When we look at a photograph, our eyes are drawn along a visual journey through the scene before us. The route of that visual journey usually follows the path of lines throughout the image—real or implied. Lines not only dictate movement through the frame, they can also bring balance to an image.
Lines are one of the fundamental elements of any photograph along with light, shadow, texture, shape, and form. Lines exist in every photograph. If they are not apparent in the image, they are omnipresent in the framing of the photograph.
We are surrounded by lines. As a photographer, you should be conscious of them as a visual element because they can lead you to something worth photographing.
Where are they? This article consists of lines of text. The images in the article are contained in lines. Lines border the screen on which you are reading these words. The surface that supports your computer screen creates lines in your field of view. Look outside. Lines are natural and artificial; existing in nature and created by humans. Roads, sidewalks, trees, fences, river banks, smoke stacks, power lines, buildings, and homes form lines. Any visible object with a shape is made up of lines. If the object is narrow, it looks like a line. Lines may be curved and bent. Lines may stretch to infinity.
Vertical lines in a photograph add tension to the scene. They also show strength and stability. Horizontal lines provide a sense of calm. Diagonals impart energy and a sense of dynamics to the frame.
Lines in a photograph can be as obvious as anything else in the image. They may also be implied.
Have you ever walked down a street and seen someone looking off at something in the distance? Did you follow their gaze to see what they were looking at? If so, you followed a line (of sight) implied by their gaze. This same strategy can be used in photography as a compositional tool to get the viewer to follow the gaze of a person or animal pictured in your image.
Implied lines can also exist when other elements in a scene create them. You may have three blue objects arranged in your image that call the eye to follow them. Or, a repeated shape or texture in a photograph may form an implied line. Light and shadow can create lines.
The photograph is just a two-dimensional object, but the diagonal lines contained within are what can effectively give an image depth or a sense of dimension. In fact, one could argue that the diagonal lines in a photograph are the most effective visual element to indicate depth. At the same time, a critical mass of horizontal lines can help to indicate lack of depth in an image.
Lines can be self-contained in the image, or they can intersect one or more edges of the frame. Some lines enter the frame and terminate. Some originate from inside the image and terminate at the edges. There are times you want a line to terminate in a corner of the frame. There are other times where termination elsewhere works for the image.
Line(s), patterns of lines, and/or intersections of lines can also be the subject of an image.
In photography, the key is to use the lines in a scene to your compositional advantage. To do this successfully, the lines of an image should lead the viewer’s eye toward a subject. The cliché portrait taken on converging railroad tracks is [a dangerous undertaking—don’t do it] the prime example of using lines to bring the viewer’s eyes to your subject.
The goal of composition is to express the meaning of the image, or make the subject obvious. If lines detract from this, it is time to recompose your shot. As easily as lines can draw you toward a focal point in the photograph, lines can lead you away. Sometimes lines bring you to the subject and then take you elsewhere in the photograph. You want to avoid instances where the lines prevent the viewer from ever reaching the subject.
There are no “rules” for leading lines, other than the rule that the lines you include in a frame should not detract from your subject or from what you are trying to say with an image.
When it comes to the horizon line in an image, the photographer is faced with two questions: 1) should the horizon be level or slanted? And, 2) where in the frame should the horizon line cross the image?
In answer to the first question: the horizon is always level, even if the camera (or photographer) is not.
There are thousands upon thousands of artistic reasons to slant the horizon in a photograph. With some exceptions, buildings are vertical. Without exception, the ocean is horizontal, even when there are huge waves. If you are going to introduce slanted buildings or a slanted ocean, you should have a good reason for doing so.
You will often see slanted horizons in documentary or war photographs due to the dynamic nature of the environment in which the image was made. Often the tilt in these images helps to emphasize the non-static nature of the captured scene.
On the other hand, a pitch of even a degree or two off of level can be noticed in a photograph. This can be distracting for the viewer. In such cases, you might have a difficult time explaining why the shot is not perfectly level, aside from admitting carelessness.
Being only one or two degrees off the horizontal can be distracting.
Today, many cameras have built-in level indicators. Myriad accessory bubble levels, such as the Vello Two-Axis level, the Three-Axis level, and the Low-Profile level, are also readily available to mount on your camera’s hot shoe.
Placement of the horizon within your image is a lot less cut-and-dried than your angle in framing the shot, yet it’s equally important to how the image will be read.
A low horizon line is used to emphasize elements such as a dramatic sky or centers of interest above the horizon. At the other end of the spectrum, a high horizon line tells the viewer that the sky or area above the horizon is not the visual goal of the image; the foreground is. This can be a good opportunity to introduce the Rule of Thirds, since it can sometimes be visually pleasing to place a horizon line at or near the upper or lower third of the frame. However, you are in no way limited to these, or any other line. As the photographer, you may place the horizon where it looks best for your image.
There are many images in which you will not have a true horizon line in the frame. For example, if the sky is blank and what you are photographing exists below the horizon, you can always frame your shot to exclude the sky entirely. Oppositely, if you are capturing a skyscape, you might not want the distraction of the earth in your shot. Regardless, keep in mind that, even with the horizon line out of the frame, horizontal and vertical axes still retain their perpendicular nature.
Should your horizon cross the center of the frame? A lot of folks will say, “Never.” I say that it depends on the image. If the composition is balanced overall, this may enhance the desired effect, especially if the visual interest above and below the horizon is somewhat symmetrical.
Also, just like being slightly off with the angle of the horizon line, placing the horizon just slightly above or below your frame’s mid-point can be distracting and show a lack of attention to the image. Like the integral levels in many modern cameras, digital grid lines in camera viewfinders and on LCD screens can assist us with this aspect of composition.
Like leading lines, for every rule you might invent about horizon lines, there are countless successful images that break those rules, so do not get wrapped around the axle or think that one solution is right and others are wrong.
With lines in composition, there are no rules. See lines when looking for images and use them in your pictures to help make the visual journey to your subject clear for the viewer. Use them to frame and enhance the visual experience of an image. Do not use them to detract or oppose the visual path.
In terms of the horizon, place it where you feel it works best for your composition and be conscious about its placement. If you decide to tilt the ocean, land, or a vertical structure, have a darned good reason for doing so and make sure it is plainly obvious to the viewer why your world was tilted at that moment.
While there are no set compositional rules for using lines in an image, this subject is presented here to help bring lines to the forefront of your photographic consciousness. So, be on the lookout for lines when photographing, but don’t over-think it!
For further examples of Leading Lines and Horizon Lines in photographs, visit this slideshow by photographer, educator, and author Tim Cooper. Cooper’s popular instructional offerings include the training video, Perfect Composition
In June, 2016, Cooper will be a participant in the second annual B&H Optic Conference and the National Parks at Night Photo Workshop series. Stay tuned for full details.