How to Use Strong Lines in Photography Composition

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 good composition ideas can lead us to incorporate lines into our photos more creatively.

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 into 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 we read from left to right, viewers see this direction along a horizontal line influences photographs. Using horizontal lines in a photo will guide the viewer’s eye in the direction they naturally want to move. The horizontal line subconsciously guides the viewer’s attention into 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.

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. However, they influence other elements in an image differently than thin vertical lines. For example, 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 subject matter.

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. For example, 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.

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 tilt your camera, the implied stability vanishes. The same happens with the strength of verticals in a tilted composition.

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

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

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

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

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.

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 influences how viewers will perceive them. You can minimize or accentuate how curved a line is by positioning your camera in relation to it. For example, looking at a low angle along a curved line 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 guide the viewer through an image. Positioning a curve at the peripheral of your frame, especially on the left, will capture a viewer’s attention. 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.
Natural curved lines © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

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.

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. 

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 using 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. In addition, 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. There are no set rules because every instance is different. For example, 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.

man holding a child as he points to something during an evening festival.
Leading line of a pointing hand © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

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 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 often depends 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.

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

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

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.


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