Photography Composition: Leading Lines

You may have come across the term ‘leading lines’ in association with photography before, and wondered what –  exactly – are they, why are they considered good, and how can I incorporate them into my images?

In this article, I’ll try to explain the concept behind leading lines, and how to use them creatively in your work. As with most things in photography, there are deep, technical and artistic reasons behind composition and leading lines, but the purpose of this article is to introduce you to the concept, not blind you with science and art theory.

Watch the Video Lesson:

What Are Leading Lines?

They are elements in a photo that draw your eye in from the edges. They are often on the diagonal, and enter the photo from one of the corners. This creates a balanced, pleasing aesthetic, and can draw your gaze to a cleverly placed subject. The images below have examples of leading lines – can you spot them immediately?

leading lines tutorial

This one is a classic! The lines lead in from both bottom corners of the image, bringing the gaze to the center. There is a sense of balance and harmony in the image. All the forest paths, railway lines, and roads that you see shot like this are compositionally using the power of leading lines.

leading lines tutorial

Leading lines don’t have to be perfectly straight and symmetrical. The solitary water droplet is the subject of this image, but our eye is led to it by the undulating lines of the leaf. Again, there is a sense of peace and harmony in this image – nothing is nagging at the eye, there are no clashing shapes or angles.

leading lines tutorial

This image is the exact opposite of the one above in feeling – there is no gentle harmony here, but a sense of power and urgency. It still uses leading lines to draw us in, but in a different way. It uses opposing angles instead of ones all running the same direction, but it works very well.

leading lines tutorial

This one is subtler than the others, in that it doesn’t have glaringly obvious leading lines, but they are there in the line of people. You are drawn in to look from the right-hand side, starting with the last person in the line, and going up to the leader. There are also lines leading in from the bottom, with the shadows on the snow, and the same in the top right-hand corner. They all work together to form a compositionally pleasing image.

Leading lines aren’t just confined to landscape or architectural images – they can be used to great effect in portraiture or fashion images too. The image above is a good example of that. The lines in the wall behind the model’s head lead us in to her, as do the line of lights on the ceiling, and the slant of the wall on the right-hand side. The photographer has used shallow depth of field so that the lines don’t distract from the model, who is the main subject.

leading lines tutorial

Leading lines are often used in food photography too. This one has the chef’s hand and utensil leading in from the upper left corner, and you will also notice how the tray is turned on the diagonal towards us, so that the edges form diagonal lines. You’ll notice how in a lot of food images, there is usually a piece of cutlery, an ingredient or a utensil creating a visual line from the edge of the image towards the food.

Using Leading Lines Effectively

When used properly, leading lines do what they are meant to do; that is, they draw your eye into the image. Leading lines can be straight or circular, man-made or natural, colorful or contrasting. The lines must work with the rest of the image though. You can’t just stick any old lines in and hope they work; they have to be a part of the harmonious whole.

They have to lead the gaze into, and not out of the image. Sometimes you will see leading line images where the photographer has intended to use them to draw you in, but it has the opposite effect of drawing you straight out the other side! You can tell these images as soon as you look at them, because there is something visually ‘off’ about them. They just don’t work as intended.

leading lines tutorial

The image above doesn’t work for me. Every time I try to look into the image, my eye is drawn back out again to the right. The arrows lead the eye straight back out of the image, not into it. If the arrows were pointing the other way, it may be different.

leading lines tutorial

This is another image that jars me visually. The pencil leads the eye straight out of the image at the top. I think the photographer intended the pencil to lead the eye in, but it doesn’t do that for me. I think the pencil is too large in the image, and the angle of the line doesn’t work with the other lines – it’s not harmonious.

Of course, that’s just my opinion, and you may not agree with me. Try looking for images yourself with leading lines in, and you will realize which ones work and which ones don’t. One of the masters of leading lines and composition was Henri Cartier-Bresson, and if you get an opportunity, you should look at his work.

Final Thoughts

As with all things photography, don’t let the science and art get in the way of taking photos. Don’t think you have to slavishly put leading lines in every single photo you take – some images don’t need them. At the same time, check for any unintentional leading lines that you may be about to capture in your image. They can work against you, by leading the eye away from the subject. Leading lines only work when you place them deliberately, and the overall effect is harmonious.

I hope this article has given you some understanding of this important element of composition. Try shooting some images as an experiment. Find something with a strong leading line, and take photos of it at different angles and heights. Compare your images. You will see what works and what doesn’t. You will start to train your eye to subconsciously notice leading lines around you, both natural and man-made, and then you will start to incorporate them into your work.

Continue to lesson 20: Using balance and symmetry in your composition