Use Lines in the Photo to Strengthen Your Composition

Use Lines in the Photo to Strengthen Your Composition

When it comes to composition rules, we often use the rule of thirds to build up a composition. It is an easy way to bring a little bit of order in chaos. Another good habit is the use of lines. It can be used to strengthen your composition.

Previously I wrote an article about composition theory. It ignored the well-known rules of composition we are accustomed to. The composition theory is based on nine basic composition shapes that describe how objects can be placed inside a photo. If you haven’t read the article, I advise you to do so. It is called: Forget about composition rules and start using the composition theory in your photography.

According to the compensation theory, a triangle is one of the nine basic composition shapes

These nine basic shapes can help you to place objects in your photo. It will help to build a nice looking photo. But if you can guide the viewers’ eye through the composition, the photo will become increasingly interesting. This is where lines come in.

Using Lines to Guide the Eye

Lines will help the viewer to see through the image. A good line will make sure that the subject in the photo will get the right attention. You can also have secondary lines in a photo, that can help to capture the attention from different directions. After all, you don’t want the viewers’ eye to leave the photo.

Don’t mistake the axis of basic composition shapes as the lines I am talking about. These axis just help arranging the objects in a logical way inside the image. It describes the point of interest, and makes it clear where real lines inside the image should lead to.

Horizontal and Vertical Lines Don’t Work

Lines have to originate from a natural starting point. For this, diagonal lines are ideal. But often horizontal and vertical lines don’t work that well. Because your eye is following the lines, horizontal orientated lines will make you look from left to right, and back again. In a way, your eye will continuously bounce off the corners of the image. There is no point of interest to guide you to. This is also the case for vertical lines. It will keep you looking up and down, with nothing that will grab your attention.

Only vertical lines can make the image a bit resteless. There is no point of interest.

Nevertheless, you can use horizontal and vertical lines in your photo. These have to be arranged in a reoccurring pattern, making your composition similar to a field composition, one of the nine basic shapes. But it is also possible to use horizontal or vertical lines as a backdrop in your photo, with the subject clearly standing out in front of it. You just have to use your creativity to make horizontal and vertical lines work.

The Axis of the Rule of Third Aren’t Lines for Composition

The axis that make up the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio, are often used as lines inside a photo. We place the horizon on one of the horizontal axis, or something like a tree on the vertical axis. When a subject is also placed on one of the intersection, we often think we nailed the ideal composition. But this is not what these composition rules are all about. The axis are not the lines that will lead your eye through the image. If these axis are used as lines, you end up having horizontal and vertical lines, which is often not advisable.

The rule of thirds show four points of interest where the axis make intersections. But these are not the lines in an image to search for. The real lines could guide the viewers' eye towards the intersection points. Just like in this example

Concerning the intersection point in the golden ratio and rule of thirds, these intersection points are important. Those locations will attract intention very easily, and that is what these rules are all about. Placing your subject on one of the intersections is only part of the composition. A guiding line will need to pick up the viewers’ attention, and lead the eye towards that special place inside your photo. Other secondary lines may keep your attention on that specific location in a very natural way.

Lines That Will Work in a Composition

The best lines in a composition are probably diagonal lines. These have a very natural flow, and will guide the viewers eye into the photo very effectively. There are a few variations on a diagonal line, like the curve and S-curve. But also the triangle can be seen as a combination of diagonal lines. Let’s have a look at these lines.

Diagonal Lines

One of the basic composition shapes is the diagonal line. It is an axis for placing objects in a pleasing way. Remember, we have a uplifting diagonal, and a downward diagonal. Which is which, depends on the direction you read and write.  By starting a line from one of the corners, you grab the viewers’ attention and take it inside the photo. Easy as that.

This image contains a lot of diagonal lines, which will lead the viewers' eye towards the bright part on the mountains.

It is possible to place multiple subjects on that axis, thus producing a line. Or you can use one element in the photo to make that line, something like a road, for example. Both work. It is possible to use just one diagonal line, or multiple parallel lines. Also different diagonals inside the image can work, as long as these lines strengthen each other. You can even end up having a triangle, which is also a very strong basic composition shape.

Curves and S-Curves

I believe S-curves to be a variation to a diagonal line, but in a more playful manner. It will guide the viewers eye very easy through the image. The S-curve can be a real one, or a compressed one. It doesn’t have to be a regular one, even irregular S-curves will work. If we follow this thought, we can also recognize a partial S-curve, which is just a curve.

An S-curve is an amazing line inside the image. It can work as a natural flow through the image. This example has also secundairy lines, leading towards the S-curve.

All these forms work very well in a composition, especially when you place subjects in the intersections of the golden ratio, or rule of thirds. S-curves can be combined with diagonals, to enhance the way a viewer will see through the image.

Use Lines to Keep the Viewers’ Attention Inside the Photo

The best way to use lines is to capture the attention inside a photo, and keep it there. Give the viewer no change to escape. This can be done by guiding the eye through the image by different lines. I must admit, it is not always easy, and I believe this is easier to accomplish in a very simple composition. When a composition has a lot of elements, the risk of loosing attention increases.

Try to guide the eye through the image, leaving no escape. Lines are really important, but always remember, there are also other elements in an image that are important. Light and dark, for instance.

Losing attention can be avoided by leaving most distractions out of the frame. Pay a lot of attention to the sides of your image, bright or dark spots that stand out, contrasting colors, or objects that seem out of place. Keep all important elements well within the border of the photo, while keeping enough free space between the edge and the circle of attention. If an eye start to wonder towards the edges, diagonal lines and curves can prevent it from leaving the image.

Do you use the axis of the golden ratio or rule of thirds as guiding lines in you photos? Or do you also think diagonals and curves are the most important tools to keep the attention of your viewer? I would love to hear how you work with composition in your photos. Please let me know in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Thanks, a good read. I feel the rule of thirds can often be a trap, the easy way to look at a scene, but often it blinds you to what else is there. You almost need to go out with a mindset of ignoring it.

I agree with you. Nevertheless, it is a good starting point from where to build up a good composition..