A simple compositional element known as 'leading lines', when applied, can have a significant impact on the overall visual appeal of your image

Beginner

First of all, what is a leading line in photography? Simply put, it is a line in your image that guides the viewer's eye to the point of interest in the frame.

Leading lines are very effective at guiding the viewer through the image as the eye will naturally follow lines, and the best use of leading lines send the viewer to the main focal point in the picture. You can also use leading lines to add depth and perspective to your photo–and they don’t necessarily need to be straight, solid lines. You can incorporate them into your composition in various imaginative ways to make it part of your photo's overall story.

You don’t need to look far either to find leading lines to include in your shots. Once you start searching for them, you’ll see them everywhere. This guide will show you some of the different types of leading lines and how you apply them to your images.

- Converging lines


Converging lines are when two lines come together to meet at a point. Include this type of leading line in your compositions when you want to add a sense of perspective to your shot, and/or if you want to draw the viewer to a vanishing point. See the examples below:

Lines in the rocks at Elgol leading to the Black Cullin mountains across the bay
Lines in the rocks at Elgol leading to the Black Cullin mountains across the bay with added leading lines to show the compositional technique
The linear formation of the rocks in this shot by Rick Bowden beautifully converge to lead the viewer toward the mountains in the distance
Concrete convergence photographed from underneath a bridge
Concrete convergence photographed from underneath a bridge,  with added leading lines to show the compositional technique
Converging lines will bring a sense of perspective to your compositions as seen in this shot by jscwartzwald and can lead the viewer to a vanishing point on the horizon

- Horizontal lines


These are especially effective in landscape format pictures, and when you want to guide the viewer through the scene from one side of the image to the other.

The colourful windows of a building in Singapore
The colourful windows of a building in Singapore with added leading lines to show the compositional technique
There's a of elements to this shot by Gordon Koh–but the horizontal leading lines throughout help guide the viewer across the scene and to the figure in the centre of the frame
A dramatic shot of the gorgeous Stokksnes in amazing winter light
A dramatic shot of the gorgeous Stokksnes in amazing winter light with added leading lines to show the compositional technique
The strong band of light across the mountain range in this image from Alexandra is a strong draw to the focal point of the scene–while also supported by other leading lines created by the movement of the water in the foreground

- Vertical lines


Vertical lines are particularly striking form of leading line. They lend themselves well to abstract scenes, or with shots of the urban environment as they can also add a sense of scale to the scene.

Passenger airplane cruising in the sky leaving contrails behind it
Passenger airplane cruising in the sky leaving contrails behind it, with added leading lines showing the compositional technique
The jet trails in this shot by Liam Matter create stunning leading lines to draw the eye up toward the place
A train makes its way between towering buildings in the golden light of the sun, Chicago, USA
A train makes its way between towering buildings in the golden light of the sun, Chicago USA, with added leading lines to show the compositional technique
This spectacular image by Benjamin Suter incorporates strong vertical leading lines from the sun to the subway car with the help of the skyscrapers present in the scene

But vertical lines aren't just for cityscapes or when you want to make a statement. They work for a range of subjects, even something as delicate as macro photography.

Ladybug Coccinella septempunctata resting on a dry blade of grass
Ladybug Coccinella septempunctata resting on a dry blade of grass with an added leading line to show the compositional tecnhique
The vertical line of reed creates a beautiful leading line up to the principal subject of the ladybird. Image by Tiberiu Sahlean

- Curved and zigzag lines


Leading lines in your compositions don’t need to be straight. In fact, some of the best uses of leading lines are those where they are curved, zigzag, or otherwise atypical. This is where you can add an extra creative flair to your compositions.

A colourful sunrise at Winnats Pass with a cloud inversion developing early on. A long exposure helped to capture the light trails of an emerging car
A colourful sunrise at Winnats Pass with a cloud inversion developing early on. A long exposure helped to capture the light trails of an emerging car, with an added leading line to show the compositional technique
The beautiful curve of the leading light trail entering the cloud inversion is what makes this shot spectacular. Photo by Jermaine Reid
Long exposure image of the curved sea defenses at Felixstowe, England
Long exposure image of the curved sea defenses at Felixstowe, England, with added leading lines to show the compositonal technique
Use curved elements that converge for additional dramatic effect–image by Richard Bowden
Drystone walls in Horsehouse in the Yorkshire Dales
Drystone walls in Horsehouse in the Yorkshire Dales, with added leading lines to show compositional technique
The zigzag of the drystone walls creates the perfect leading line to the stone barn in this rural scene by John Lever


- Diagonal lines


Placing lines diagonally through your image will create a strong draw to the main subject and can give your images a touch of the dramatic. Also, when diagonal lines are used to guide the eye from the foreground of the image to a subject in the background, they will also add an additional layer of depth to the composition.

One of the many fishing boats left to rot on the beaches at Dungeness.
One of the many fishing boats left to rot on the beaches at Dungeness, with added leading lines to show compositional technique
The diagonal lines created by the old railway lines add to the dramatic look of this shot by Lloyd Austin
Bonus tip:

Place you camera close to the ground to get an even stronger sense of depth and perspective when using converging or diagonal lines in your composition.

3 kids waiting in Cape Town, South Africa
3 kids waiting in Cape Town, South Africa with added leading lines showing compositional techniqueo
The diagonal lines provide a strong and unique lead through for this group portrait by Marcelo Lutter-Paz


- Implied lines


An implied line is when a group of objects or elements in your composition come together to form a linear path. They act the same way as other leading lines by drawing the viewer to a specific part of your frame–however, these types of lines tend to be much more subtle.

New York City long exposure at Golden Hour
NYC long exposure at Golden Hour with added leading lines to show compositional technique
The stones in foreground create an inconspicuous leading line to the cityscape in the background with this shot by Dan Martland


- Objects as leading lines


Sometimes a single object can act as a leading line. Take this example below where the driftwood is perfectly paced for guiding the viewer through the scene:

Washed up driftwood and pebbles make for a textured foreground as The Remakables are almost swallowed by low clouds; Queenstown, New Zealand
Washed up driftwood and pebbles make for a textured foreground as The Remakables are almost swallowed by low clouds; Queenstown, New Zealand. With added leading lines to show compositional technique.
The foreground object is ideally placed to lead the viewer through this landscape shot by Jarryd Bravo

Where to find leading lines?


As seen in the visual examples above–you can find a significant amount of leading lines in the everyday environment around you. But if you're looking for a springboard to get started, here are some ideas for where you can find strong linear elements:

- The built environment: skyscrapers, roads, railway lines, tunnels, bridges, power lines, rooftops, stairways, benches, viaducts

- The great outdoors: waterfalls, rivers, streams, trees, fields, sand dunes, lakes, tracks

- The coast: piers, jettys, rockpools, seaweed, waves, sea defences, cliffs

And for even more inspiration, there are thousands of beautiful examples of leading in Picfair's Marketplace here.

Next steps


Now you know the basics of how leading lines work, the best thing you can do is to get out there with your camera and experiment with them in your compositions. As with anything in the world of photography–the more images you take, and the more you practice with adding leading lines to your compositions, the more you'll see your images improve.