What Makes A Good Photograph Lesson #1: Leading Lines

Leading Lines Lesson Featured Image

Leading lines in photography is an important technique in creating a striking composition. In the start of our series what makes a good photograph great,  we take a look through famous and historical photos that have captured the eyes and imagination of the photography community and dissect and assess them for how they use leading lines in the images to capture an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally evoking image.

Take a look at our first example of the leading lines technique in photography.

Ilford HP5 Train tracks

A nice black and white photo on a crisp morning near some train tracks with fog lingering. Train tracks and train stations are great for experimenting with the leading lines composition practice as there can be much variance between each location in terms of the length of tracks, how straight the tracks are and the structures around them. If you can get these to work together as the photographer has above then you’re going to be happy with the result.

If you pay close attention to the figure in the image you can see that if we were to extend the lines from the train tracks, the fence and the structures nearby, they would intersect with the subject or come very close.

Leading lines Example 1 in Photography

See how many of them line up with the subject? What makes this photograph good is that these lines coincide with the subject in the image. Simple answer, but now you’re probably wondering – Why does that make it a good photograph?

It has to do with how your eye moves around an image.

Firstly, let’s start with the rule of thirds, not a hard and fast rule, but one that is a good technique to get a strong image. The subject falls on about the lower third and the right third doesn’t it? Now take a look at each of those lines again, each are converging toward the subject. The effect of this is to keep your eye in the photograph, the lines acting as a sort of barrier to prevent your gaze from sneaking out of the image. This is exactly what makes this a compositionally striking image, both the number and convergence of these leading lines and the fact that they fall on the subject which roughly follows the rule of thirds.

My only critique to the photographer would have been to move the subject a little higher and to the left in order to capture more of the train tracks and fence in the image since these are a very strong source of leading lines with sharp contrasts.

The following is my example of this. In this instance I’ve used a more 2D approach to the converging lines.

Salad Days In The Pines By Photographer James Grundy
Canon AE-1 Program In The Forest

See how the tops of the trees act as two lines that converge at the location of the subject? A very simple example with plenty of negative space, it looks more 2D in nature than the other photograph above.

Leading Lines By Henri Cartier Bresson

Now let’s take a look at one by Henri Cartier Bresson.

Henri Cartier Bresson Leading Lines 1

An interesting place to make use of the leading lines and it certainly works! A cyclist riding in a velodrome  reading a newspaper with markings on the tracks leading into a clear and near central subject. Take a look below to see the lines.

Leading Lines example with Henri Cartier Bresson

See how Bresson has captured the subject such that many of the lines lead in towards the cyclist. The lines from the velodrome track and those from the fence on the right-hand side all converge toward the rider. Now that makes the photograph compositionally good, what makes this photograph great is that the subject itself is exceptionally unique and candid – a cyclist riding a bike with no hands while casually reading the newspaper. How often do we get to see that?

If you can combine the leading lines technique with an interesting or unique subject this will create a strong photograph. 

Leading Lines By Robert Frank

Here’s another example, this time by Robert Frank one of the street photography greats. We’ve taken a photo from Frank’s period in London, it looks to be early morning with some mist or haze around, a car sits parked on the right of the frame with the rear doors open and a child to the left is running off into the distance.

Robert Frank using lines in his London Photographs

Looking more closely we can notice that the child running along the sidewalk, while quite small, becomes the subject of the image. If we look at the rest of the photograph, many of the lines are converging towards where the child is running. The addition of the car provides some strong contrast to the image and enhances the power of the leading lines.

Leading Lines 1 Robert Frank Marked

I think it’s really smart how Frank has included only just enough of the shadowy building on the left-hand side (marked in red) in order to ‘frame’ the image and make a barrier to prevent the observers eyes from leaving the photograph. Would the image be as striking if this barrier were removed?

Edited

I think it loses some of its appeal, don’t you?

Leading Lines By Josef Koudelka

From the streets of Slovakia we have an interesting example from Josef Koudelka. A couple of Polish troops sit atop a vehicle moving through the streets, all of their faces obscured except one which looks sternly down at a man with his hand raised in what looks like a nazi salute.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters.    Contact email:  New York : photography@magnumphotos.com  Paris : magnum@magnumphotos.fr  London : magnum@magnumphotos.co.uk  Tokyo : tokyo@magnumphotos.co.jp    Contact phones:  New York : +1 212 929 6000  Paris: + 33 1 53 42 50 00  London: + 44 20 7490 1771  Tokyo: + 81 3 3219 0771    Image URL:  http://www.magnumphotos.com/ArchivePICTURE CREDIT:  Josef Koudelka/Magnum

The lines from the street converge onto the pedestrian’s salute (I think they are tram lines) and the overhead cable converge to the arm as well. This is interesting because once the eye focuses on the man and his salute, the arm is pointing directly to the face of a soldier entering on the vehicle.

Edited Josef Koudelka

So Koudelka has creating a visually captivating image here, one in which we could call a closed circuit – the eyes move in on the converging lines to the pedestrian’s salute, then we follow the arm up to the soldiers face whose gaze moves back to the pedestrian.

Where To Incorporate Leading Lines Into Your Photography

There’s a few places you can find leading lines to practise this composition technique:

  • Train tracks or train stations
  • Roads and gutters
  • Fences
  • Tree lines
  • Paths and walkways
  • Bridges
  • Handrails and staircases

Remember the lines don’t have to be straight or curved, as long as they tie together the subject(s) in the image and keep those eyes in the frame, then you’re going to have a solid photograph on your hands.

Video On The Technique In Street Photography

That concludes our lesson on the composition technique of leading lines. Now get out there and apply it to some of your photographs. Don’t forget to follow us on social media and join us for more photography reviews, tips and how-to’s.

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James Grundy

I’ve been photographing for 13 years and have a penchant for 35mm and medium format film. Black and white street photography is my go-to. My work has been featured in online and print media through a few publications like Shutterstock, Brooklyn Resource Mag, Off The Rails and Collective Quarterly.

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