There is a fast and ongoing flow between the parts of our brain that interpret the visual stimuli from our eyes, and those that direct the eye as a result, after which the cycle starts again.
Our brain is a big sense maker and evolution has optimised this dance between interpretation and focus. Pattern detection is engrained deep within us. It works consciously but also subconsciously.
This applies to both the photographer and the viewer of the photo. I have taken photos that ‘felt’ good from a compositional point of view without really having worked lines into the frame in a deliberate manner, but afterwards when I reviewed the photo, I could clearly see the line structure that I captured without necessarily being aware of it.
Same goes for the viewer. Sometimes you will be very aware of the line you are following, and sometimes it is so subtle, it happens without you realising it.
Gestalt theory is a psychological framework and outlines a number of laws that guide how we perceive things. Line detection and following a line, once detected, to seek a pattern is key in all of the Gestalt laws.
That is why lines are so much fun to play with. Contrary to some of the other things I’ve learned along the way and will discuss in this series, the practical tips around working lines into your images are short and straightforward. This part of a series on photographic principles I’ve learned over the years—from one amateur to another. Check out my blog for the full series (work in progress). Now, let’s look at some lines.
Lines to follow
This first example is a photo where the line is almost the subject. It is a photo of a wooden walkway next to the Isar river in Munich. The line flows from the bottom right to the top left, or in reverse. This is an example where the line can be followed both ways and the image still works. As we will see in later examples, some lines are unidirectional.
For this image, I stood on a bridge above the walkway. I waited for the two ladies to walk to the bottom end of my frame before I pressed the shutter. Their presence in this bottom half of the frame gives it nice balance together with the other people higher up. In this post I will always repeat the shot, with the lines drawn for clarity.
The walkway is the line in the photo above and any road, railway track or path are usual good lines to look for to use. The next example is another clear use of leading lines. I wanted to capture the bright yellow Berlin subway carriage as it contrasts nicely with the darker part of the station on the right of the image. The tracks provided ideal lines to connect the two. In this case, the flow is unidirectional as they lead to the main subject.
Click on any image to enlarge and view the slide show
The red thread in all of my learning as an amateur photographer is to be aware of the visual elements around you. Lines are no different. The more you train yourself to look for tools to capture scenes, the easier it gets. The next example is a photo I took in Seattle. I liked how the light reflected from the tour bus in front of the concert venue. My eyes noticed the lines along the bus, and I used them to bring a bit more dynamic into the scene.
It doesn’t always have to be this clear and visible. The next photo is from the north of Washington State, on a misty day. The current in the water drew this barely visible line, and with the downward slope of the mountain above it, it works well to guide the eyes along the photo.
The example above does not use lines to bring attention to a subject, but you can use lines for that as well. Below is a photo of my daughter and here I am using the railing on the boat to guide the eyes. It’s quite subtle and works well, also because in this case I lined up the railing along the shoreline, the lining helps to create a division between the green and blue as well.
Lines from multiple angles work the strongest and it is good to assess a scene from all directions. I was aware of the lines in the next photo that were created by the walkway, but only later saw that the lines were mirrored in the roof of the structure, further strengthening the effect.
Once you become aware of the lines, you can’t stop noticing them and work them into your photos. They don’t always have to be straight. The photo below was taken in a staircase in Hamburg. I liked the sign and wanted to use the flow of the staircase to draw attention to it.
If you are not actively aware of lines in your composition yet, I hope these photos have helped you see them so you can experiment more with lines in your own photos. It took me a while to learn this lesson but it has helped me to make much better photos with clear composition with intent instead of random framing around a subject.
I think the photos speak for themselves, below are some more examples of working with lines.