Lines work like roads in an image, directing visual traffic to what the photographer feels is important. Our goal as visual artists is to use these lines to direct the viewer’s attention to the intended subject, not away from it. Moreover, lines are a powerful way for photographers to establish the mood of an image. For instance, vertical lines feel bold and rigid, while S-curve lines usually create a relaxed feeling of going with the flow.
When you are visualizing your image and preparing your composition, try to strike a balance between your intentions and your composition. Ask yourself how you felt when you were compelled to take the image. If the scene is relaxing, such as a brook flowing through a field, look for gentle S-curve lines to compose your frame. On the other hand, if the scene is imposing or hectic, such as a downtown New York City shot, look for vertical lines such as tall buildings to help convey what you’re feeling.
We use six basic lines in photography: leading, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, and converging. I know this sounds like a lot, but once you train your eyes you’ll start noticing lines all around you. This image of the Brooklyn Bridge (Figure 4.2) is a classic example of all six basic leading lines.
Figure 4.2 The Brooklyn Bridge has a line leading you through the frame and converging in the distance, which is the actual walkway. There are vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines in the many wires that crisscross through the main wires for support. Finally, there are curved lines in the main support wires that scallop through the frame.
ISO 800 • 1/60 sec. • f/4.8 • 35mm lens
A leading line is any line that draws you to a particular point of interest within the frame. Vertical and horizontal lines are usually easy to recognize in an image. Vertical lines can be manipulated in an image to imply height and greatness, and tend to be a natural composition for a vertical-framed image (Figure 4.3).
Figure 4.3 Getting low to the ground and using a wide-angle lens allowed me to accentuate the building’s strong vertical lines.
ISO 400 • 1/80 sec. • f/6.3 • 15mm lens
Vertical lines in a horizontal image can be less natural and create a sense of tension. For instance, Pastor Cory Brooks, of Chicago’s South Side, gained national attention for camping on the rooftop of an old hotel that was located directly across from his church and frequented by prostitutes and drug addicts (in an effort to raise money to tear it down). I took an environmental portrait of the pastor but added tension by using the vertical bars of the railing to frame him (Figure 4.4). The vertical lines serve two purposes: to add tension and to convey a symbolic meaning of being imprisoned by his surroundings.
Figure 4.4 This image’s strong vertical lines portray the pastor and his community as prisoners in their own neighborhood due to crime.
ISO 640 • 1/200 sec. • f/5 • 34mm lens
Horizontal lines can help convey a sense of structure and calm. The long exposure in Figure 4.5 illustrates this point by creating a long horizon line, which works in conjunction with the soothing colors to create a very calming abstract image. A skyline is another example of an easy-to-identify horizontal line: Even though the buildings are vertical, when viewed from a distance a horizon becomes clear, which in this case works to add a sense of structure and organization to the image.
Figure 4.5 A ten-stop neutral density (ND) filter was used to create a long exposure of Lake Michigan and intensify the horizontal line.
ISO 100 • 131 secs. • f/7.1 • 35mm lens
Diagonal lines cross an image from opposite corners of a frame. They work wonderfully as leading lines and can also provide a sense of movement through the frame. If the diagonal line begins at the left corner of the frame and crosses toward the bottom right, it appears as though the subject is entering the frame. If the opposite occurs, it appears as though the subject is exiting the frame (Figure 4.6).
Figure 4.6 The train and tracks create a diagonal line from top left to bottom right of the frame.
ISO 320 • 1/60 sec. • f/1.4 • 35mm lens
S-curves, or curved lines, help to guide a viewer’s eyes through the frame. An S-curve line should be balanced and create a sense of tranquility or refinement (Figure 4.7). Common places to find S-curves are roads, trails, and rivers.
Figure 4.7 Curved lines should draw the viewer into the frame toward the subject and create a sense of calm.
ISO 100 • 1/60 sec. • f/22 • 24mm lens
Converging lines merge together, giving a sense of dimension to an image. A classic example of a converging line is a vanishing-point image, where the lines lead off into the distance and eventually converge at one point. My favorite use of converging lines is to create a sense of depth, which I’ll explore next.