Drawing Attention With Leading Lines

Photography Techniques

Big Sur Bixby Bridge
James O'Neil / Getty Images

There are a number of great tricks to improve the composition of your photography, and one of the most underutilized of these is drawing a viewer's attention to specific points in an image using what are known as leading lines. Leading lines are natural lines in the image that lead the viewer's eye to another point in the image or, occasionally, out of the frame entirely. Anything with a definitive line can be a leading line including fences, bridges, and shorelines, and their placement within images naturally guides the viewer's attention down their paths in the frame.

It's important to understand how to properly utilize leading lines, though, as they can sometimes lead the viewer's focus out of the frame for no reason or away from core elements. A well-placed leading line paired with a subject that is arranged according to the rule of thirds can yield a truly dynamic, professional-caliber photograph you can be proud of taking.

How to Properly Use Leading Lines

Because lines in photography naturally draw a viewer's attention along the paths they create within the image, it's important to frame your shot in such a way that the lines draw attention to the parts of the image you want them to notice.

If you're out in the field taking photos and realize that a road or fenceline in the image keeps drawing attention away from the subject of your picture, consider moving or repositioning the angle of your shot until the natural line provides more of an accent to the overall focus of the image. For instance, if a road is leading out of the frame to the right but you want your audience to notice the monument on the left, consider moving to the other side of the road where it leads into the frame toward the monument instead.

In the photograph above, there are multiple leading lines that complement one another in terms of overall composition—the horizon line, the paths of the bridge and roads, the line of the bridge's shadow, and the shoreline all lead the viewer's attention along multiple points in and out of the frame, creating a dynamic experience simply by using the rule of threes.

Friends sitting around fire during neighborhood backyard party on summer evening
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Creating Depth With Leading Lines

The above image also accomplishes a lot in terms of creating depth in the image by utilizing the common photography trope of roads leading off in the distance—this creates a sense of space where you feel like you're standing in the image on one side (bottom) looking out to the far side of the bridge and into the infinite ocean in the top right corner of the frame.

Using leading lines correctly can yield dynamic images with a lot of attention-grabbing details to lead a viewer through the moment in time captured in photographs. Most often, leading lines that start in the foreground and move off to the background, getting narrower as they get further away, create the most dynamic effects in an overall image.

Leading lines happen everywhere in nature, so be sure to always be on the lookout for lines that might unintentionally distract the viewer from the central focus of your image. Tall grass, sun rays, cliffs, door frames, and window panes, houses, roads, rivers, bricks, trees, and all sorts of other objects can act as leading lines once photographed, so be aware of how these objects might create depth but also attract the viewer's eye to an undesired point in the photo.

A farmer walks his newly planted corn field
Scott Sinklier / Getty Images