How easy is it to take a picture today? Well, how many people own a smartphone? The amount of photographic content created today is amazing, astounding, and fantastic. I love being able to log into Instagram and see a photo of a friend in South Africa, and then hop on google and look up a picture of the house I am considering touring and making an offer on, and then going out to eat and admiring the photos on the wall of the restaurant. Photographic content is everywhere, but what will you remember?
For me, I remember the photos that tell a story. They find a way to captivate me, draw me in, make me feel like I’m there in the photo. That is difficult to do, and frankly something I am always trying to improve on. So, forget all of your rules of photography (like the rule of thirds and things like that), and focus on one thing — Leading Lines.
Now, I don’t have a technical or professional education in photography, but I have always found that photos that provide a path for my eyes, really have the ability to bring me in, make me feel like I am there. That path, or direction, for your eyes can be created by a difference in color, a contrasting shadow, or a physical line created by the composition. Often times I opt for a physical line created by the composition. Sometimes this line is obvious and lends itself to the photo, and other times it must be created in camera or in post processing. Regardless of how this leading line is created, it will dramatically improve the photo’s ability to captivate your audience, and make them feel like they are a part of the photo. Below I have a few examples, and some descriptions depicting my process when shooting and editing these photographs.
This first example is from a place called Black Balsam Knob in western North Carolina. It’s a great hike near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and can yield some fantastic sunsets. I was actually fairly disappointed with the sunset I got on this particular evening, but I was thrilled with the composition I found. This photo was shot on a 70–200 mm lens to get that nice compression between the closer hills and the mountains in the background. For me, this photo has two foreground elements that I really loved in their ability to create some strong leading lines. The first was the muddy rut along the ridgetop created by people hiking along the trail. I thought this rut created a strong leading line from the foreground to the background, as well as, added some nice texture to the image. The second portion of the leading line in this image has to do with the sunlit glow on top of that same ridge. As the sun began to set, it created a nice contrast between the shadowy sides of the ridge and the glowing golden top of the ridge. It is really these two things that make me feel like I am walking along the trail and into the mountains when I look back at this picture.
The second example here is a picture I’ve discussed before when talking about finding great places to fly your drone. Go check out that blog post if you are interested in learning how to find great aerial compositions in legal flying zones. This picture really came together with the main subject (the Charlotte skyline) and the amazing storm light. With these two key elements in mind, it was really a matter of finding some sort of foreground to bring the viewer into the eye of the storm encircling the city. When I found this web of train tracks leading to the city I was sold. The lines formed by the trains bring the viewer’s eyes straight to the city skyline. The only other part of this image to manage was the high dynamic range. With the bright, storm light and a gloomy foreground, I needed to make sure the leading lines formed by the trains were bright enough. In post processing I made sure to accentuate the highlights and bring up a few shadows along the train tracks.
The next photo we have here is a fairly recent image of Triple Falls in western North Carolina. I found this location tough to photograph for a couple reasons. First, the light was rapidly changing as it filtered through the trees. Creating some harsh highlights and shadows on the waterfall. Second, the real payoff picture had to be taken from an overlook, which I found difficult to include any sort of foreground element. As you probably noticed in the first two pictures in this article, I love to use the foreground to create leading lines for the viewer’s eyes to follow to the subject. Here I couldn’t do that. Instead I opted for a sort of diagonal line (from the bottom left to the top right) for the viewer to follow through the frame. I think this really works well in this image. The viewer can follow the story of the stream in reverse, as it cascades down each of the three waterfalls.
Lastly, I wanted to include a picture I took a long time ago. I don’t love this picture, and there are several things I would change if I had to go back and do it over again. However, I do like the leading lines. This picture was taken somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales in the UK, along a very messy, and overgrown stream. The gnarled logs caught my eye and were the real reason I had to hop down into the stream. To sum it up, this scene was chaos. Absolute chaos. But, if there is one thing going right, it’s the leading lines. Here the leading lines add some order, and structure to the chaotic scene. They provide the viewer with a roadmap, a place to look, in an otherwise crazy image. I don’t love this photo, but I think it does a nice job of exemplifying the importance of leading lines.
Leading lines will give an ordinary photo, meaning. They provide your audience with a roadmap to view your photos, a way of captivating them and drawing them in. Forget all the other photographic advice bouncing around in your head, create some solid leading lines, and your audience will remember your work.