Leading lines… a mainstay of photographic (or other visual) composition. We all know what they are.

Or do we?

The basics

Easily enough recognised, leading lines are a more interesting tool than many give them credit for. They are connectors; paths along which the eye travels effortlessly. They provide direction, connection and motion. They lead one into an image. Your average leading line will reach out of a corner (or near enough) and diagonally into the frame, providing guidance to the main subject. This is similar to, but not quite the same as, anchoring; though in many cases, one line will perform both functions.

Toronto City Hall, by Pavel M

Toronto City Hall DSC2977
The set of leading lines here has prominence in the top right corner, drawing the eye down and slingshotting it around, to finally rest within the curves of City Hall.

This basic form of leading lines can also be used to provide perspective and a sense of depth, as is commonly done with roads leading into the frame, towards a distant horizon:

GM Seed Crop, by missnoma

GM Seed Crop
Without the leading lines provided in the top surface of this Canola seed field, we would have no real sense of just how far it is from foreground to background: the lines here provide context for the reluctant front row of flowers, within the encompassing scope of the far horizon.

In the category of simple leading lines, we have those that help us – quite blatantly – find the subject, and demonstrate direction of motion.

Blue Angels in Blue, by ben.pearson.007

Blue Angels in Blue
An interesting use of leading lines, almost to the point of the lines being the subject (the texture within the contrails is its own interest), providing both a pointer to the subject, and a sense of speed and direction

Easy to think of in the same way of those leading lines that provide guidance to a subject, others perform the same function in a more subtle way, by emphasising the subject.

Re-Do Rose, by missnoma

Re-Do Rose
The rose here is clearly dominant enough on its own to grab the viewer’s attention. But the soft lines in the wood upon which it rests provide that bit more emphasis; confirmation that we really should be drawn towards the bright red.

But these “standard” examples are just the beginning. There are countless other things that can be done with leading lines, and tools that can become leading lines of sorts. Indeed, there are two key approaches to leading lines that should be considered.

Two types of lines

The first type of leading line is the one I have mainly concentrated on above: the leading line that provides direction to the eye; emphasis to another alternate subject. This is perhaps the purer form of leading line, but also the more difficult to do well, for it becomes far too easy to allow the lines to dominate, thereby coming to the other type: the lines as primary subject.

Ar[t]cheology 1, by Art Rock (Hennie)

Ar[t]cheology 1
While to many this may appear as just a car lost in mud, it is the sinuous line formed by the vehicle’s contour which really makes it work: a leading line that is itself the subject (not all leading lines are all that thin).

There is in truth a third variant to this duality: that which does both in one image. Two subjects: the lines and what they connect with.

A bridge in morning fog, by Pavel M

A bridge in morning fog
Which subject really dominates here? Is it the bridge, standing tall, or the road with a trail of light seared above it, which takes us up to and over the bridge? Are both equal? A very good balance between the two functions of leading lines.

The complementary leading line

The lines covered do far have all, in some sense, been standard. They have been the line for the eye to follow, be it as subject or as a connector of sorts. A more difficult form of leading line is the one that complements the subject, by opening up the space within the image for us to notice the fullness of the subject, without providing a direct connection to the subject (along the line) or being the subject

Sauna Violin, by maclobster

Sauna Violin
A very different form of leading line, the bow here provides an inner border so that the eye knows the area on which to concentrate. It is neither the subject nor pointing in the direction thereof, instead providing a hint that there is further interest to be found in the darker regions along its length.

“Pointing” at cross purposes

Yet another type of leading line is the one that, quite simply, points the wrong way! Most easily accomplished through the presence of multiple lines, which then provides a sense of direction along the “steps” between them, these can be as powerful in pointing towards a subject.

Anthropocentric, by cormend

Even without the lighter line seams, the concentric rings provide a very strong sense of direction down to the group of people gathered on the floor – a sense of direction that runs perpendicular to the lines themselves.

Not so straight lines

As encountered in the previous image, leading lines do not need to be straight. Indeed, they can make for very strong subjects in their own right that provide continuous direction through an image.

Time, by sannesu

The eye does not stop – it is pulled effortlessly around this pattern of circular lines, and given easy access along the finer cracks between the primary directional emphasis.

The virtual line

The mind is a wonderful tool when it comes to the use of leading lines. It can be fooled quite easily into seeing something that isn’t there. All it takes to create a line is three points (two if you are really good), and a reason to believe they are connected. A leading line can be brought into existence by the presence of the subject it will help to emphasise; or, perhaps it will be the subject when other lines show us where it is supposed to converge, though there be nothing there.

Marlene Hilton Moore’s Passage, Doris McCarthy Trail, Scarborough, Ontario, by Pavel M

Marlene Hilton Moore's Passage, Doris McCarthy Trail, Scarborough, Ontario
The presence of leading lines at the base of the image, and the recursive lines of the ribs, provides the sense of direction at the top of the image: a line in the emptiness of the background, which is more dominant than any of the others. A leading line created by implication from the paired tips of the ribs and the point the rest of the image indicates should be emphasised.

Multiple lines – the interaction

Most of the examples covered so far have dealt with either a single line, or a set of them that together provide a common sense of direction. Within the category of leading lines as subjects in their own right, the intersect of multiple leading lines can also provide a great compositional tool.

[untitled], by mav_at

Almost abstract, it is the interplay of multiple lines – mostly slightly curved, complementary angles – that gives this image its impact. Remove any one of the five dominant lines, and the whole thing would come unravelled.

Spiralling, by Art Rock (Hennie)

The combination of the repeated lines of the stairs all bringing the eye in to the central column, and the sinuous curve of the column itself provides the eye with easy traverse of the whole image: a leading line of intersections.

Out, not in

Pretty much every image I have used so far in this article has followed a single premise: that leading lines concentrate emphasis: they provide a single point to focus on, or a dominant direction. Occasionally, though, an image has a feature that draws attention – a hot spot – but that it not the subject, and there is need to use leading lines to divert emphasis away from that element, back to a wider subject.

Love to all, by aftab.

Love to all
The sun here is dominant, immediately drawing one’s attention. but the real subject is the expanse of plain and the texture of cloud. Without the streaks of light leading outwards, directing attention away from the glare, this image would not work nearly as well.


As always with a guide of this sort, there will be more good pictures than are needed to cover all the bases; either they will duplicate subjects covered in the main set, or will combine multiple aspects.

Lil’s Last hard long reaching pleading Stand, by ben.pearson.007

Lil's Last hard long reaching pleading Stand
An interesting balance between the directional lines and lines as subject – the dominant line actually manages to transition between the two forms within its length as it comes into focus. The eye cannot but be pulled up and through the picture, expanding to capture the pollen sacks before being drawn back in to the crack at the tip of the pistil.

Gone Fishing, by sannesu

Gone Fishing
A very pleasing combination of different types of leading lines: one being the pelican’s line-of-sight along his beak and beyond ( a virtual line), the other being the sweep of the wings. And these two lines intersect in the bird’s own focal point: the meal it is about to catch, even though out of our frame.

Wait, by aftab.

Almost subjects in their own right, the dominant lines here lead us into the web, where the spider awaits, to snare us. The concentric rings of the web, despite being clear in only a few areas, help to focus attention on the trap, where fate is met…

Morning in the Cathedral, by cormend

Morning in the Cathedral
This image is clearly about the lines. It is a sense of direction: everything pointing towards the same point; and the scale of the scene undeniable. A sense of unreachable subject, implied by the consistency of the countless lines converging upon it.

Flight of fantasy, by Art Rock (Hennie)

Flight of fantasy
Abstract, this is a brilliant example of how the smallest pointers can convey an irresistible sense of direction. Even if it were in a blank canvas a dozen times as large, this set of arrows would convey the sense of direction along the implied lines.

A special twist

Every example of leading line I have covered here has had length. They lead somewhere. Even where they intersect, there is expanse and direction. So, to throw a twist in, here’s a leading line concept that takes a completely different approach.

love is everywhere, by aftab.

love is everywhere
The cluster of trunks and tusks in this image performs a function similar to any other leading lines, but in a different way: it connects the subjects. The many small lines here create a knot, a strong connection that ties together the two subjects, without even being on the dominant line between them.

  1. April 27th, 2014

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