The Concept of Line: an Introduction to Using Lines in Photographic Composition

Understanding a powerful element of visual composition

Odds are, if you’ve been into photography for a while, you’ve probably heard enough about how to use lines in your compositions to feel fairly confident about them. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, there’s a more basic concept that many photographers never learn. Yes, leading lines, vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines and such are important. The thing is, understanding the principles of line in composition will help you see more of these elements and use them to create images with greater impact. In this tutorial, we’ll explore the basis of “line” as a starting point for a series of tutorials on using lines in your photos.

What is Line?

The reason we’re differentiating between line and lines here is important. You see, lines don’t really exist in the three-dimensional world. Consider the image below:

Railroad track example of lines in composition

We perceive the railroad tracks and rails in this photo as lines that recede into the distance. We even know that they’re used as leading lines and that their convergence adds depth and perspective to the composition. What most viewers don’t consider though, is that the lines we’re following don’t actually exist.

Each rail is an object with structure, mass and texture. We could say that the rails follow a line into the image, but where is that  line, actually? It’s in  our minds. The same applies to the vertical rail supports and the horizontal ties. The physical items are there, but the lines we’re perceiving don’t actually exist; they’re only differences in light and shadow.

Now, before you argue that you can draw a line on a piece of paper or scratch one in the dirt, think twice. The “line” on the paper consists of deposits of ink or another substance. The line in the dirt is actually a furrow that creates a shadow.

We create lines by visualizing them.

The points above aren’t meant to be argumentative, but to illustrate that “line”, in visual composition, is a concept rather than a tangible object. We create lines by visualizing them. Knowing that will go a surprisingly long way in helping you recognize and apply lines effectively in your two-dimensional photographs. You’ll begin to see how as our series progresses.

Perceived vs. Implied Lines

Before we move on, let’s stretch the idea a bit more. Our minds create lines in what we see in one of two ways: we perceive a line or we follow an implied one. Don’t let that distinction confuse you; the difference is quite simple. Note that in discussing the previous photo, I said we “perceive” the tracks and rails as lines. That’s because there’s a real object there that our minds can create lines from. Now consider this image:

Implied line - hiker gazing at horizon

There is a perceived line in this image, but it’s overshadowed by the strong attraction to the bright-colored shirt of the hiker. That’s where our eyes are initially drawn. Once there, the direction of her gaze pulls our eyes up toward the horizon. This is an example of an implied line.

…lines can be created in many ways and can be subtle or more obvious.

The photo below shows another example of an implied line, this time with a gesture. Although it doesn’t lead our eyes much deeper in to the image, it still causes a shift in direction that makes the image more dynamic.

Implied line in photo composition

Sometimes, the distinction between perceived and implied lines isn’t clear, although the use of line can be just as effective. Take a look at the image below:

waves creating lines in composition

There are a number of perceived lines in this long-exposure image, starting in the foreground, where they indicate the motion of the waves receding away from the shore. Our eyes follow that subtle arc to the horizon, which is a wonderful example of how apparent direction of motion implies a line. You may also notice that the wide angle lens used for this photo causes the waves and clouds to converge, creating a very strong sense of line leading to the sun and he horizon. Did you notice the perceived lines of the sun’s rays?

Finally, let’s take a look a this image:

Lines in Landscape Composition

Can you spot all the instances of line in this one? There are both perceived and implied lies at work here. Did you notice them the first time you saw the image? This one and the previous image are prime examples of how a wide angle lens and long exposures with ND filters can help enhance the sense of line in a photograph when the right elements are present.

As you can see, lines can be created in many ways and can be subtle or more obvious. Consider how much less effective each of the examples in this lesson would have been without the emphasis on line and you’ll understand what an important concept this is.

With a better understanding of the concept of line, you’re ready to start applying it in new ways…

Get Ready for More!

With a better understanding of the concept of line, you’re ready to start applying it in new ways for more powerful photographic compositions. Whether you’re using leading lines, curves, convergence, diagonals or any perceived or implied lines, you’ll find yourself recognizing and using these important elements as second nature.

In the upcoming tutorials of this series, we’ll explore line types and how they affect your images. Get ready to create more interesting and engaging photos!

Written by Dana Crandell

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