Every artist starts with a message. Every landscape photographer starts with a natural scene. As a landscape photographer myself, I know that we translate what we see, into a visual path that the eye can follow. We illustrate this journey through allowing the featured shapes, textures, tones and lines to tell our story. We tell the viewer what to focus on, and they make their own connection. Drawing you in is the key function of a Leading Line, an outstretched hand that says “Come on, I’ll take you there.”
What Is A Leading Line?
Leading Lines are one of the most powerful elements in photography, they harness so much energy and make us want to explore the scene. When used well, they create compelling images with strong visual impact. They help draw the eye to the “hero” element – that main subject that is the narrator of your story.
Put simply, your leading line is a path from the foreground into the background that ties all the elements in your image, together. The strongest composition is achieved when the lines direct your eye towards the main subject or focal point within the scene.
Several leading lines can be harnessed to strengthen and reinforce perspective inside an image. Many images of architecture have converging lines that come in at all angles to give the feeling of space and form.
For example; A hiking trail weaving up a hill, A jetty disappearing into the sunset, A bridge with a train with light trails, a row of trees with a building at the end, A fallen tree that leads to a cluster of upright trees. An illuminated path leading to a single doorway, The shore of a lake, weaving a path to the mountains.
Like all rules in photography, there are some exceptions. If there is no Hero waiting at the end of a leading line, your image can still have enough impact to win the viewer over. Alternatively, the lines may be so strong that they become the main focal point of the image, such as those seen in urban environments.
Why Are Lines So Important?
Our eyes are naturally drawn to lines, from an early age we’re told to follow paths. A well-executed shot with a strong leading line should appeal to even the most uninterested viewer. Throughout life, we’re told to explore, make journeys, follow paths, “ride it out”, “see it through to the end” or “go with the flow.” These are all analogies for being led through life.
Their use allows photographers to showcase the reason for the image. They’re like a giant flashing arrow that tells even the uneducated viewer where to look.
What Makes A Good Leading Line?
Think of your eye like a slot-car on a slot-car track. Your leading line is the straight rail and obstructions are tight corners or a lack of momentum. Using this analogy, I can explain that the least resistance is the key to a powerful composition. The more elements that distract the smooth travel of the eye, the more confused the viewer will be. This is why simple scenes often win the hearts of viewers.
Almost anything can be used as a leading line. Only your imagination will set the limits. In my opinion, the most classic type of leading line is a road with lines. The white lines are a contrast against the black tarmac and thus serves as an excellent example.
The emotional connection that a viewer makes to a road is that of mystery, intrigue and discovery; where does the road lead to; what’s around the bend?!
A bridge will also make for a strong leading line, and there are different ways to capture it. Shoot it from ground level, so it makes a horizontal leading line across your image. And if there are not too many distractions on the bridge, such as traffic or bulky bridge abutments that will break the leading line, the most obvious choice would be to capture it standing in the middle of the road on the bridge (as long as there’s no traffic about!).
When you’re capturing landscapes, try to find leading lines that wind through the scene. It could be a row of trees or telegraph poles. Anything that draws your eye through the scene will work. If you end up in a forest, it can be hard to compose an image due to the repeating patterns that the trees create. Look for a path or a fallen tree that can serve as a leading line trough the trees.
Any line that breaks a pattern in the scene will work well. Once you start looking, you’ll find many objects that you can use as a leading line in almost any scene.
Ultimately, as the creator, you are showing your vision. You are showing us your world and how you see it. As with all the elements at our disposal, you do not have to stick to a set of rules, but they definitely help.