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Leading lines

Leading lines in photography act as visual pathways, drawing the viewer's gaze through the frame to unveil the narrative hidden within the landscape...

What are leading lines in photography?

Leading lines are visual elements within a photograph that draw the viewer's eye towards a certain point or area - usually a point at the converging point of the lines or within the middle of the lines.

Leading lines are one of many photography composition techniques and can consist of anything, including roads, train tracks, rivers, trees, rails, and stairs.

When people think of leading lines, they often think of two lines. But leading lines can also just consist of one line - and I guess in this case, it would just be a leading line.

For me, the key to understanding leading lines is to think about how our eyes naturally move when we look at an image. We tend to start at the bottom left corner and move our gaze towards the right, following the direction of the line or lines within the image. This creates a sense of movement and progression as we examine the photograph.

Man standing in graduation gown.
Leading lines
Man standing in graduation gown.
Showing leading line arrows

Ultimately, the key to using leading lines effectively is to experiment and explore. Try different angles and perspectives, and look for lines that lead the eye toward your intended focal point or subject.

The shapes of buildings, patterns in nature, or the angles of a staircase can also create leading lines. After you've experimented with them for a while, you'll be noticing leading lines all around you.

What effect do leading lines have on an image?

Leading lines can profoundly affect the look and feel of an image, which is why they're a popular composition technique. But what exactly are these effects? Let's dive into them now:

1. Sense of movement

One of the effects leading lines can have on an image is that they can create a sense of movement. Whether it's a straight road or a curving, winding river.

The lines within the photo guide the viewer's eyes along that particular path - creating a sense of motion and progression. This can be even more powerful when combined with other elements, such as a fast shutter speed or blurred background.

Girl walking on curved dirt path.
Curved leading line for movement

2. Sense of depth

Another effect leading lines can have on an image is that they can create a sense of depth within the image. Since leading lines lead the viewer's eyes toward a particular focal point, the lines within the image create a sense of three-dimensionality. This can make the image feel more immersive and engaging.

Underneath the pier leading line.
Leading line for depth

3. Sense of emotion

The third effect leading lines can have on an image is that they can create a sense of mood or emotion within the image. For example, converging lines can create a sense of tension or conflict, while a winding path can create a sense of tranquility or relaxation.

Combine this knowledge with color grading and the setting of your image. You can better convey a certain emotion, whether it be moody, bright, airy, or happy.

Woman walking down road creating a leading line.
Leading line for emotion

4. Story telling

The final and perhaps the most important effect leading lines can have on an image is that they can help to tell a story within an image better. Sure, you can look at the lines as just lines, but they are so much more than that.

They are an entrance into a narrative or story behind the image. For example, a road leading towards a distant horizon or a series of steps leading up to a grand entrance can convey a sense of journey and purpose within the image. Or a curved leading line of a bride walking with the groom:

Woman walking with groom up curved leading line staircase.
Leading line for storytelling

Why would a photographer use leading lines?

A photographer would want to use leading lines to convey a sense of movement, depth, emotion, or story within the image. Leading lines are one composition technique that photographers should have under their toolbelt when the situation calls for it.

Different types of leading lines

As a photographer who often uses leading lines, I've found that there are many different types of leading lines that you can use. Each type of leading line has its own unique properties and effects. Knowing when to choose the right type of line for a particular image can be crucial to the overall success of an image.

1. Straight leading lines

The first type of leading line is the classic straight line. Straight lines can be a great leading line option when you want to create a sense of strength, stability, and order within the image.

This makes sense because buildings, trees, poles, and other objects with straight lines usually symbolize strength, stability, and order as well. Examples of straight lines include roads, columns, building edges, walls, etc.

Straight leading lines with the pier.
Straight leading lines

2. Diagonal leading lines

The second type of leading line is the diagonal line. Diagonal lines create a sense of movement and dynamism in the image and can create a sense of progression.

When reading something or looking at an image, we either scan left to right or right to left, depending on our culture. Diagonal lines often move in the same direction.

This is unlike straight lines, which are usually just vertical or horizontal. Examples of diagonal lines can include paths, staircases, rooflines, roads, etc.

Diagonal leading lines with a girl sitting on a rail.
Diagonal leading lines

3. Curved leading lines

The third type of leading line is the curved line. Curved lines are great at creating a sense of grace and fluidity within the image.

Guiding the viewer's eye along a meandering path creates a sense of motion and progression. Like diagonal lines, they can also create a sense of movement and dynamism in the image. Examples of curved lines can include winding rivers, certain roads, spiral staircases, etc.

Curved leading lines with a girl walking down a curved road path.
Curved leading lines

How to use leading lines in photography

I've learned that the key to effectively using leading lines in your photographs is to incorporate careful consideration and thoughtful composition. Here are some tips I used in order to incorporate leading lines into my images that I believe you will find helpful as well:

1. Identify potential leading lines

The first step in incorporating leading lines into your images is identifying any leading lines in your immediate setting. You'll want to look for natural elements in your scene that can serve as leading lines, such as streets, rails, trees, roads, cars, buildings, and walls.

Don't just look for straight lines—also be sure to look at diagonal lines, curved lines, or even abstract forms of lines. Remember that lines can also be created by tonal contrast of light and shadow. For example, when photographing, I was walking around and found these railings and walkway that would act as leading lines:

Path and walkway with people walking on it.
Finding leading lines

2. Identify your subject or focal point

The second step in order to use leading lines in your photography is to identify your subject or focal point. The leading lines need to "lead" up to something. There needs to be a point of emphasis or focal point that the lines direct the viewer's eyes to.

The subject or focal point can be a person or a natural or man-made element. To be honest, I listed this as step two; however, this step and step one usually go hand in hand and happen at the same time. Sometimes, you'll find a subject you really like and then look for leading lines in your surrounding area to use to lead them to your viewer.

Or you'll find leading lines and then try to find a subject you could lead the viewer to. For example, using railings in the area, I used them as my leading line:

Man standing on top of stairs.
Identifying subject within leading lines

3. Consider the direction

The third step to using leading lines is to consider the direction of the lines. Take note of which direction the leading lines are pointing and how they can guide the viewer's eyes toward your intended focal point.

As we discussed earlier, different types of lines can evoke different emotions or create different visual effects. You'll want to choose the type of line that best suits the mood or story you're trying to convey with your overall image.

For example, if you're trying to convey a story of solidarity and "power" with a traditional male portrait photoshoot, you might opt for straight lines. If you're trying to create a mysterious mood, perhaps you'll opt for curved lines.

4. Experiment with angles and perspective

The fourth step is to experiment with angles and perspectives. Once you identify your leading lines and the subject or focal point you want to use, it's time to take some photographs.

When you're photographing, try shooting from different angles and perspectives. See how the leading lines interact with other elements in the scene. Consider how they can better convey or detract from the story or mood you're trying to portray in your image.

For example, you can photograph from a low angle to emphasize the height of vertical, straight lines. This can also make the subject look more "powerful."

Man doing handstand on leading line.
Using angles with leading liens

You can also photograph from a high angle to accentuate the length of diagonal lines and provide a more "top-down" perspective. The point is, don't be afraid to be creative and experiment to find the most visually compelling composition.

Usually, when I'm photographing leading lines, I'll take images from all angles. From a standing position, squatting position, sitting position, and sometimes from a prone position. See and play with all the different angles to see how they look.

5. Pay attention to the composition

The fifth step to using leading lines is to pay attention to the overall composition of your image. Leading lines is just one of many photography composition techniques.

You'll want to remember how the leading lines interact with other elements, such as the rule of thirds, balance, and framing. For example, you may find a good angle to use leading lines.

However, let's say if you shifted your body position just a little bit to the right, then you could also have the subject on the rule of thirds intersection point. It's the little tweaks like that that are important to have in the back of your mind when photographing.

6. Play with depth of field

The sixth step to using leading lines in photography is to play with the different depths of the field. Experiment with different depths of field to highlight the leading lines or subjects. This will create a sense of depth and dimensionality within your image and make it more visually interesting overall.

You can use a shallow depth of field (small f-stop number) to blur the lines in the foreground or background to focus on your subject. You can use a deep depth of field (larger f-stop number) to keep all the lines and the subject/focal point in sharp focus.

Whether you want to use one over the other is your personal choice. If the subject should be your main focal point because you're doing portrait photography, then perhaps you should opt for the shallow depth of field. This will put emphasis on the person:

Woman walking down road creating a leading line.
Leading line for emotion

However, if you're doing street photography, then you could opt for the deep depth of field.

7. Practice, practice, practice

The seventh and final step to using leading lines in your photography is to practice, practice, practice. Like any other photographic technique, becoming comfortable using leading lines takes practice.

It's like busting out a dance move at a party; you may not feel comfortable using that dance move until you've practiced it. Well, the same goes for any other skill or technique.

If you're going to practice leading lines, go out on a photography session and explicitly tell yourself to focus on leading lines. This way, you can be consciously active in the scene, looking for leading line opportunities. Once you feel comfortable with leading lines, it will be another technique in your photographer's toolbelt!

Other composition techniques that can be used with leading lines

Experimenting with different composition techniques and leading lines can open up new creative possibilities. We touched a bit on this in the previous section. But I wanted to dedicate a whole section to other composition techniques you could use with leading lines.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a fundamental composition technique in photography. It involves dividing the image into a 3x3 grid. The goal is to place your main focal point on one of the intersecting lines. Use the rule of thirds with leading lines to create a beautiful sense of balance and harmony in the image.

Woman walking down road with leading lines and rule of thirds.
Using rule of thirds and leading lines


Framing is another technique that uses elements within the scene to create a natural frame around your subject or focal point. The beautiful thing about leading lines is that you can often use them as part of the framing and even create a frame within a frame.

For example, using trees or archways as frames can lead the viewer's eyes toward the subject. This will create a visual leading line or pathway through the image.


Symmetry is another powerful compositional technique that can create a sense of balance and harmony in the image. By aligning leading lines symmetrically, you can create a sense of order and stability.

This will also draw the viewer's eye toward the main subject. For example, using reflections in water or using a row of buildings as symmetrical leading lines can create visually striking images.

Underneath a pier with a row of columns for leading lines.
Using symmetry and leading lines


Contrast is another composition technique that can be used effectively with leading lines. By contrasting the lines with other elements in the scene, such as color, tone, or texture, you can make the lines stand out more prominently. For example, using a brightly colored leading line against a muted background can draw attention to the line.

Negative space

Negative space refers to empty or blank spaces in an image. It is another compositional technique that pairs well with leading lines. Negative space adds a sense of balance and can emphasize the lines and subject in your scene.

For example, using a long, straight road as your leading line against a vast, empty sky can create a sense of serenity and solitude. This can be a great way to incorporate negative space into the composition.

Woman standing in the middle of the road creating negative space with leading lines.
Using negative space with leading lines

Enhancing leading lines in post-production

After you've taken your photos, it's time to take them into post-production. This way, you can further enhance the impact of the leading lines in your image.

Here are some insights on how to use post-processing techniques to enhance the leading lines in your photographs further. In case you were wondering, I use Adobe Lightroom for my post-production edits:

1. Adjusting contrast and saturation

One of the simplest ways to enhance leading lines in post-production is to adjust the contrast and saturation simply. Increasing the contrast ever so slightly will make your leading lines appear more prominent and defined.

Adjusting the saturation can also make them stand out even more against the surrounding elements.

Increasing contrast and saturation in Lightroom to enhance leading lines.
Increase contrast and saturation for leading lines

2. Cropping and framing

The second post-production edit is to add cropping and framing. By adjusting the crop and frame of your image, you can further emphasize the direction and flow of the leading lines.

I recommend experimenting with different cropping ratios, orientations, and aspect ratios. This way, you can find the composition that best enhances the leading lines and the mood and story of your image.

Cropping in Lightroom to enhance leading lines.
Cropping to enhance leading lines

3. Sharpening and clarity

Applying selective sharpening or clarity adjustments to the leading lines can help to make them appear more defined and crisp. This can be especially effective when working with images with softer or less defined leading lines.

Adding sharpening or clarity can allow you to highlight more details and make them stand out. Just like with everything, be careful not to overdo it.

4. Color grading

Experimenting with the basics of color grading can also enhance the impact of leading lines in your image. Adjusting the color tones along the leading lines can create a visual flow and harmony that guides the viewer's eyes along the intended path.

For example, if your leading line is an orange road and the sky is blue, then this will be a nice complementary color:

Color grading in Lightroom to enhance leading lines.
Color grading to enhance leading lines

You can further enhance the orange to make it a bit more prominent and draw further attention to the leading lines and subject. Use color grading to add warmth and coolness or emphasize specific color tones that complement the leading lines and your subject.

Examples of leading lines in photos and movies

Let's take a look at some examples of leading lines in movies:

The Shining

Scene from The Shining with leading lines of the hallways.
Leading lines in The Shining

Ex Machina

Scene from Ex Machina in a hallway leading line scene.
Leading lines in Ex Machina

Stand By Me

Scene from Stand by Me when kids are walking on train tracks that are leading lines.
Leading lines in Stand by Me

In conclusion, leading lines are a compositional technique that every photographer should have under their toolbelt. But just like any other compositional technique, it's easy to start using but hard to master. Even I'm still exploring different ways I can best use it in my images!

So go out there and start practicing some leading lines and use the tips I presented in this guide. Good luck and happy photographing!

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