Leading Lines can mislead

Don’t get misled by leading lines.

After a lifetime working as a professional photographer, I still learn something from every photography student who comes to me for tuition. Yes, every single one.

leading lines and subjects
Yes, there is an obvious leading line from the bottom right of the picture, but without the main subject – the fisherman – the picture would have little value

Where’s this leading us?

The other night I had a chap who seemed over-keen on leading lines. It was during a Night Photography Workshop, and we were in an interesting cobbled corner in Shrewsbury; a place I knew could produce some worthwhile pictures. I asked the photographers to look around and tell me what they could see that might make a good subject.

This chap thought for a moment then told me he wanted to photograph the leading lines created by the stone gully that curved up the cobbled street and disappeared round the corner.

“But what are the lines leading to?” I asked.

He pointed to the upper storey of a dark, empty building. It was all but invisible in the darkness.

I realised that he had seen the curved line in the cobbles as a worthwhile subject in its own right. The lines were his entire subject. There was nothing else to attract or hold the eye.

I’m afraid that’s just not enough. I would advise that you seek out ‘subjects’ first and then think about how those leading lines can take your viewer’s eye to it. How they might enhance that main subject. Frankly, they are not always necessary.

leading lines in photography
A colourful images, and a distinct diagonal line, but I just would not have bothered pressing the shutter if the woman had not been the main subject. Photograph by Philip Dunn

Think subject first – not leading lines

I have a notion that the tendency to attach too much importance to leading lines might be influenced by some photography competitions, and the way some of the competition judges assess composition. I’ve heard of hopeful entrants losing marks because there are no obvious leading lines in an image. How many times have I heard my students say, “But there are no leading lines!” when I have guided them towards a really interesting subject?

Much has been written about leading lines and the theory of composition. Much of it very interesting but useless in the real world of photography.

Do not become obsessed by them. Not every subject needs them. Think of the subject first. The leading lines – should they be needed – should follow naturally.



There’s more on leading lines and composition in this previous post

Join Philip for a Photography Workshop

Here’s a pretty good guide – but don’t get obsessed!

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