The Pathway to Leading Lines: Compositional Techniques to Improve Your Photography

Autumn Trail Creates a Path Into the Forest. (HDR Compilation of 5 images.)

Autumn Trail Creates a Path Into the Forest. (HDR Compilation of 5 images.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Many methods can be employed in the quest to make photographs more engaging, or to draw more attention to the subjects within. One of the most common techniques is the use of leading lines. In the photo above, I used the lines of the log fence to draw the viewer deeper into this autumn scene in The New York Botanical Garden. It makes you feel as though you’re actually walking along the trail and heading deeper into the woods. However, technically, these aren’t really “leading lines.” They form what is more accurately referred to as a “path.” Often used interchangeably, the distinction between leading lines and paths is quite small. Generally, leading lines are like roadmaps that literally lead your eye to a specific point of interest, whereas, paths usually take you to a faraway vanishing point.

The photo below is an example of leading lines. I used the radial blur filter in Photoshop to emphasize the lines of the chrysanthemum. They all point toward the yellow center of the flower, which I deliberately left unaffected by the filter – further strengthening the “all eyes look here” effect.

Leading lines draw attention to the center of this chrysanthemum. (Blur effect created by Radial Blur filter.)

Leading lines draw attention to the center of this chrysanthemum. (Blur effect created by Radial Blur filter.)

One of the things that has always intrigued me about the tropics are the dramatic skies. Being from New York City, I don’t often see skies loaded with large, cumulus clouds as far as the eye can see. Recently, while exploring Dickenson Bay in St. John’s, Antigua, I came across the scene below. I had just walked this stretch of this beach when I decided to turn around and check out the view from the opposite angle. (It really does pay to turn around every now and then.) I was surprised to see that the thick cloud formation perfectly mirrored the curve of the shoreline – creating two natural paths to lead viewers around the perimeter of this tropical paradise.

Curving paths enhance this tropical scene.(HDR compilation of 5 images.)

Curving paths enhance this tropical scene.(HDR compilation of 5 images.)

As I mentioned before, the distinction between paths and leading lines is not always clear. There’s a lot going on in the photo below. Are the tulips leading your eye further into the scene, or does the symmetrical landscaping flanking them serve as an inviting double pathway? Whether viewers of this photo see leading lines or paths, it’s clear that this entrance into the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was designed to welcome visitors.

Leading lines or paths? You decide. (HDR compilation of 5 images.)

Leading lines or paths? You decide. (HDR compilation of 5 images.)

Sometimes, all the leading lines in an image are not immediately evident. The photo below is the underside of a lily I purchased from a local florist. I photographed it in my studio under controlled lighting. As I often do in the field, I sprayed it with water to simulate dew drops. I used a limited depth of field and focused on the cluster of drops at the top of the stem. Being the only thing that was sharp, I knew this would make them stand out as the subject of the photo. I intended to use the stem as a leading line to the drops. However, it wasn’t until I was actually processing the image when I noticed that the veins of the flower were all pointing to the drops like neon arrows – further solidifying the effect I was trying to achieve.

Several leading lines call attention to the dew drops.

Several leading lines call attention to the dew drops.

If you’re having trouble finding leading lines and paths in nature, try combining natural and urban scenes. A few years ago, I used the photo below in an article titled, “Urban Nature,” to illustrate how nature can be found everywhere – even in the heart of New York City. It works equally well here. The distortion of a 16mm fisheye lens created countless leading lines pointing to the floral planter. Everything from the architecture and windows of the buildings to even the red, white and blue strips on a passing mail truck all point to the only natural subject in the scene. Additionally, the flowers themselves act as leading lines, pointing toward the Empire State Building.

Leading lines to a flower display in Midtown Manhattan. (HDR compilation of 5 images.)

Leading lines to a flower display in Midtown Manhattan. (HDR compilation of 5 images.)

When you take the time to look, you will see that leading lines and paths are everywhere. Whether they’re obvious or subtle, they will always add interest (and maybe even a bit of mystery) to your images.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com