You know those images that draw your eye right into the subject involuntarily? Just as a vacuum sucks up dust on a carpet, it’s almost as if we are obeying some powerful gravitational force that sucks our eyes towards a specific point.
Well for many of those photos, we are being led by a mysterious force. It’s called leading lines.
Leading lines are like magic… except for that they actually work in the real world if you know how to use them correctly.
But beware, if you use them incorrectly, you can absolutely ruin an otherwise beautiful photo misleading the viewer away. But don’t worry, I’ll “lead” you in the right direction by showing you some of the guidelines to follow so you don’t make those mistakes.
You can think of leading lines like a pathway that is ending at or pointing right to your subject or focal point. Simply put, leading lines start near an edge and point to the subject.
The most common (and possibly most awesome) use of leading lines is to have your subject placed symmetrically on a vanishing point between at least two lines that converge.
In this photo there are multiple lines and they are all pointing to my subjects in the center of the photo. The subjects are actually my little boys playing on this bridge and placed as symmetrically as possible.
After multiple attempts to coarse a two year old, he finally perfectly centering between all the lines as he was running away from me.
To correctly frame a well thought through photo that uses leading lines is hard! Especially if there are moving subjects. Take your time, think through it and see where the lines are point.
Reposition yourself so that your subject is at the converging point of the lines.
For this photo on the bridge I had to positioned myself center and also lower than normal. My iPhone was practically resting on the bridge itself, which made the vanishing point of the lines more dramatic.
You can see how all the lines in the railings, the edges of the bridge and most strikingly the shadows on the bridge all converge right into my subjects in the center of the frame.
A lesser known type of leading lines are when the subject is off center but all the lines still point in the direction of subject. In this portrait the majority of the frame is taken up by the lines that all point to the subjects face.
The lines certainly don’t have to be straight. They could be curved as long as they eventually point to the subject (or vanishing point.) In this case the subject is the last rays of a radiant Tennessee sunset.
How to Incorrectly Use Leading Lines
If the lines point to anywhere other than your subject then the the lines can be misleading and throw the whole photo off. Even the untrained eye will not be drawn to the photo regardless of whether they understand why or not.
In this stunning scene, the lines point to nowhere which makes the photo feel off.
In this photo the subjects are clearly the horses, but the diminishing lines in the road on the right side lead the viewer away from the subjects.
Our eyes naturally follow paths, so make sure the path is leading where you want.
David Molnar is a celebrity, music and advertising photographer and the author of iPhone Only Photography. His work has been seen on over 28 million Pepsi and Mountain Dew cans, in People Magazine, and in The New York Times.
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