Lines in Photography: Helping Viewers Read an Image

After you start noticing the lines that exist in a scene, it’ll be hard not to compose your images based on them. Lines can connect various elements to one another and they can steer viewers away from the edges of your frame, keeping their eyes inside the image.

Some general rules to keep in mind when composing your macro and close-up images include the following:

  • Pay attention to where your compositional lines begin and where they end. You can use lines to lead viewers subconsciously from one area of the frame to another, or from one element to another. If a compositional line leads to no point of interest in a frame, you’ve wasted the line as a compositional tool.

  • Avoid merging lines, tangents, and awkward intersections. Compose images in a way that causes your compositional lines to work together comfortably rather than in a conflicting way. When two or more lines merge, they can cause a composition to appear cluttered or unclear.

    Sometimes lines must intersect in your frame; ensure that they do so at areas with no specific points of interest. A tangent occurs when two lines touch but don’t intersect. This can create awkwardness in a composition. Avoid tangents by ensuring elements either intersect or are separate.

  • Keep a viewer in your frame by avoiding the edge. If possible, compose an image so no lines lead a viewer out of your frame. Make sure your compositional lines start and end within your frame, never extending all the way to the edge. This isn’t always possible, such as when there’s a horizon line or any line that’s too big to keep within the frame. In those cases refer to the rule below.

  • Control the edge of your frame by keeping compositional lines from exiting at the corners. A line leaving the corner of your frame takes the attention of a viewer with it. If you must let a line lead out of your image, have it do so away from the corner, as the corner represents the farthest point away from your frame’s center.

    The best way to bring the viewer back into the image is to have another line near the point of exit to catch their attention and lead them back into the frame.

The photograph shows the difference between a comfortable composition and a tense composition with distracting lines. In the first image, the leaves are distributed through the frame evenly, and there’s a harmonious relationship between the lines in the scene and the leaves themselves. In the second image, the leaves are heavily weighted to one side of the frame, and they make awkward intersections with the scene’s compositional lines.

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100mm, 0.6, f/22, 400    100mm, 0.6, f/22, 400

You can create lines by using just about anything, such as the edge of an element or a shadow, the area where two elements conjoin or overlap, markings, indents, or any element alone that is thin enough to be considered a line.

Vertical lines can suggest a feeling of pride, sturdiness, stiffness, or frailness depending on the subject they’re associated with. Horizontal lines can convey laziness, relaxation, tranquility, or strength. Diagonal lines are often related to action, instability, and excitement; while curvy lines are associated with beauty, sex appeal, and dreaminess.

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