52 Photo Tips #17: Use leading lines

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This is the 17th post in a series in collaboration with Film’s Not Dead.

Photography draws much from the rules of painting. One of the most important is the use of leading lines.

When our eyes see a line, they instinctively move along it, seeking to follow it to the end. Painters and artists have used it to great effect – creating what’s known as the ‘vanishing point’. And for photographers, those leading lines are everywhere – both in the man-made world and the natural.

Using leading lines – a road, a fence, the sweep of a shoreline – is one of the easiest ways to make an image more powerful.

Leading lines really come into their own in landscape and street photography. A lot of great photographers use the tried and trusted trick of a leading line that draws the eye up through the composition. And that leading line could be a fence or a row of cars, or a wet road glinting in the sunshine. Anything to help draw the eye through the scene.

Shooting travel and in urban locations, leading lines add drama to even the most ordinary street – and can really help push your eyes towards your subject. Find great light and the effect is only heightened.

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The blurred sea wall draws you eye to this yacht on Dublin Bay

The image at the top of this post was taken on a bright winter’s day back in 2012, in London’s swanky South Kensington. The leading line of the fence is added to the flare from the winter sun – and the string of car lights, blurred thanks to the wide-open aperture.

Leading lines don’t even have to be in focus, either. The shot below was taken on London’s South bank, on a winter’s evening. The open-air book market is a great place to take photos. The area if full of Londoners tourists, people killing time before the theatre, couples out on dates. (Read this post on why you need to visit it if you want to practice your street photography.)

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Look through the work of some of the world’s great photographers – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Garry Winogrand and Rene Burri, just to name a few – and you’ll see leading lines used again and again. One powerful trick you can pick up from them, is the unseen leading line that comes from a person’s gaze. The direction the eyes are pointing can also be a powerful cue.

The shot below was taken last year on a trip to Barcelona. The busker was playing in a local par, and a bunch of kids were dancing along to his songs on the way back home. I waited until the nearest kid looked towards the busker. Snap. It’s not the kid’s smile that suddenly becomes the focus of our attention, but the busker.

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