In this guest post, Louise Downham shows how leading lines are a great compositional tool, and can add a lot of drama to your photographs. Simply put, find a line that can extend from the edge of the frame toward your subject.
Get close to the line
Leading lines exaggerate the space and architecture of a situation and really enhance the sense of scale. Lines lead the viewer’s eye into a photograph — use them to bring the viewer’s attention straight to your subject.
A great way to capture leading lines is to get really close to the line. This is not the moment for wearing your finest clothes — you’ll likely need to crouch down low, lie on the ground or squish yourself into a peculiar corner!
Leading lines can be used to inject some visual pizazz into all sorts of photographs: Interiors, architecture, portraits, landscapes and travel shots.
Look for graphic lines on the street itself — road markings work really well. To achieve a similar effect, you’ll need to get the camera right next to the marking. In all likelihood, you’ll need to lie on the ground.
A wide-angle lens works well for this kind of shot, as it allows you to photograph both what’s directly in front of you as well as what’s far away — in this case, both the ground and the building tops.
Walkways and spirals cry out to be used as leaning lines! Look for interesting angles and corners that connect unexpectedly. By positioning yourself under these corners, you can create a photograph with lots of movement and visual appeal.
If you can offset the leading lines against a dramatically different backdrop, like the bright blue sky here, so much the better.
Again, this is a great opportunity for using a wide-angle lens — the more of the building you can incorporate, the more dramatic the effect will be.
Don’t forget to look up. Objects above you will likely create a sense of visual drama, and leading lines can be quite extreme when you look up as buildings as so much higher than you — and your camera.
Buildings towering overhead like this look colossal, even if they’re just a simple tower block. Using leading lines can transform the simplest and least interesting building into something visually arresting.
Making use of leading lines from buildings can create a moody and dramatic effect for a portrait. Use railings and ceilings to frame your subject, and you’ll create a memorable portrait that your subject will be surprised and delighted by. Remember though that this isn’t a very flattering approach — it’s best for creating a dramatic photograph rather than a flattering photograph.
For a softer and more flattering effect, use the wall edges of buildings as the leading lines. Gently framing your subject within these leading lines puts your subject in the spotlight, and provides a bit of urban context.
If you’re using a full-frame camera, an 85mm or 50mm lens works well for these situations.
Have fun with the leading lines — it can work well to take one photograph and show your subject the result on the back of your camera. Explain how you could make it even more interesting, for example by including some movement if your subject shakes their head or waves their body.
Be prepared to get dirty and wet! Be creative with where you position yourself to take the most dramatic photograph of it — if that means getting into the stream or a muddy bog, so be it! Those leading lines won’t create themselves, you’ve got to put yourself in the best position to find them. Paths and rivers can be great leading lines, giving your viewer something specific to focus on in the landscape.
Paths and rivers and roads can be great leading lines, giving your viewer something specific to focus on in the landscape. Fallen branches can also bring some visual interest to your photograph — use them to create some leading lines, and your landscape photograph will suddenly be transformed into something quite different.
There’s a good reason photographs of bridges about on travel shots on Instagram — they make your location look incredibly exciting! Use bridges to create leading lines, and you’ll instantly have a vibrant shot that makes your subject look like an intrepid explorer.
Physical structures like handrails overhead can make for a very dramatic shot. Experiment with different angles and lighting effects until you find one that creates a unique photograph. Here, the silhouette of the handrails against the bright flash of the lightwell creates lots of contrast, and the spirals of the handrails draw the viewer’s eye round and round to the center of the image.
Look for corners where different angles intersect — these can be used as leading lines to create an interesting interior shot.
Long hallways with varying textures and light sources are also fun to experiment with — if you ever see one, grab your camera and see what you can do!
The long lines of train carriages are natural subjects for leading lines. Position yourself (safely) so you’ll be near to the edge of a train, and when it comes into the shot you’ll have a really interesting perspective for your photograph.
Sometimes, the effect created by a leading line is so dramatic that you don’t even need a subject for it to frame — the leading line can be the subject of the photograph.
In this photograph, the overhead lighting strips divide the photograph into halves: A dark half and a bright section. On one side, sharply straight lines; the other side, gently curving lines. Equally, the seat rests join in the leading lines, with the divide between the seats meeting at the same point as the lighting strips.
Lining it all up
Sometimes when I can feel my creativity starting to dip on a portrait session, I’ll remind myself to look immediately for leading lines. They’re always there to be found, and they can really kickstart your photographs back into the arena of the astonishing.
Give it a go — even if you can’t see any leading lines immediately, just get down to the ground and look around. Leadings lines are absolutely everywhere, just waiting to be captured in a photograph!
Photographer Louise Downham of the U.K. turned to the free stock photography website Unsplash to get a wide variety of leading lines to illustrate this article. Photos featured in galleries won’t link directly. Here are those photographers’ credit links: Michael Fenton, Katie Drazdauskaite, Matthew Feeney, Matt Flores, Matt Seymour, Random Sky, Maria Nazipova.