Lines guide the mood and composition of a photograph

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The stairs and hand rail serve as leading lines as well as framing Ben, the subject of the photo.

Effectively using lines to control a photograph’s composition sets the scene for the viewer. Leading lines guide the eye through a photograph, drawing attention where the photographer decides. They draw intrigue, create mood, and serve as the main focus of a photograph and also serve as effective frames. There is a lot of overlap in the types of lines found in a photo, but we will break them down into three main types.

Lines lead the viewer’s eye

When a photographer correctly uses lines, they control the eye of the viewer. Leading lines draw the eye across an image or towards a subject. In an effective composition, these highlight the focus of a photograph. Use care in regards to where the lines are leading. Leading somewhere other than the subject can be messy and distracting for the viewer’s eye.

Pews and an aisle leading to an altar at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Basilica of St. Mary, downtown Minneapolis, is a decadent example of beaux-arts neoclassical architecture.

The pews and the aisle in this photograph lead the eye directly forward, coming together onto the altar at the Basilica. This use of linear perspective helps to frame our subject and clearly indicate it by leading the eyes forward. The columns leading up and the archway also frame the altar from around the top.

A row of bookshelves lead to a man
Long rows of bookshelves serve to lead the eye towards a subject when used well.

Here is a perfect example of leading the eye towards our subject, Ben. Using this technique, along with selective focus (which we used in the framing article in November), designates a clear focus on the distant Ben, despite the fact that the busy row of books take up a majority of the photo. The vertical lines at the end of the shelf rows also help to frame the subject a bit more subtly.

Drawing intrigue and affecting mood

The atmosphere and interest of a photograph will be determined by the lines that show up throughout, sometimes more obvious than others. A photograph may draw the eye into infinity (as seen in the next section). The visible patterns in the photograph affect the mood, whether it’s structured, chaotic, or leaves the viewer with a sense of curiosity.

Typically, diagonal lines add a dynamic element to a photo, jagged are chaotic, and horizontal are more plain and balanced. Vertical lines bring a sense of growth, strength, or even peace.

A line of graves lead to a tall clocktower/belltower of a Catholic Church
The St. Michael Catholic Church, located in the small town of St. Michael, MN, predates the town and is the namesake of the community.

Affecting mood is a matter of composition and content. The diagonal row of graves, albeit slightly macabre, dynamically draw the eye directly to a (mostly) vertical church that juts into the dusky twilit sky. Taking nighttime photos requires extra planning and some unique techniques, as well as typically requiring a tripod.

 

A transmission tower and power lines overlay a wispy sky
Transmission towers and power lines cut through the sky with sharp lines against their surroundings.

This photo has an irregular sense of abstract chaos overlaid against a peaceful, wispy blue sky. The transmission tower cuts up the middle of the photograph and leads the eye directly into a pattern of multiple lines shooting in different directions. At first glance, this photo shows as a sum of its pieces rather than the full object, which exhibits a rough example of abstract photography.

Using lines to frame subjects

Lines serve as effective frames in a photograph. This is often a very intuitive technique that is found throughout all mediums of visual communications. These frames may be subtle or obvious in their presence, though the examples here are immediately apparent.

A spraypainted angel and the words "Ghetto protected" are painted onto a brick wall
Graffiti litters the streets and river bank of St. Anthony Main, a Minneapolis neighborhood.

The brick arch serves to frame the graffiti in this photo, while the nearby branches add some environmental context and extra framing to pull the eye directly into the frame towards the art. Curved lines, such as the arch, also serve as excellent frames around a subject.

Train tracks framed by an iron fence
Train tracks converge into infinity, leaving a sense of curiosity and intrigue.

This photo fits all three examples to some extent, with the lines themselves fitting the role of the subject. The iron fence frames the train tracks, which cut up the photograph in vertical (growth, strength, peace) lines, converging onto a not-so-obvious point in the middle.

With such a general concept, there is a lot to say about lines. What are your opinions? Would you expand on what is said here or did we miss a major aspect of lines in composition? Share your opinions in the comments below.

1 COMMENT

  1. It’s interesting how lines naturally cause our eyes to follow. I didn’t think of photography having to deal with science and human behavior but leading lines is a good example of that, great article!

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