art background or art training.
Some might be telling themselves, “Hey, I know how to use a
camera. Why do I need that?”
The answer lies in one word- communication.
Just like anyone can write a paragraph, it takes the training
and knowledge of becoming an author to write a paragraph that
will communicate the correct message to as broad an audience as
Sometimes, having a little bit of art knowledge can be just as
unforgiving as having no knowledge at all.
There are different levels of artistic training- what I’m
talking about here is composition.
Today, I’m going to talk about the tool of composition called,
Leading lines are a basic tool of composition, and represent a
concept that most photographers can latch on to.
The problem is that many photographers don’t use leading lines
properly, creatively, or even recognize when a leading line is
ruining their composition.
Let’s look at several examples of leading lines and discuss
what works and what doesn’t. I’ll even include some discussion
on a pretty sophisticated use of leading lines.
Example 1 is a very traditional use of leading lines in an
artistic (photographic) composition. The railroad tracks are
quite dominant and they form a perfect visual path leading
toward the three boys that are walking.
A question to
- How do we know that the three boys are the subjects
of this photograph? Why is it not the train tracks? Or, the
Before we get into answering the
question- let’s look at another example of leading lines, and
perhaps you’ll find the answer to that question for yourself.
In example 2, it’s obvious that the
photographer intended for the fence to be a leading line. In
fact, the photographer used the tag, “leading lines”, when the
photograph was uploaded to the Internet.
On the right, I put in an arrow that displays one of the main
problems with leading lines when you don’t understand how they
work. The leading line is leading to nowhere. It’s actually
leading a viewer’s eyes right off of the photograph(to the
You might wonder… why isn’t the leading line leading in the
other direction- toward the fence posts on the right? (I think
that’s what the photographer intended.)
Part of why leading lines work, as a tool of composition, is
because of a geometric rule called converging lines. Another
term that comes into play is called “vanishing point”. In
geometry, converging lines eventually meet at the vanishing
point. Our brains are taught, (from the moment that we begin to
learn depth perception as little toddlers), that converging
lines and a vanishing point indicate distance and depth. This
is a subliminal thing that our minds recognize. Artists, going
all the way back to the earliest painters also recognized this,
and converging lines became a basic artistic building block.
Trying to follow the line (the fence) in the other direction-
goes against what your brain knows to be true. It simply will
not follow that path.
If you go back to example 1- is it now apparent why the walking
trio is the subject? They are standing at the vanishing point
for the leading (converging) lines. This gives them the
ultimate dominant visual weight within the photograph. The eyes
come to rest at that spot, and the boys’ presence provides
meaning to the photograph.
Knowing this- begs for a question…
Does the use of leading lines always have to end with the
subject at the vanishing point?
No. There are different types of leading lines. The use of
leading lines can become quite sophisticated when you
understand the concepts around them.
That’s the thing about art concepts. They’re kind of tricky.
They can be quite straightforward, such as the trio walking on
the train tracks, or, they can be subtle and melding into other
elements of composition that change their use and meaning.
Let’s look at a few examples like that.
Example #3 makes use of a primary leading line, secondary
leading lines, and a third type of leading line known as a
A question that you may ask is… “Why am I saying that the leash
is leading toward the dog, and not away from the dog, like the
fence was in example 2?”
Good question! There are two reasons that answer that question-
- The leash is not a converging line. It is a leading line.
But, it is not a converging line. It is traveling across the
photograph- not “into” the photograph.
- Because it is not a converging line, the direction is
established through different means. In this case, it is the
use of a focal point and juxtaposition. Those additional tools
of composition occur where the leash is clasped to the dog’s
collar. Because that point of contact is a focal point, and it
creates shape juxtaposition against the background, it carries
more visual strength than the left part of the leash that
extends off of the frame. It creates a flow of left to right.
Let’s go back to the question of “What’s the subject”?
Is the subject the dog? Not really. The dog is a secondary
subject. The primary subject is what the dog is doing with his
leg. This is reinforced through the positioning of the dog’s
face and eyes. They are forming a different kind of leading
line, known as a sight line. The sight line pushes a viewer’s
eyes in the direction of the leg.
The dog’s activity, at the leg, becomes the primary subject of
the photograph. Other elements of compositionthat support this
conclusion include the use of shape and action. In the end of
the viewing experience- this is where the eyes come to rest,
and the meaning of the photograph is revealed.
The blue arrows point out the secondary leading lines.
Secondary leading lines work subliminally to push a viewer’s
eyes in a certain direction. They are not as obvious as
converging lines- yet they work subtlety to “nudge’ a viewer in
a direction. A vignette is a subtle leading line. It pushes a
viewer’s eyes inward. In this case, the focused lines, between
the bricks, push the eyes inward toward the dog.
The unfocused lines between the bricks are not secondary
leading lines. Why? Being out-of-focus has drastically reduced
their weight within the composition.
In example 4, I want you to spend a moment deciding for
yourself where the leading lines are. I also want you to make a
decision as to where you believe the viewer’s eyes should come
to rest. Finally, what do you believe is the subject of this
We will come back to this toward the end of today’s post.
Just as an ill-placed leading line can tank your efforts, an
even worse situation is not recognizing the fact that a leading
line exists, and it’s not helping your photograph.
Example 5 is this scenario.
The interesting aspect to this example is that we have almost
the exact same “composition” situation as in example 3- except
it is working against the photograph and not for it.
What are the similarities between examples 3 and
- There is a horizontal leading line that is not a
- There is a focal point and a shape juxtaposition
working in the photograph.
Where did this shot go wrong
while example 3 did not?
The problem here is in the placement of
the elements within the shot. In example 3, all of the
composition elements were pushing the eyes toward the dog and
ultimately the raised leg.
In example 5, the photographer’s intended subject was the
coiled rope. The problem occurs where the rope leaves the coil.
At that point the rope leads into the background (a
converging line – Strong Visual Weight), where it
comes to a stop at a focal point (the knot on the post), which
adds more visual weight (away from the coiled rope), plus the
use of a shape juxtaposition that adds even more visual weight
away from the coil, before the eyes follow that last little bit
of rope right off the page to the right.
Important Point: When you’re ready to take a
picture. Take a moment to analyze the scene. Are you using
leading lines, and if so are they leading in the right
direction? Are there any leading lines that you didn’t notice,
and they’re working against you? Could you change the camera
POV to make a leading line stronger, or perhaps you need to
eliminate one that’s not working?
Back to Example #4
Example 4 is actually a fairly sophisticated use of leading
lines. Let’s break this shot down-
- The lines on the road provide the strongest path into the
photograph. There are several reasons for this. They are
converging lines. They are very bright compared to the
surrounding areas. Plus, they are the strongest representation
- The red circle is the final resting place within this
photograph. This is primarily due to placement (as indicated by
the Rule of Thirds grid) and this area is the vanishing point
for the converging lines.
- The blue arrows indicate secondary leading lines. They
become secondary leading lines due to motion and contrast.
This point is important. A leading line isn’t
necessarily “always” a physical line- just as the “sight line”
in example 3 wasn’t a physical line. Try to think of leading
lines more as a stream. The water flows, and the ebbs and tides
of rocks (or whatever) push the water this way- and that way-
sometimes hard and sometimes gentle. Your use of leading lines
should help push a viewer’s eyes through your photograph-
sometimes hard and sometimes gentle. The converging lines on
the road (in example 4) are a hard push. The soft contrasting
clouds in the sky are a soft push.
- Finally, what is the subject in example4? This is actually
up to interpretation for each viewer in this case. (I happen to
like that.) There is no concrete information that says “THIS IS
THE SUBJECT”. On the train tracks, it was obvious that the trio
of boys were the subject. In example 4, it’s much more
esoteric. I think the subject is the “idea” of speed. What do
If you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about leading lines, and
perhaps you have an interest in composition in general, Photzy
a great books on the subject. “Understanding
Composition” is a great entry point into deepening your
understanding of composition in photography.
This book can
help push you (just like a leading line) along a path to an end
Click here to take a look at the guide
connect with him on LinkedIn here.