Composition, Lesson 4: Leading Lines, Diagonals and Curves

Leading lines are a very effective compositional tool. They provide a path to guide the viewer's eyes throughout the image. They lead the eye from one element of the photo to another: from the main subject to the secondary subject or from the foreground to the background. The lines control the flow of vision and make an otherwise static image more dynamic and exciting. Lines can unify composition by directing the viewer's eyes and attention to the main point of the picture or lead the eyes from one part of the picture to another. They can lead the eyes to infinity, divide the picture, and create patterns. Diagonal lines and other arcs are particularly effective leading lines.

Vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and curved lines create different moods. Vertical lines communicate a sense of strength, rigidity, power, and solidarity to the viewer. On the other hand, horizontal lines represent peace, tranquility, and quietness. A generally accepted practice is to use a vertical format for pictures having predominantly vertical lines and horizontal format for pictures having predominantly horizontal lines. Again, this is a generally accepted practice, NOT a rule.

Lines Leading to the subject guide the eyes to the point of interest
Positive Space

Adding a diagonal element to the composition of any image will almost always make it a stronger and more dynamic photograph. Vertical and horizontal lines tend to divide the image into separate elements, while diagonal lines connect disparate elements to provide a more cohesive composition. Diagonals can also be strong components of perspective, adding depth to the image and providing a sense of dimension.

While simple diagonals are one of the most effective geometric shapes to find and use in a photograph, don't forget they are lines and can lead the eye out of the image. So it is important to have the line lead the eye to the subject and not out of the frame. Use diagonals to connect the key elements of your image or to control the flow within the frame.

Note the diagonal sweeps leading the eye from the tree line down to the bottom of the image


Note the diagonal lines of the two models


The triangle can also be an effective compositional tool. A triangle is a closed geometric entity that contains at least one diagonal element. Since the triangle is closed, it won't lead the eye out of the frame, but a triangle with near equal sides is less dynamic that one with more disparate lines.

Using triangular composition to lead the eye.
Triangular Composition


The arc is another quite effective geometric entity for photographic composition. When used as an unclosed element it can serve as a leading line pulling the eye toward the main subject.

Unclosed arc leading the eye to subject
Unclosed Arc

Or an arc can be used as a spatial divider.

Unclosed Arc Dividing Space
The arc as a spatial divider

Or used to frame a subject.

Unclosed Arc for Framing
An arc used for framing
Arc used for Framing

The arc should be studied before using it as a compositional element. Decide how to make the best use of it - as a spatial divider, a framing element, or as a leading line to or from the main subject.

Another very effective geometrical element used in composition is the S-Curve. Some photographers have called the S-Curve "compositional gold." Many photographers think the S-Curve is unique among geometrical elements for its ability to stand alone as a main subject or be used as a leading line, a framing element or other compositional aspect of an image.

Do you see the -Curve used as a compositional element here?
S Curve on the Coastline
How about in this image?
Model as an S Curve

Finally, remember always that the viewer's eyes tend to follow lines into the picture (or out of the picture) regardless of whether they are simple linear elements such as fences, roads, and a row of phone poles, or more complex line elements, such as curves, shapes, tones, and colors. Keep this in mind as you compose your photo and incorporate various elements into your image. This will improve your compositions and make your images more dynamic and appealing.

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