Basic Composition - Leading Lines

In my last blog, I discussed the rule of thirds as a strategy to draw the viewer’s attention into a photograph. Here, I talk about another common strategy used for the same reason, especially in landscape photography, and that is ‘leading lines’. Leading lines are visual elements that form an actual or implied line. Narrow and long in nature, leading lines can be straight, curved, diagonal, horizontal or vertical. Leading lines naturally occur in nature and are sometimes obvious; but other times, they are not. In the latter case, it is up to the photographer to bring them out through placement in the frame or sometimes adding contrast while editing.

The purpose of leading lines is to guide the eyes deeper into the scene toward a focal point and give the scene depth. While there are several ways to use leading lines, they always begin at the edge of the frame (typically on the lower portion) and move inward. Some leading lines are well defined, such as in the image above and the one below. In the image above, the metal handrails in the Mammoth Cave National Park are obvious leading lines and when I composed the image, I made sure they began at the bottom edge of the frame.

In the black and white image above taken in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the leading line is not an actual line but rather a strong contrast between shadow and light. Shadows can play a powerful role as leading lines and are quite often used in black and white images.

In nature, most of the time leading lines are not actual lines but are implied visually. Consider the image below from Lake Michigan where a leading line toward the horizon is created by several rocks in the foreground. Also notice how I placed the rocks so the rocks come out of the bottom left corner, making the scene more dynamic compared to a center placement of the rocks.

Because most leading lines are not obvious and largely depend on the photographer being able to recognize them, using a wide-angle lens will help to make them more obvious. A wide-angle perspective makes close objects look more dramatic as the background appears much farther away. This provides the scene a greater depth of field. As the foreground objects are “pulled” from the bottom corners of the frame, diagonal lines will look more obvious and these give a strong energy to the scene, such as the rocky beach scene below.

When there is more than one leading line, they can converge toward a vanishing point which can be quite dramatic and eye catching. Because I photograph mostly on water, I often see converging lines created from clouds in the sky and their reflections as see below in an Everglades prairie.

Another way to make leading lines appear prominent in your image is to add contrast with some dodging and burning techniques during post processing. Although the wide-angle effect is strong in the scene below, I selectively dodged (lightening) and burned (darkening) areas of the water to give more emphasis to the ripple lines leading the eyes to the mangrove tree.

Here is one more example to show that leading lines can also come from the top portion of the scene. The little mangrove tree in the image below is the same one in the previous image above. Here, I used a blur effect during editing to create converging lines with the clouds.

Finding leading lines in nature takes some practice, but over time you will train your eyes to see them and more effectively place them within the frame. Remember these few tips:

  • Begin the leading line from the edge of the frame
  • Direct the leading line diagonally
  • Use a wide angle lens
  • Use converging lines to meet at a point of interest

Now it is your turn to get out there and fine those leading lines!

If you are interested in learning more about camera or editing techniques, I offer individualized instructions in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at with any questions you may have.