How to Use Leading Lines in Photography (Simple Guide)

(Last updated on June 14th, 2022)

Making good use of leading lines in photography composition can help you create more interesting images.

Leading lines photography is about using strong lines that draw a viewer’s attention to the main subject. A photographer positions the lines within their frame so they lead to the subject and a viewer’s attention is drawn to it.

Composition is one of the key aspects of photography. Knowing the rules of composition and how to best use them means you will take better photos. Leading lines is one such photography composition ‘rule.’ The most effective way to apply any compositional rule is to practice using it. The more photos you take using leading lines, the stronger images you’ll be able to create.

In this photograph, the lines of the canyon are framed to help lead the viewer’s eye to the person walking in the stream.    

Gorge Trek
Gorge Trek

What are Leading Lines in Photography?

Leading lines is one of the most common ‘rules’ of composition. It is when a photographer composes a picture so that one or more prominent lines lead the viewer’s eye through the image, usually to the main subject.

Well-used leading lines in a photograph help to strengthen it and hold a viewer’s attention for longer. When the main subject in a photo is relatively small in the composition, leading lines help draw more attention to it.

Making Good Use of Leading Lines in Photography

Every time you lift your camera to your eye, look for the lines within your frame. Once you start to look, you may be surprised at how often you can use them as leading lines. Begin to look for lines that you can incorporate into your photographs that lead toward your main subject. This not only strengthens the narrative of your photo but can also add depth to your pictures.

You can find leading lines to make use of all around you. Think of roads, railings, or rivers. Include any line, whether natural or artificial, as a leading line. It will draw attention to a subject placed at the end of the line or partway along the line. I often like to make environmental portraits that include leading lines.

Train tracks are often used to form lines that lead to a person. Position your subject carefully. Find the most interesting angle to photograph them from so the tracks draw attention to your model. This produces a strong composition.

You can see in this example that the photographer has used a worm’s eye view so the tracks lead to the main subject.

Train track portrait
Train track portrait

You can use just about any kind of line to lead a viewer’s eye through your pictures. How you position yourself and your subject in relation to the line determines how effective the technique is. As with any rule in photography, there is plenty of room to improvise and be creative. Always consider the overall look and feel of your photo. Don’t use leading lines or any other composition rule when it does not add value and interest to your photograph.

How to Best Use Leading Lines in Your Compositions

Any composition rule that is poorly applied tends to weaken a photograph. The best way to use leading lines in a photograph is when they appear natural and not forced. If you are new to photography and not sure how to compose a good picture, you must practice.

Learning how to make the best use of leading lines happens as you look for them and incorporate them into your compositions. Be purposeful and determined to make a certain number of photos, including leading lines. Each time you go out to take pictures for the next week, or the next month, make sure you look for lines to use.

Set a goal to make 20 or 50 photos with leading lines. Practice like this, and in no time at all, you’ll be creating compositions that include leading lines in natural and compelling ways. Review your photographs and compare them. Some will be better than others. Pick out the best and ask yourself why the technique of leading lines photography has more impact in these pictures than in others.

After spending a concentrated time taking photos and making good use of leading lines, you’ll instinctively know when you can best use them. This disciplined practice gives you the experience you cannot obtain by reading or watching videos.

The lines on the road and the edges of the road lead to the sign. The person’s arm also helps lead our eyes to the sign.

Three Steps to Help You Make Better Use of Leading Lines

  1. Look for leading lines, both artificial and natural
  2. Try different points of view when composing with them
  3. Use different focal lengths and compare how the leading lines rule works in each composition.
Hitch hiking
Hitch hiking

The Best Lens to Use for Leading Lines Photography

Wide-angle lenses are more popular for leading lines photography compositions. They tend to exaggerate the lines and make the technique more obvious. The wider lens you use, the more of a scene you can capture in a single image. In a sense, there’s more room to include leading lines in a photo when you use a wide-angle lens.

Positioning your camera close to the lines leading to your subject makes the effect more dramatic. This is more so when you have a wide-angle lens attached to your camera. Elements in photos taken with wide lenses tend to appear as though they are more spread out. Using leading lines helps enhance this sense of three-dimensional depth in your photographs.

But you don’t have to use a wide-angle lens when using leading lines to strengthen your compositions. A standard lens or telephoto lens can also be used. The effect may be more subtle with these lenses, but this will suit some compositions and subjects very well.

If you use a zoom lens, changing the focal length and experimenting with leading lines is very easy. Start with your lens set to the widest angle and compose using leading lines. Take a few photographs. 

Then zoom in, so your lens is set about halfway through its focal length range. If you have an 18mm to 135mm kit lens, this will be about 60mm. Take some more photos using the same subject and the same set of lines.

Now repeat the photo with your lens zoomed right into the longest focal length.

Compare the photographs and look at which focal length has produced the most interesting results.

In this photo, the strong diagonal line leads to the person. The other more subtle lines of the stream and foliage also lead our eye to the person.

sitting man
sitting man

The Two Main Uses of Leading Lines in Photography Composition    

Leading lines are most often used in photography for two purposes. The first, obviously, is to draw the viewer’s eye to your main subject. The second is to add depth to an image.

Without a subject somewhere along the lines, they are not leading anywhere. They are then not considered leading lines but fit into a different compositional rule.

In this image, the train tracks serve as leading lines because they draw your eye to the on-coming train.    

Leading lines train
Leading lines train

With the train cropped from the composition, the lines are not leading anywhere. They are a simple pair of diagonal lines.

Train tracks
Train tracks

You will also notice the effect of depth created by the learning lines in the first photo. This is missing in the cropped version. The lines don’t do much to emphasize depth and the photo looks quite flat.

Being aware of both these effects of leading lines will help you use them more effectively in your compositions.

When leading lines are also converging lines, the three-dimensional illusion of depth created in the photograph is stronger. Lines that are horizontal or vertical and run from one edge of the frame to another tend not to enhance the sense of depth in a photograph. So, leading lines do not always add depth, but, by definition, they must lead to something.

Leading Lines in Photography Examples

Examples of leading lines can be:

  • Train tracks
  • Roads
  • Sidewalks
  • Walls and fences
  • Trees
  • Waves and shorelines
  • Bridges
  • Lamp posts and power poles

Practical Tips for Making the Best Use of Leading Lines

Here are some practical tips for making the best use of leading lines in your photographs.

Tip #1: Decide Where You Want the Lines to Lead to

What is the main subject of your photograph? This is where you want your leading lines to draw attention. It might be a person, an object, or something in nature. Whatever you most want viewers to look at when they see your photo, use the lines to lead to that thing. Make sure it either intersects with the line or lines or is near to them at some point.

Tip #2: Position Yourself Close to the Lines

For the greatest impact, position yourself close to the lines. Compose so the lines appear to enter your frame from a corner. With the camera close to the lines this will create the most drama and have the most impact. Using a wide-angle lens and getting in close to the lines will make the effect even more impressive.

Tip #3: Look for Distinctive Lines and Implied Lines

The lines in the example photos I’ve included above are pretty clear and easy to see. This is generally how leading lines are used in photography composition. But you can also use implied lines to lead a viewer’s eye to your subject.

An example of an implied line is when a person or animal is looking at something. Their gaze captures yours and draws your attention to what they are looking at. Another common example of this would be a photo of a photographer, as in the image below.

implied leading line
implied leading line

Tip #4: Make Your Own Leading Lines

When you want to practice leading lines photography and don’t have any lines to include, you can make your own.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to point at something. Frame your composition to include your arm and hand outstretched. This is most effective when you have a wide-angle lens. Take care to use a fast enough shutter speed. You’ll be more likely to move your camera when your hand is stretched out.

pointing hand
pointing hand

Tip #5: Position Your Subject in the Best Spot

When you can control your subject, make sure to position it, or them, in the best spot. Think about how the leading line will look most effective in relation to how you frame it with your subject. When you can move a subject, you have more options of where you take the photo from and how you position your subject.

In this example, the photographer has positioned the businessman walking to make the most of the leading lines in the building. They were well-positioned and utilized a low point of view.

businessman walking
businessman walking

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Conclusion

With any composition rule, it is best to be intentional about how you use it. Leading lines in photography are most effective when you incorporate them into your picture in a meaningful way. 

Practice using leading lines. Make lots and lots of photos using this technique until you are confident that you know what to do. Think about how important the subject is in your image and how the lines help to enhance it. Always make sure that the lines draw attention to the subject.

As you practice, don’t be afraid to experiment with this technique. It can be fun to try different ways of framing leading lines. Use your camera in a horizontal position and a vertical position for each subject you photograph. Also, try a Dutch tilt. This is when you purposefully hold your camera at an angle so the horizon is not straight.

The more you experiment and practice, the better you will get at using leading lines in your photographs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some answers to the most common questions about how best to use leading lines in photographs.

What is the rule of leading lines photography?

Leading lines are any lines in your photos that draw the viewer’s attention to your main subject. This rule is best achieved by positioning the camera lens and subject so one or more lines in the composition intersect with the main subject.

How do I find the leading lines in a photo?

You will often see leading lines starting in the lower half of a photograph and rising into the image. This tends to draw a viewer’s eye up and deeper into the composition.

What are the three types of lines in photos?

The main three types of lines in photos are Horizontal lines, Vertical lines, and Diagonal lines. All of these types of lines can be used as leading lines. You can also use curved lines, converging lines, and implied lines to lead a viewer’s eye through an image.

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