How to Use Strong Lines in Photography Composition

composing photographs with lines.

Making use of strong lines in photography compositions creates strength, adds peace, guides a viewer’s eye, and much more. You have to be aware of the lines, either real or implied, so you can include them most relevantly in your images.

Good photography composition has many guidelines. Sometimes these are called rules. However, I don’t believe creative photography should be bound to using rules. Instead, taking the ideas of good composition can lead us to incorporate lines into our photos in more creative ways.

Seeing strong horizontal or vertical lines as we are composing the images, we need to think about how best we can use them. Trying to fit lines in photography to conform to some rules can lead to compositions that look rigid and unimaginative.

Take time to consider how best to include leading lines, curved lines, diagonal lines, or any other real or implied lines in our photos. This will lead to stronger images. The rules of composition exist because they are tried and true. They work when you apply them well. Sometimes it will be best to ignore converging lines if they will not support your main subject or enhance your image.

Lines in photography are an important composition element. Shape, form, and space influence photography composition also. The more aware you are of how these elements interact within your images, the better photos you will take.

Let’s take a look at 7 of the best ways to make use of strong lines in photography.

1. Using Horizontal Lines in a Picture

Using horizontal lines in a picture is one of the most common uses of lines. In landscape photography, the horizon is often a composition feature that anchors the overall image. Where you choose to position the horizon line in your photo strongly influences how the landscape appears.

The rule of thirds encourages you not to position the horizon line in the vertical center of your image. Placing the horizon one-third of the way from the top or up from the bottom of your frame controls how other elements in your composition appear. Managing the relationship of the horizon line is most important in landscape photography. If your horizon is not horizontal, your pictures will immediately look unbalanced to the viewer’s eyes.

Horizontal lines can be used well in many genres of photography. They can convey a sense of stability and rest. They can also promote the notion of movement in photos. Horizontals can create separation within a photo. The thickness of a horizontal line in an image impacts how the viewer’s eye perceives it.

In cultures where people read from left to right, how viewers see photographs is influenced by this direction along a horizontal line. Using horizontal lines in a photo will guide the viewer’s eye in the direction they naturally want to move. The viewer’s attention is subconsciously guided by the horizontal line in the composition.

Be aware of how your main subject intersects with a strong horizontal line. For example, if you are making a portrait and have a horizontal line passing behind your subject’s neck, this can be very distracting. 

woman in traditional costume with strong horizontal lines in the composition.
Strong horizontal lines © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Key Tip: Changing your position, higher or lower, will affect where your horizontal lines appear in an image in relation to other elements. Tilting your camera up or down will also change this relationship.

Examples of Horizontal Line Use

There are more ways to include horizontal lines in your photos than there are horizontal lines. How you frame them within the four edges of your composition determines a lot about how they influence the rest of the image.

Here are some examples of how horizontal lines are integral in composition.

Architectural Lines

architectural lines.

The horizontal lines in this photo of the view looking out to the islands provide stability. The low wall and the horizon around the image. The shadow at the base of the wall emphasizes it and helps to anchor it. 

The horizontal lines are all broken or interrupted, but this does not diminish their impact on this composition. The vertical lines on the dark blue gate help to give the impression of orderliness. The arch on the top of the gate and the ones in the other architectural features soften the design and help you relax and enjoy the view. 

Having the horizon cut through the center of the frame is a bold choice, and it works well in this image. If there was more sky, the impact of the wall and gate would not be the same. With the horizon placed on the upper third, there would be too much bland, gray pavement in the foreground. The big blue sky above the dissecting horizon provides a sense of freedom while still having a solid foundation in the lower half of the image.

A Floating Coffee Cup

floating lines.

The very shallow depth of field used in this photo makes it look almost like the coffee cup is floating. The horizontal line provides an anchor to the cup as it divides the tabletop and the blurred elements in the background.

This use of a strong horizontal, even though the line is blurred, still helps give the composition some stability. The careful point of view used places the line well in relation to the cup and saucer. Had the camera been a little higher or a bit lower, the horizontal line would have dissected the cup, or maybe not at all. If the line had cut halfway through the cup, this would have disrupted its flow. Placing it at this angle, your eye is drawn effortlessly from left to right along the line.

How lines intersect and interact with other elements in your compositions is always important to consider. Raising your camera higher or lower can significantly alter the perspective. This changes how the various elements associated with the line. Even as much as a centimeter or two can make a significant impact on an image. Tilting or turning your camera a little can also have a similar effect. When you include more than one strong line in a photo, this relationship becomes more complex.

So when you include strong lines, move your camera around as you compose your photos. Look at how your point of view places the lines in the frame. Look also at how the lines interact with other things in your frame. If they are conflicting in a way you are not pleased with, try moving your camera a bit to see what difference this can make.

Looking through your camera as you view the relationships between lines and other elements in your photos is important. When you view the same scene without looking through your camera, it looks different. This is because you are seeing it with both eyes, so the perspective you see, especially when things are closer to you, will not be the same. Looking through your lens, you see the scene with the properties of the lens and from a single perspective. The distortion of a wide-angle lens or a telephoto lens can affect lines in your compositions.

2. The Power of Vertical Lines in Photography Composition

Vertical lines used well in photography can produce a sense of power and strength. They can also suggest a refined elegance. A lot of how vertical lines are perceived has to do with their placement in a photo and the thickness of the lines.

Thicker, heavier vertical lines can dominate a photograph. They influence other elements in an image differently than thin vertical lines. Think of large, straight trees, power poles, or vertical lines in architecture.

Thinner verticals can evoke more gentle feelings yet still express orderliness. Singular thin vertical lines or groups of them produce diverse effects in an image. Think of tall grass, slats on a fence, or vertical window blinds. The patterns they create command a viewer’s attention when used well in photographs.

How you incorporate vertical lines into your images can control the look and feel of the whole photograph. Well-used verticals can support or frame the main subject of your photos. They can also provide an interesting background that helps isolate subjects.

Thinking about how a heavy vertical line takes prominence in any image is important. Vertical lines can divide an image and create either balance or imbalance in the process. Placing a vertical dead center has a very different impact than placing it on a third line or nearer the edge of a composition.

Vertical lines can be used to guide the viewer’s eye from the bottom to the top of an image. This is more common than drawing the viewer’s attention down from the top. It does depend somewhat on what else you include in the composition.

Lines in photography illustrated by Hmong artwork.
Vertical lines made by looking down from above © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Key Tip: Take time to experiment with where you place a strong vertical line in your photographs. It can make or break a good picture. A slight movement of your camera to the left or to the right can mean the difference between a strong composition and a weak one.

Examples of Vertical Line Use

Like horizontal lines, verticals are also very common and can greatly enhance the feeling in a photo when well used. Taking time to contemplate strong vertical lines can help you best decide how to frame them. Think about their effect on other elements in your frame. Look at what intersects with them. How will you frame the lines? Are they a major or minor part of your image?

The Power of Lines in Nature

natural lines.

Strong, straight, tall tree trunks immediately provide a sense of power and strength. In this photo, the path appears as a vertical line which also adds to this feeling. Without any other strong lines to conflict with the verticals, the intensity of the lines is undiminished.

As the path leads our eye into the distance and provides depth, we are still surrounded by the thick, upright tree trunks. This continuance of the strong verticals enhances the effect. The contrast between the bright greens and the dark trees builds on the strength they emanate. As does the softness of the foliage.

When building a composition around the use of a particular style of line, don’t interrupt the line. The fewer interruptions the lines have, the greater their impact on the image is. In the photo above, the lines are not broken by any other strong lines. The green foliage does not have a strong disruptive influence on the vertical lines because it is so much softer. This makes the trees stand out.

Had the path cut across the frame and not appeared as a vertical line, the power of the trees would have been lessened somewhat. If there was a fallen tree in the scene, this also would have weakened the vertical strength of the tree trunks.

The more pure the use of any type of line in a composition, the stronger the effect is.

Interrupted Vertical Lines

In the two photos below, the strong vertical lines they contain are interrupted. In one image, diagonal lines, and in the other, a contrasting curve. The effect this has on each image tends to lessen the power of the vertical lines. I think the first photo of the building with the diagonals at the roof line retains more of its strength than the second photograph. The curved line that caps off the building adds softness and creates a gentle sense of movement. 

building structures.

In both photos, the nature of the vertical lines is very similar. They are both tall buildings. Both have an inward lean due to the low angle they were taken from. But we know they are truly vertical. The light and dark contrast of the lines on both buildings adds to their strength. The most significant difference in how we perceive the two photos is because the roof line on each is different.

vertical lines.

3. Get Your Photographs Moving with Diagonal Lines

Horizontal and vertical lines imply stability and strength. Diagonal lines give a sense of movement or tension. They can be used to divide a frame and draw the viewer’s eye deeper into a composition.

One of the simplest ways to create diagonals is to tilt your camera. Holding your camera off-axis turns horizontal lines and verticals into diagonal lines. This type of framing is often called a Dutch Tilt and will alter the feeling of an image containing strong lines. When you have a composition with bold horizontal lines, and you tilt your camera, the implied stability vanishes. The same happens with the strength of verticals in a tilted composition.

diagonal lines.

It’s easy to find instances of diagonal lines that can be paired with horizontals and verticals. Railings on stairs give you horizontal treads and a strong diagonal of the handrails. Diagonal power lines intersect with the strong vertical of a power pole. The combination of these different types of straight lines can add tension to a photograph.

Diagonal lines featured in photographs can help create a sense of movement as they tend to draw a viewer’s attention deeper into the photo. Diagonal lines can sometimes appear as converging lines. I’ve covered these in a separate section later in this article.

portrait of a women.

Taking portraits, you can pose your subject so their arms and/or their legs create diagonals in your photo. Having someone place one of both of their hands on their hips or head adds movement to an otherwise static pose. Legs outstretched or bent at the knee also produce diagonals that you can make interesting use of.

Examples of Diagonal Line Use

Using diagonals in landscape photography is a great way of adding depth. Use them to draw the gaze of a viewer to or from the focal point. The focal length lens you choose when including diagonal lines in your photos has a critical effect on how they appear.

Perspective Matters

perspective and point of view.

Using a wide-angle lens can exaggerate the sense of depth. Think of getting low down to the ground beside a road or close to the side of a building. The closer your lens is to the line, the more prominent it is in your composition. It also looks like it is disappearing into the distance more quickly than if your camera was a bit further away from the line.

a different point of view.

From a standing position in the same location, the road looks a lot different. So does the effect of the diagonal line it makes. Both of these photos were taken with a 20mm lens. Had I used a longer lens, the diagonal would not have been so strong in the composition. A long focal length would compress the view and lessen the impact the line has in the photo.

Creating Depth

creating depth along the lines.

The small boat in this photo anchors your vision before the diagonal line leads you off for a walk along the empty beach. Notice how the line of the sea meets the sand near the right side of the frame. It then forms another diagonal line that takes your eye, and your imagination, further into the distance. This creates both depth and a sense of movement. Had I stood, I was directly facing the ocean to take this photo, the lines would have been horizontal. This would have given a completely different feel to the picture.

I did make a series of images of this boat before strolling along the beach. Finding an interesting subject, it’s good photography practice to take photos from different angles. Try framing it in different ways. Watch as you move how the relationship between your subject and background changes. Often the first angle you think of is not the most interesting. It’s just the most obvious. As you move around a subject like this boat, look for alternative ways to frame it.

Here I wanted to show the beach and how wide open it was. I wanted to highlight how empty and lonely looking it appeared. Using the strong diagonal lines along with the empty boat, the feeling of being alone on a long beach is conveyed well.

Using the Dutch Tilt Technique

Tilting your camera to make horizontal and vertical lines appear as diagonals in your photos can dramatically alter the feel of a photo. Here are two photos of the same window in a corridor of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. 

strong and solid lines.

This one, conventionally framed, is pretty standard. The first way I thought to frame this photo. The strong lines and pattern make a solid image. It’s strong, has been there for hundreds of years, and is not changing. The photo is simple and implies a firm feeling. This is not going anywhere.

For this second composition, I crouched down and got in closer to the window. I tilted my camera so the vertical lines would appear to lead off toward the top right of the frame. This creates a sense of movement. Your eye is drawn from the bottom left to the top right of the photo. The contrast and pattern help retain the strength. But by tilting my camera, I have given the composition permission to take your eye through the image.

diagonal lines in photography on the bridge at night.
Dutch tilt used to create diagonal lines © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Key Tip: Be purposeful when using diagonal lines in your photography. Poorly framed, a diagonal line can appear awkward. This is especially so if you are using a Dutch Tilt. Make sure your camera angle looks intentional; otherwise, a diagonal line made from a horizontal or vertical line can look like a mistake.

4. The Nature of Curved Lines in Photos

Curved lines in photography suggest slowing down and softening. Unlike straight lines, an S curve doesn’t represent the rigidity of a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. A viewer’s attention will travel more slowly along a curved line than between different points on a straight one. Just as you can’t drive along a winding road as fast as a straight one.

Much of nature is not straight. It’s full of curved lines. They might be an s curve or a more simple curve. Think of the seashore or a river. Tree branches, leaves, and flowers. Clouds in the sky, mountains, and rolling hillsides. Animals, insects, and the human figure. All are curved.

How you choose to include curves in your photos has an influence on how viewers will perceive them. You can minimize or accentuate how curved a line is by where you position your camera in relation to it. Looking at a low angle along a curved line it will show less shape than if you are above it, looking down or below it, and looking up.

As with diagonal and converging lines (yes, I’m getting to these), curved lines show a sense of movement and can guide the viewer through an image. Positioning a curve at the peripheral of your frame, especially on the left, will capture the attention of a viewer. It will draw their gaze deeper into the photograph.

Working a series of curved lines in photography adds a special feeling of gentle movement, like tall grass swaying in the breeze of ripples on a pond. When curves are arranged, they flow together, providing a calming effect in an image. However, breaking this flow with other curved or straight lines can have quite the opposite effect.

curved lines in photography close up of banana tree trunk section.
Curved lines in nature © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

The Elegance of an S Curve

S curves can add a special elegance to a composition. They introduce a gentle softness to landscape photos and can be found all around you. 

This type of curved line does not have to conform to the shape of an S. It’s any line that curves back and forth in that general shape. You will find them in paths and tracks. Rivers, streams, and coastlines. Products, graphic designs, and roadways. And, of course, the human body.

s curve lines.

Some important things to think about when composing with S curves are:

  • What intersects with the S curve?
  • Where are the lines leading the viewer’s eye?
  • What else is in the frame, and how do these elements relate to the curve?
  • Where does the curve begin and end?
  • How prominent do you want the S curve to be in your composition?

Examples of Curved Line Use

example of a curved line.

The strong diagonal running through this photo with the more gentle curved lines of the leaf emerging from it brings a softness to its strength. The tonal patterns created by the backlighting also add to this softness. Curved lines are everywhere in nature. This is why it can be so calming for us to walk in natural environments. The opposite is so in large cities and built-up urban areas.

implied lines making a triangle shape.

Of course, you can find plenty of man-made things with wonderful curves. I’ve always enjoyed photographing bicycles. Their lines and shapes are wonderful, as a whole or as close-ups. Full circles, like the wheels and the window, are a special curve line. The closed curve and their symmetry mean we can use them in a great variety of ways in our photographic compositions.

In this image, I loved the combination of straight and curved lines. The strong horizontals and vertical lines work well together with the circles. The diagonal lines of the bike frame create an implied triangular shape, as to the wheels and round window. The color and tone combinations in the composition also help make this an interesting photograph.

Key Tip: Whether you’re photographing a woman’s portrait, the clothes she wears, or waves crashing on the beach, think of how you can make the best use of these curved lines. The impact of an s curve can be accentuated or diminished by how you frame them in your compositions. Where you hold your camera in relation to the curves is important.

5. Collision Illusion of Converging Lines in Images

Converging lines in photography composition often don’t ever really collide. Typically lines that appear to join together as they recede into the distance remain parallel. There’d be lots of train wrecks if they didn’t.

Creating the illusion of sets of parallel lines, straight or curved, merging as they trail off into the distance is popular. Think of classic images of railroad tracks, long straight roads, looking up between skyscrapers.

The convergence of parallel lines in photographs is a misconception that, if used well, can help develop a greater sense of depth to an image. We know railway tracks are parallel, but in many photographs, they do not appear to be.

This is all a matter of perspective. Where you stand with your camera to photograph parallels determines how they look in your pictures. When your camera is also parallel to the plane the lines travel on, they will not appear to converge. To photograph a railroad track like this, you’d need a drone or be standing at a right angle to the tracks.

To photograph a tall building and keep its vertical lines from converging, you’d need to have your camera level with it. The alternatives are using a tilt-shift lens or bellows when taking the photo. Or correcting the convergence in post-production.

two white flowers and converging lines.
Converging lines with flowers © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Of course, not all converging lines are parallel. Many times you will find examples of converging lines that do actually meet and cross over. The length of the lines and how you include them in your composition are important. When the point of convergence is very close, the effect will not be so strong. There will be little sense of depth given to the photo.

One key thing to remember when composing with converging lines is to be creative and as original as possible in how you include them. As with any popular composition technique, it’s often best not to use it as the main feature of your photo. Finding converging lines that will support the main subject and add depth to an image will give it more visual impact. We’ve all seen so many photos of railroad tracks converging in the distance. Do we really need to see another photo of the same?

Using a wide angle lens and getting close to the lines exaggerates the appearance of convergence. You can also choose to be more subtle in your use of this technique. Put a medium or long lens on your camera to photograph converging lines. Look at them from a different perspective. How can you include them, so they are less obvious but still contribute to adding depth to your composition?

Examples of Converging Line Use

In this photo, I used the police barrier to help create a sense of depth. The silhouetted figures are very flat. The buildings provide some sense of depth, but it is not strong. Positioning myself carefully. I framed the fence, so it ran diagonally from the bottom left and appears to converge off in the distance. This gives the image more depth. The implied motion of the people walling works together to help create this illusion.

In this photo, the lines don’t actually converge, but they have the effect of giving the picture more depth. The contrast of the floor where it meets the walls and the lines of tiles draw us into the photo. The darkness of the tunnel and the monk who seems to be pointing in that direction also add emphasis.

Key Tip: Be careful to use converging lines well in your photographs. It’s easy to reproduce tired clichés with this technique.

6. Leading Lines Draw Viewer’s Eyes Into Your Photographs

Leading lines in photography, much like converging lines, can be any type of line, straight or not. As the name implies, leading lines lead you somewhere. Usually, this composition technique guides a viewer to look at the main subject matter of a photograph. 

Implied lines can also be learning lines. In a composition with one person looking intently at something, we would tend to first look at the person’s face and then at what they are seeing. Their gaze acts as a leading line to draw our attention to a specific part of the composition.

You can find leading lines just about everywhere you look. How you compose a line makes it a leading line or not. Leading lines are in nature and in cities. You can use them in portraits, still life, macro, and any other type of photography.

Lines leading directly to the subject of a photo make the photographer’s intention plane. The lines lead our gaze to the intended subject matter. We find it hard not to look at it. How you frame the lines and the subject impacts how strong the influence is on the viewer.

You can also have a lot of fun when you use leading lines to draw attention to alternative elements in an image. With two subjects, you might not be able to balance them. But by using a leading line, you can manipulate the viewer’s attention to the secondary subject matter. Lines leading to something further away from the camera can help give it more prominence in a composition.

How you position your camera in relation to the lines in your composition has a distinct influence. It affects how they are to lead a viewer’s attention to your intended place in the photograph.

How you position your camera in relation to the lines in your composition has a distinct influence. It affects how they are to lead a viewer’s attention to your intended place in the photograph. The relationship between the line and your subject depends a lot on where you take the photo from. From one perspective, the line may lead to your subject. If you move and change your camera angle, the line may not lead anywhere. 

man holding a child as he points to something, creating a leading line.
Leading line of a pointing hand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

You must choose how to use the line or lines and position yourself to make the most of them. Think about how you want the line to connect with your subject. Do you want it at one end or the other? Or part way along the line?

How will depth of field influence the effect of a leading line? Creating a deep depth of field, the line and your subject will be more in focus. The line is more prominent in your composition. If you use a shallow DoF, some or much of your line may be out of focus. This will be more pronounced with lines that are perpendicular to your camera. Lines parallel to your position and the same distance away as your subject will most likely remain in focus even with a shallow depth of field.

There are no set rules because every instance is different. You may want to guide a viewer to look more to the left of an image than to the right. You may place your main subject off into the distance and use leading lines to direct attention to a subject that appears small and a long way off.

Examples of Leading Line Use

leading lines.

The two lines of flags lead our eyes to the base of the minaret, which then leads our eyes heavenwards. Tilting my camera was necessary. I wanted to position the lines of flags in the top corner of the composition and create the desired effect of the leading lines. The fact that all the lines are diagonals also helps create the flow in this photo.

Had I held my camera horizontally or vertically, there would not be the same sense of motion in the photo. Because the lines are not parallel with the edges of my frame, the composition is more interesting.

train passing through the mountains.

Even though the train is heading towards us, our eye is drawn back through the photograph to the mountains in the distance. The lovely S curve helps create more depth and guides our gaze through the forest and beyond. The trees breaking the line of the tracks and the train do not hinder the flow. Notice the diagonal line of tree tops coming down into the frame a third of the way down the right side of the frame. This helps continue the line of the train into the distance.

Key Tip: Using leading lines in photographs well, you must be intentional about where you want a viewer to pay attention. Guiding a gaze through an image for it to land nowhere can make a weak composition. But if that’s what you think works best, there’s nothing wrong with taking a photograph this way. Leading lines photography is popular, so, again, avoid the tired clichés.

7. Composition Using Implied Lines

Implied lines are those guides in photographs that are not actual lines at all. This type of line has no physical existence but nonetheless still acts as a significant element in compositions.

Most often implied lines are created by the gaze of a person, creature, or statue. Movement can also often form implied lines in a photograph. This type of line is rather abstract and depends often on how a viewer studies a photo.

At first glance an implied line may not be obvious. Clever use of these virtual lines in photography can provide the viewer a sense of mystery. But, if they are not paying attention, the path of this line may not be apparent. Used well, implied lines can make the illusion of a path from a single point and create depth in an image. They can also add a great sense of motion.

girl with a parasol looking across the frame of the photo creating an implied line.
Her gaze creates an implied line © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Combining actual lines and implied lines in the same composition has the effect of strengthening the effect of both. In the photo above the girl is looking horizontally. Her gaze is mirrored by the soft horizontal lines of the layers in the rice field. This draws the viewer’s attention to the open space in the image. I have often used this space to place text that advertises our photography workshops and our bed and breakfast.

People looking or something moving in a particular direction create implied lines. These often need space. As in the image above, the negative space leaves room for the implied line. You have to be very careful when cropping off an implied line in a composition. It can be done, but it’s best when it’s intentional.

People taking photos are classic examples of good implied lines. You naturally want to look in the direction the camera is pointing. This is especially so when there’s some negative space creating a void for your eyes to follow.

Photographing lines that you can’t see takes some time and practice. Once you start thinking about using implied lines you will develop the photography skills that will add interest to your images.

Make the Best Photographs by Using Lines Well

You can study as many photography tips as you like. But until you get to a point where you use them to really add interest to an image your photography skills will not fully develop. 

Photographing lines is easy once you become aware of how much they can affect how a viewer will enjoy your photography. Lines and shapes are the essentials making up any composition. The more aware you are of any kind of prominent line and use them well in your photos, the more compelling your images will be to viewers. Making good use of lines that are not so prominent is another way to add fresh dynamic and interest to your photographs.


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