Leading Lines in Composition – A Few Thoughts

Today I was asked a question about leading lines in composition. The question was – “Are there any rules of thumb for composition when you have a road running out of the picture?“. The person received seemingly contradictory advice from two photography instructors.

  1. Instructor #1 said “….never have a line going straight into the corner….”
  2. #2 referred to – “…. the great composition technique of having a line go right off the page through the corner….”

My initial reply is –

  • There are no photography rules, only guidelines (to be broken when appropriate)
  • Never say “never” πŸ˜‰ (or “always”); you’ll be wrong more often than not (but never always πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ )
  • Dogmatic assertions, of any sort, bug me

My golden “rule” of photography is to shoot for yourself – not for judges or critics – else you will be unhappy with your work. I won lots & lots of awards but ultimately quit competing because, in order to win, I had to shoot for the judge and those weren’t the images that came from my heart. You know you’ve got a special image when the scene in the viewfinder brings a swelling of emotion – never felt this? too bad because you’re missing out on something special – which doesn’t come from following rules.
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All of the above said & done, leading lines are one of the most important elements of visual design. They “lead” the viewer’s eye through the picture space. Here are a few general guidelines –

  • An image with a leading line, of some sort, is usually better than one without
  • Lines can be straight, curved, solid, broken, real and implied (implied would include the direction of a person’s gaze)
  • Oblique (slanting) lines are usually better than horizontal or vertical
  • Where a line enters or leaves the picture space is dictated by the subject, the scene and the artist’s intent – and not by a “rule” that says never or always. This said, studies show that many viewers prefer lines that lead from lower left to upper right (but say nothing about the exact location of the line’s end, such as instructor #1’s NEVER from the corner)
  • A big difference between painters & photographers is that painters can choose what to include and where to place it (an additive process). If they want a line from the corner it’s as easily done as said.
  • Photographers on the other hand must play the hand that’s dealt them and simplify and arrange elements of the picture space as best they can (theirs is a subtractive process – get rid of the extraneous “stuff” and place what remains in more or less proper locations).

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I’ll finish with some examples and let you decide for yourself what works & doesn’t. In the end it’s your decision – and no one else’s.
Many of the images in these two slide shows have not been processed – just converted straight from RAW to jpeg. Don’t judge them from the standpoint of color & tonal contrast. Simply look at the leading lines and try to determine what you think works – and doesn’t. Based on this, form your own opinion regarding the answer to the original question. It’s unlikely that there will be agreement – that’s why there are no “definitive” rules for this sort of thing. If it feels good, go with it and the hell with the rest of them.
Note some of the sequential slides that are more or less the identical scene with differing treatments of the leading line. Try to decide which, if any, work better in your opinion. You can use the slide show controls to stop/start and to select images from the gallery at the bottom if you want to go back & forth among several for comparison purposes.
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Straight (more or less) leading lines. Note that with a wide road the question of whether it originates in the corner may not make sense.
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Similar to the above but with non-straight lines.
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Here’s a set of seven images taken from the curved line show above. These were all made at the same place at the same time. Do you feel that some treatments of the road as a leading line work better than others in this otherwise identical situation? Why? Answer thatΒ  question and you probably have the answer to the use of roads as leading lines that works best for you – but not “always”. πŸ˜‰
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An implied line. Instructor #1 would disapprove.

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Another implied line –

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So there you have it – leading lines, a bunch. No right, no wrong….

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