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Using Lines to Improve Photography Composition

Lines are one of the most important design elements in photography and mastering how to use them in your images will go a long way in improving your photography composition. Lines serve many functions in a photograph; if in one picture they act as a very functional element; in another they may serve a very artistic purpose.

line in photography
Photo by: Thomas Hawk

At a functional level lines could be used as dividers, frames, focal points, borders etc and also to unify or accent certain parts of a composition. In some cases lines could even act as the main subject of the photograph. Artistically lines could create a sense of tension, mood and drama thus adding an emotional content to the image. They could also be very effectively used to lead the viewers’ eye through the photograph thus help keep the viewers’ attention focused on the image.

Using Lines to Improve Photography Composition
Photo by: Joe Penniston

Lines are all around us, both natural and manmade; a photographer should learn to seek them out and incorporate them in his/her compositions in a way that adds visual impact to the photographs. However learning how to use lines takes time and practice to master it. One technique that will help you master its use is to make a habit of asking yourselves one question “are there any lines in the scene which form an interesting pattern that I could accentuate so as to add visual interest to the photograph?” before pressing the shutter button.

There are different kinds of lines and each one of them have a different impact on a photograph, let us take a look at some of the most important ones.

Types of Lines and Their Effect on Photographs

Straight Lines

straight lines in photography composition
Photo by: Moyan Brenn

Straight lines attract the viewers’ attention and transfer it from one end of the line to another.  This property of the straight line could be used effectively to direct the viewers’ attention to the most important part of the image. But there is one catch; when there are straight lines in your composition the viewers’ eye travels fast from one end of the line to the other practically ignoring elements in between. The longer and straighter the line is, the faster the eye travels along it. So one need to be extra careful when using straight lines in his/her composition and remember not to place important elements along the lines as the viewers’ eye will most probably skip those areas while travelling from one end of the line to the other.

Vertical Lines

Vertical lines in photography compositions convey a sense of strength, height, integrity, solidity, dominance, power, peace and tranquility, substance or permanence.  They could be used as guide paths, dividers or frames. Composing your shots vertically will lengthen vertical lines and make them appear taller and more impressive. 

vertical lines in photography composition
Photo by: Frank Wuestefeld

The important thing to remember is to keep vertical lines in your composition as straight as possible; this could prove to be tricky (unless you are using a tilt shift lens) when shooting very tall objects due to diminishing perspective when we look up on them. The trick to handle such situations is to keep at least one line in the center straight or completely ignore the concept and compose such that diagonals appear prominent in the picture. 

Horizontal Lines

Horizontal lines in photography compositions convey a sense of width, stability, calm, lazy, security, relaxation, constancy and timelessness. Composing your frame in horizontal format will help further enhance the emotions created by strong horizontal lines. 

horizontal lines in photography composition
Photo by: miuenski miuenski

One thing to remember when you have horizontal lines in your composition is to make sure they are completely level across the frame. Human eyes could easily perceive even a slightly skewed horizontal line and the picture will appear as off balance making the viewers’ feel uncomfortable.

Diagonal Lines

Diagonal lines have a more dramatic, dynamic effect than verticals or horizontals. When verticals and horizontals are restricted to up-down and left right movements diagonals can go in any direction including up down and left right. Thus they can perform functions of vertical and horizontal lines and more and that is what causes the dynamic feeling.

diagonal lines in photography composition
Photo by: Joe Penniston

Diagonal lines are very effective for leading the viewers’ eye into the main subject matter or to create a sense of depth, action or movement in the picture. The effects of diagonals are maximized when they intersect with other lines creating a sense of tension. When vertical and horizontal lines create a sense of stability, calm and peace a series of diagonal lines at slightly different angles create the exact opposite making the picture appear tense, chaotic and unstable.

Converging Lines and Diverging Lines

When lines coming from different parts of a photograph lead towards a common intersection or area, they are called converging lines. Similarly when lines lead away from a common intersection or area, they are called diverging lines. They are strong compositional elements and proper use of converging and diverging lines could create highly artful compositions.

converging lines and diverging lines in photography composition
Photo by: José Luis Mieza

Converging lines could easily create a sense of depth and distance, one can compose the frame in such a way that the lines lead vertically from the foreground to the distance or position them at an angle to convey a sense of motion. 

converging lines in photography composition
Photo by: Barney Livingston

No matter how you position them in your picture, they always lead the viewers’ eye into the frame and placing your main subject where the lines meet would make sure that viewers’ attention is immediately drawn to it.

Curved Lines

Curved lines are another powerful element that could be used to lead the viewers’ eye in to the image. Curved lines reflect emotions of relaxation, nature, sensuality, etc.   However unlike straight lines that draw the viewers’ eye directly into the image, curved lines allow the eye to explore the image in a leisurely manner.

curves in photography composition
Photo by: Julian E

One classic example of curved lines in photography composition is the “S curve” which is an all time favorite of photographers. Shaped roughly like the letter S, the S curve is often used to convey a sense of movement and to divide the scene into two equal parts.

For example

curved lines in photography composition
Photo by: matthew Fang

Imagine two roads, one straight and one with many curves. The straight road simply implies a direct route from point A to point B and thus is uninteresting. But the meandering road conveys a feeling of casual, lazy, relaxed, unhurried journey and thus appeals more to the viewer.

Implied lines or Suggested Lines

Implied lines or Suggested Lines in photography composition
Photo by: Evan Leeson

Implied lines are those that can’t be seen, they can be created or happen naturally without our knowledge but are still a clear part of a composition. In photography implied lines are just as important as visible lines. Suggested lines can be formed as a result from forms and shapes converging or diverging in a way that naturally creates a line or visual path. Also when a person or any living thing is included in the frame the direction in which the eye is looking forms an implied line.

As photographers we need to be aware of these special lines while composing our images, as they are very powerful elements and if ignored could easily weaken an otherwise powerful composition.

Related Reading

  1. Photography Composition Tips – Balance
  2. What is perspective and how can we use it to improve the composition of our photographs?
  3. Using Backgrounds to Improve Your Photography Composition
  4. Using the Foreground to Improve Your Photography Composition
  5. Using Patterns in Photography Composition

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