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  • Laura Paton

Using Line as a Compositional Element in Your Photographs

Lines are everywhere! Pause from reading this for just a moment and look around the space where you are now. How many lines do you see? Most likely you’ll find hundreds of lines even in the smallest of spaces. Your goal as a photographer is to find lines and arrange them in your composition in a creative way that makes a strong image.

Before you start shooting, take a moment to fully observe the scene. Identify all the lines in the area and pre-visualize your options. Notice every place where your eyes are naturally drawn. Ask yourself why your gaze was drawn there.

In art, lines serve a few different purposes. Sometimes, they serve as the main subject of the photo. Often lines are used to lead the viewer's attention to a specific part of the image. Other times they may frame another compositional element, or they may create a mood or feeling.

When lines are used as the main subject of a photo, they should form a recognizable pattern for the viewer to easily understand. They should be consistent and easily identifiable. Otherwise, the viewer may perceive them as clutter or confusing.

To use lines effectively in photography you should first decide if you want the lines to be the main subject of the photo or if they would work better as a supporting element in the composition. One way that we use them to support the composition is by placing them in your scene as leading lines. Remember that all you need to do to change the direction of a leading line is to physically move your body and your camera. Sometimes just moving a few feet in either direction can completely change the perspective or dynamics of a line.

When composing your image with leading lines, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, make sure that the line always point towards the part of the image where you want your viewer's attention to go. Second, make sure the line never points towards the outside edges of your scene. When a line point outside, it weaken the visual impact of the image by forcing the viewer’s eye to leave the frame.

Ask yourself, “Where are the leading lines directing my viewer?” If your answer is “Nowhere in particular, out of the frame, or away from my subject,” then you are not using lines purposely and you need to recompose your shot. A good leading line often starts at the bottom of the frame and guides the eye upward and inward. It moves from the foreground through the mid-ground and into the background of the scene. When a leading line connects the foreground to the background, it creates depth and dimension.

Because horizontal and vertical lines are distinctly directional, it is usually best to hold your camera in the same direction. For example, if the lines are vertical, such as a tree trunk, hold your camera in portrait orientation rather than landscape.

When photographing horizontal lines, try to keep them as straight as possible. Even a slight unnatural slant is enough to make the viewer feel uneasy. Many cameras have a guide to help you keep your lines straight. If the horizon does end up skewed, you can easily fix it in post-production.

You can also use lines to frame a specific element in a scene. These lines can help to block out other parts of the image and draw attention to only what’s in the frame. These lines can come from branches, tunnels, arches or windows.

Lines can suggest a certain mood or feeling. By using lines in this way, they become strong storytelling tools. Helping the viewer to feel the intended emotions of the scene.

Horizontal lines have long been associated with tranquility, relaxation and lack of change. They create a sense of balance and organization. We can use them when a photographer wants to communicate a feeling of timelessness, stability, and consistency. We can often make this message with architectural details, horizons and bridges.

Vertical lines portray power, strength, grandeur, spirituality, and dignity. Examples include centuries-old trees, tall buildings, pillars and church steeples.

Diagonal lines give a sense of motion and change. Their power lies in their ability to make a viewer’s eye travel back and forth along the diagonal. The direction of diagonal lines can provide visual effect. Lines that direct down from left to right create a calming effect, while a line tilting upward creates tension and a feeling of uneasiness.

Jagged and irregular lines often impart a sense of discontent, fear, and agitation. Examples are found in roots, rusty twisted metal and cracks in stone.

Sometimes the most powerful lines are the ones that aren’t there. We call these implied lines. These “imaginary” lines help the mind connect the dots or elements together. Sometimes a pointed finger, a sign with an arrow painted on it, the direction someone is walking or the direction of someone’s gaze can push your viewer to look at a specific area of your composition. These invisible lines often can be more effective than any of the “real” lines in your scene.

The key to composing your photographs with line is to decide for yourself what is the message you hope to convey. Don’t rush, instead take your time when you compose your photograph. Think about the effects the line can provide, move yourself to get the best vantage point and experiment from different angles. The extra effort can make all the difference.

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