Want a Simple Technique to Really Strengthen Your Compositions? Use Leading Lines

Want a Simple Technique to Really Strengthen Your Compositions? Use Leading Lines

You might have heard people talk about using leading lines to really improve your composition, but how exactly do you use them, and how do you find them? Let me show you five different examples here so you'll know what to look for next time you're shooting.

Leading Lines With Ocean Rocks

Why use leading lines? One of the major reasons is to draw the eye of the viewer through the entire frame. In the case of this photo here, I wanted to draw the eye to the distant mountains. They always turn an almost translucent, bluish hue with some cloud cover in the evening, and using these rocks as leading lines was perfect for taking the eye through the frame to their cool silhouette.

This was taken late afternoon in Miyazaki, Japan, just before sunset. I had to get there at the right time, because the rocks quickly submerge once the tide gets too high. On the other hand, at dead-low tide, the rocks aren’t very interesting at all and look rather flat without any water cover. In this shot, I used a Hoya circular polarizing filter to minimize the reflection In the water and to really bring out the deep color of the sky. If you live near the coast, rocks can be a really great way to introduce leading lines to your compositional arsenal.

Leading Lines With Shadows

An early morning surf check with your mates is a time-honored ritual for surfers in Australia. My original intention on this chilly autumn morning was to get the sunburst through those trees from the rising sun. But when these three guys came for their morning surf check, it was an absolutely perfect opportunity to use leading lines to further strengthen the composition.

When the sun is low in the sky, shadows are much longer, so in this case, I was able to position the shadows at the bottom of the frame and use them as six perfect lines to lead to the guys wistfully checking the waves. The sun above them to the left is just a continuation from where the shadows are leading. The leading line shadows do their job by enticing the eyes to start at the bottom and work their way through the frame and up to the sun.

Leading Lines in Rice Fields

Rice planting season in Japan is an absolute joy for photographers. The farmers symmetrically lay the seeds so that they grow in these beautiful parallel lines. I’m lucky that I live in a valley surrounded by mountains that turn a gorgeous blue hue with the right light in the evenings. I’m always mindful of color combinations in my composition, and if you check any color wheel online, you’ll notice that green and pink is always a solid match. So in this case here, using the green leading lines of the rice plants was a perfect way to lead the eye through to the late evening pink sky. If you're ever out shooting, it's always a good idea to think about using tried and trusted color combinations, because they dramatically improve the aesthetics of your shots and visually appeal to the viewer much more.

This photo is another example of using both leading lines and color combination theory to create a much stronger composition. Every August here in southwest Japan, it is absolutely stinking hot and time for the farmers to harvest the rice. That means the lines in these fields soon get bone dry and go a nice brownish-orange hue. When you combine that hue with the deep, blue clouds that hover above the mountains in the hot months of summer, you’re onto a winning composition.

I'm like a little kid at Christmas at this time of year, because there are literally thousands of rice fields that have been harvested, and every day, these types of clouds loom above the distant mountains. It’s best to use a wide angle lens such as the Canon 16-35mm on a full frame camera like my Canon 5d Mark IV, or a Sigma 10-20mm on an APS-C format camera such as the Canon 7D Mark II.

Leading Lines With Tidal Pools

When I saw this tidal pool, I really couldn’t believe my luck. I’d been surfing the previous afternoon and noticed this little pool when I was returning to my car. As I always do, I made a mental note of the tide and created an idea of the composition I could use with those two rocks. I went home and saw that the tide would be perfect for the shot the following morning, so I got up early and went down.

Knowing that the sun rose behind the surf club in the distance, I knew this would be absolutely perfect for a leading line composition going up to the sunrise. I woke up early and I wasn’t disappointed. This shot was taken at about 04:40 in the morning, and the still pool in combination with the gorgeous golden sand created a beautiful leading line composition to the orange glow on the horizon.

Leading Lines in the Sand

The shot above was taken on the tiny island of Tanegashima in the far south of Japan. It was just after one of the year’s biggest typhoons had buffeted us from pillar to post. However, in doing so, it created these wonderful sand patterns. This shot was taken late afternoon as I laid down on my belly in the sand and set my camera up on a tripod. Whenever I travel, I use the Manfrotto Be Free tripod, which I've previously written about on Fstoppers. For this shot, I chose to do a long exposure because the wind was still howling and the chop on the water's surface didn’t really look great. By using these leading lines,  was able to take the eyes from the subtle grooves in the sand through to the milky surface of the water and the imposing sandstone rock in the distance. It’s rather famous on this island because it resembles both an elephant and the profile of a person’s face on the extreme right side.

This is a shot I took the following afternoon from the same place when the grooves in the sand were much deeper. Coupled with the shadows, the leading lines in this shot are far more pronounced than the previous shot. The sea was much calmer on this day and there was enough interest in the clouds that I didn’t feel the need to go for a long exposure shot.

Leading Lines in Composition: The Takeaways

As you can see from most of the shots I've provided here, there are many different ways you can use leading lines to strengthen your compositions. Whether it’s at the beach, in farmlands, or simply using shadows in the early morning or evening, it's really up to your imagination as to how you incorporate leading lines into your frame. In all of the photos I’ve shown you here today, I’ve used leading lines from the bottom to draw the eye up and through the frame. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. You can use leading lines from the side of the frame or from the top of the frame to draw the eye down.

Whichever way you decide to use leading lines, it's a compositional technique that will undoubtedly strengthen your composition and help open you up to many different opportunities around you. Once you get the hang of using leading lines, you’ll be amazed by how often you can use them in almost any situation. How do you use leading lines in your photography? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or even see some of your examples.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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