viewer into the scene


  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 20, 2011 12:15 pm


    I always like to first describe where the imge was taken and then provide some interesting story about the scene. Typically this is some historical fact that is not commonly known.

    This picture of a busy pier on Catalina Island, California naturally leads the viewer to discover the bustle of the scene : http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/on-the-pier/

  • Jim McGregor May 20, 2011 07:50 am

    I think this is a great example of leading


  • Tony May 20, 2011 07:39 am

    I am one of those that like the second photo of the truck and the hills in Tanzania. However I do see, even if it isn't the actual road, a line leading up the mountain that gives the truck purpose, at least for me. http://imageshack.us/m/836/7943/justmer.jpg

  • Mark May 20, 2011 07:16 am

    Peter West Carey is the Ken Rockwell of digital-photography-school.com