As photographers, we’re always looking for ways to improve our craft.
One of the most important techniques I’ve learned over the years to improve my own photography skill set has to do with leading lines.
In this guide, I’ll be covering:
- The definition of leading lines
- The importance of leading lines
- How to use leading lines
Let’s dive right in.
If you’re more of a visual learner, watch the video version:
Table of Contents
What are Leading Lines in Photography?
Leading lines are visual elements within a photograph that draw the viewer’s eye towards a certain point or area — usually a point at the converging point of the lines or within the middle of the lines.
Leading lines are one of many photography composition techniques and can consist of anything from roads, train tracks, rivers, trees, rails, stairs, etc.
When people think of leading lines, they often think of two lines.
But leading lines can also just consist of one line — and I guess in this case, it would just be a leading line.
The key to understanding leading lines is to think about how our eyes naturally move when we look at an image.
We tend to start at the bottom left corner and move our gaze towards the right, following the direction of the line or lines within the image.
This creates a sense of movement and progression as we examine the photograph.
This can also be used to guide the viewer’s attention to a specific subject or point of interest.
One of the best examples to visually illustrate leading lines in action is the classic image of a road stretching off into the distance.
The lines created by the road draw the viewer’s eye toward the vanishing point on the horizon.
This creates a sense of depth and movement that can be powerful for the viewer.
Leading lines, however, can be found in all kinds of settings and not just on roads or paths.
The key to using leading lines effectively is to experiment and explore.
Try different angles and perspectives, and look for lines that lead the eye toward your intended focal point or subject.
Leading lines can also be created by the shapes of buildings, patterns in nature, or the angles of a staircase.
After you’ve experimented with them for a while, you’ll be noticing leading lines all around you.
What Effect Do Leading Lines Have on an Image?
Leading lines can have a profound effect on the look and feel of an image and this is why they’re a popular composition technique.
But what exactly are these effects?
Let’s dive into them now:
1. Sense of Movement
One of the effects leading lines can have on an image is that they can create a sense of movement.
Whether it’s a straight road or a curving, winding river.
The lines within the photo guide the viewer’s eyes along that particular path — creating a sense of motion and progression.
This can be even more powerful when combined with other elements such as a fast shutter speed or blurred background.
2. Sense of Depth
Another effect leading lines can have on an image is that they can create a sense of depth within the image.
Since leading lines lead the viewer’s eyes toward a particular focal point, the lines within the image create a sense of three-dimensionality.
This can make the image feel more immersive and engaging.
3. Sense of Emotion
The third effect leading lines can have on an image is that they can create a sense of mood or emotion within the image.
Converging lines can create a sense of tension or conflict, while a winding path can create a sense of tranquility or relaxation.
Combine this knowledge with color grading and the setting of your image.
You can better convey a certain emotion whether it be moody, bright, airy, or happy.
4. Story Telling
The final and perhaps the most important effect leading lines can have on an image is that they can help to better tell a story within an image.
Sure you can look at the lines as just lines, but they are so much more than that.
They are an entrance into a narrative or story behind the image.
A road leading towards a distant horizon or a series of steps leading up to a grand entrance can convey a sense of journey and purpose within the image.
Or a bride walking with the groom with family and friends around them can convey a sense of union:
Why Would a Photographer Use Leading Lines?
A photographer would want to use leading lines to either convey a sense of movement, depth, emotion, or story within the image.
Leading lines are one composition technique that photographers should have under their toolbelt when the situation calls for it.
Different Types of Leading Lines
As a photographer who often uses leading lines, I’ve found that there are many different types of leading lines that you can use.
Each type of leading line has its own unique properties and effects.
Knowing when to choose the right type of line for a particular image can be crucial to the overall success of an image.
1. Straight Leading Lines
The first type of leading line is the classic straight line.
Straight lines can be a great leading line option when you want to create a sense of strength, stability, and order within the image.
This makes sense because buildings, trees, poles, and other objects with straight lines usually symbolize strength, stability, and order as well.
Examples of straight lines include roads, columns, building edges, walls, etc.
2. Diagonal Leading Lines
The second type of leading line is the diagonal line.
Diagonal lines create a sense of movement and dynamism in the image and can create a sense of progression.
When reading something or looking at an image, we either scan left to right or right to left depending on our culture.
Diagonal lines often move in the same direction.
This is unlike straight lines which are usually just vertical or horizontal.
Examples of diagonal lines can include paths, staircases, rooflines, roads, etc.
3. Curved Leading Lines
The third type of leading line is the curved line.
Curved lines are great at creating a sense of grace and fluidity within the image.
Guiding the viewer’s eye along a meandering path and creating a sense of motion and progression.
Similar to diagonal lines, they can also create a sense of movement and dynamism in the image.
Examples of curved lines can include winding rivers, certain roads, spiral staircases, etc.
How to Use Leading Lines in Photography in 7 Steps
I’ve learned that the key to effectively using leading lines in your photographs is to incorporate careful consideration and thoughtful composition.
Here are some tips I used in order to incorporate leading lines into my images that I believe you will find helpful as well:
1. Identify Potential Leading Lines
The first step in order to incorporate leading lines into your images is to first identify any leading lines in your immediate setting.
You’ll want to look for natural elements in your scene that can serve as leading lines such as streets, rails, trees, roads, cars, buildings, walls, etc.
Don’t just look for straight lines — also be sure to look at diagonal lines, curved lines, or even abstract forms of lines.
Remember that lines can also be created by tonal contrast of light and shadow.
When photographing, I was walking around and found these railing and walkway that would act as leading lines:
2. Identify Your Subject or Focal Point
The second step in order to use leading lines in your photography is to then identify your subject or focal point.
The leading lines need to “lead” up to something.
There needs to be a point of emphasis or focal point that the lines direct the viewer’s eyes to.
The subject or focal point can be a person or a natural or man-made element.
And to be honest, I listed this as step two, however, this step and step one usually go hand-in-hand and happen at the same time.
Sometimes, you’ll find a subject you really like and then look for leading lines in your surrounding area to use to lead them to your viewer.
Or you’ll find leading lines and then try to find a subject you could lead the viewer to.
Using railings in the area, I used them as my leading line:
3. Consider the Direction
The third step to using leading lines is to consider the direction of the lines.
Take note of which direction the leading lines are pointing and how they can guide the viewer’s eyes toward your intended focal point.
As we discussed earlier, different types of lines can evoke different emotions or create different visual effects.
You’ll want to choose the type of line that best suits the mood or story you’re trying to convey with your overall image.
If you’re trying to convey a story of solidarity and “power” with a traditional male portrait photoshoot, then perhaps you’ll opt for straight lines.
If you’re trying to create a mysterious mood, then perhaps you’ll opt for curved lines.
4. Experiment with Angles and Perspective
The fourth step is to experiment with angles and perspectives.
Once you identify your leading lines and the subject or focal point you want to use, it’s time to start taking some photographs.
When you’re photographing, try shooting from different angles and perspectives.
See how the leading lines interact with other elements in the scene.
Take not of how they can better convey or detract from the story or mood you’re trying to portray in your image.
You can photograph from a low angle to emphasize the height of vertical, straight lines.
This can also make the subject look more “powerful.”
Or you can photograph from a high angle to accentuate the length of diagonal lines and provide a more “top-down” perspective.
The point is, don’t be afraid to be creative and experiment to find the most visually compelling composition.
Usually, when I’m photographing leading lines, I’ll take images in all the angles.
From a standing position, squatting position, sitting position, and sometimes from a prone position.
See and play with all the different angles to see how they look.
5. Pay Attention to the Composition
The fifth step to using leading lines is to pay attention to the overall composition of your image.
Leading lines is just one of many photography composition techniques.
You’ll want to keep in mind how the leading lines interact with other elements such as the rule of thirds, balance, and framing.
You may find a good angle to use leading lines.
However, let’s say if you shifted your body position just a little bit to the right then you could also have the subject on the rule of thirds intersection point as well.
It’s the little tweaks like that that are important to have in the back of your mind when photographing.
6. Play With Depth of Field
The sixth step to using leading lines in photography is to play with the different depths of field.
Experimenting with different depths of field to highlight the leading lines or subjects.
This will create a sense of depth and dimensionality within your image and make it more visually interesting overall.
You can use a shallow depth of field (small f-stop number) to blur the lines in the foreground or background to focus on your subject.
You can use a deep depth of field (larger f-stop number) to keep all the lines as well as the subject/focal point in sharp focus.
Whether you want to use one over the other is your personal choice.
If the subject should be your main focal point because you’re doing portrait photography, then perhaps you should opt for the shallow depth of field.
This will put emphasis on the person:
However, if you’re doing street photography then you could opt for the deep depth of field.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
The seventh and final step to using leading lines in your photography is to practice, practice, practice.
Like any other photographic technique, becoming comfortable using leading lines takes practice.
It’s like busting out a dance move at a party, you may not feel comfortable using that dance move until you’ve practiced it.
Well, the same goes for any other skill or technique.
If you’re going to practice leading lines, go out on a photography session and explicitly tell yourself to focus on leading lines.
This way you can be consciously active in the scene looking for leading line opportunities.
Once you feel comfortable with leading lines, then it will be another technique in your photographer’s toolbelt!
Other Composition Techniques that Can Be Used with Leading Lines
Experimenting with different composition techniques in conjunction with leading lines can open up new creative possibilities.
We touched a bit on this in the previous section.
But I wanted to dedicate a whole section to other composition techniques you could use with leading lines.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a fundamental composition technique in photography that consists of you dividing the image into a 3×3 grid.
The goal is to place your main focal point on one of the intersecting lines.
Use rule of thirds with leading lines to create a beautiful sense of balance and harmony in the image.
Framing is another technique that uses elements within the scene to create a natural frame around your subject or focal point.
The beautiful thing about leading lines is that you can often use them as part of the framing and even create a frame within a frame.
For example, using trees or archways as frames can lead the viewer’s eyes toward the subject.
This will create a visual leading line or pathway through the image.
Symmetry is another powerful compositional technique that can also create a sense of balance and harmony in the image.
By aligning leading lines symmetrically, you can create a sense of order and stability.
This will also draw the viewer’s eye toward the main subject.
For example, using reflections in water or using a row of buildings as symmetrical leading lines can create visually striking images.
Contrast is another composition technique that can be used effectively with leading lines.
By contrasting the lines with other elements in the scene, such as color, tone, or texture, you can make the lines stand out more prominently.
For example, using a brightly colored leading line against a muted background can draw attention to the line.
Negative space refers to the empty or blank spaces in an image and it is another compositional technique that pairs well with leading lines.
Negative space adds a sense of balance and can emphasize the lines and subject in your scene.
For example, using a long straight road as your leading lines against a vast empty sky can create a sense of serenity and solitude.
This can be a great way to incorporate negative space into the composition.
Enhancing Leading Lines in Post-Production
After you’ve taken your photos, it’s time to take them into post-production.
This way you can further enhance the impact of the leading lines in your image.
Here are some insights on how you can use post-processing techniques to further enhance the leading lines in your photographs.
In case you were wondering, I use Adobe Lightroom for my post-production edits:
1. Adjusting Contrast and Saturation
One of the simplest ways to enhance leading lines in post-production is to simply adjust the contrast and saturation.
Increasing the contrast ever so slightly will make your leading lines appear more prominent and defined.
Adjusting the saturation can also make them stand out even more against the surrounding elements.
2. Cropping and Framing
The second post-production edit is to add cropping and framing.
By adjusting the crop and frame of your image, you can further emphasize the direction and flow of the leading lines.
I recommend experimenting with different cropping ratios, orientations, and aspect ratios.
This way you can find the composition that best enhances the leading lines as well as the mood and story with your image.
3. Sharpening and Clarity
Applying selective sharpening or clarity adjustments to the leading lines can help to make them appear more defined and crisp.
This can be especially effective when working with images that have softer or less defined leading lines.
Adding sharpening or clarity can allow you to bring out more details and make them stand out.
Just like with everything, be careful not to overdo it.
4. Color Grading
Experimenting with the basics of color grading can also enhance the impact of leading lines in your image.
Adjusting the color tones along the leading lines can create a visual flow and harmony that guides the viewer’s eyes along the intended path.
If your leading line is an orange road and the sky is blue, then this will be a nice complementary color:
You can further enhance the orange to make it a bit more prominent and draw further attention to the leading lines and subject.
Use color grading to add warmth, coolness, or emphasize specific color tones that will complement the leading lines and your subject.
Examples of Leading Lines in Photos and Movies
Let’s take a look at some examples of leading lines in movies:
Stand by Me
Leading lines is a compositional technique that every photographer should have under their toolbelt.
But just like any other compositional technique, it’s easy to start using but hard to master.
Even I’m still exploring different ways I can best use it in my images!
So go out there and start practicing some leading lines and use the tips I presented in this guide.
Good luck and happy photographing!
Do leading lines have to be straight?
No, leading lines in photography do not have to be straight. They can be curved, diagonal, or even organic, depending on the subject, composition, and desired visual impact.
Why do we use leading lines in photography?
Photographers use leading lines in photography as a compositional technique to create a sense of depth, perspective, and visual interest in their images.
Nate Torres is a seasoned photographer and marketing consultant, providing educational photography content while also teaching photographers how to grow their business and brand through SEO. Nate shares his insights on his YouTube channel, “Nate Torres,” and on his personal photography blog, Nate Torres Photography. Beyond the lens, he’s an authoritative voice in the photography industry, serving as a speaker and photography author for renowned photography publications such as Photofocus, SLR Lounge, and Fstoppers. An entrepreneur and lifelong learner at heart, Nate is also the co-founder of Imaginated, an educational platform. Nate shares his insights on his YouTube channel, “Nate Torres,” and on his personal photography blog, Nate Torres Photography. But his expertise doesn’t stop at photography. Whether it’s elucidating the nuances of marketing within the realm of photography or sharing broader marketing insights, Nate Torres brings to the table a wealth of expertise, ensuring readers and audiences benefit from both his photographic acumen and marketing knowledge.