Using lines in photography composition

This is the second post of a series of publications in which, from different angles and perspectives,  I’m addressing the topic of composition. Hopefully I will provide you with a good understanding of what visual composition is about as well as with the basis to start applying the principles of composition to your own imagery.

This series will include posts and videos that can be easily located by using the tag “learning-composition” either in the search box above or by directly clicking on the tag name at the bottom of this post.  Also, here is a link to the entire series so far.

Lines are one of the most basic elements you can use in composition. Despite the simplicity of the element itself, lines can be a powerful tool to convey your vision. Probably the most popular use of lines is to lead the viewer’s attention to a specific area of the image — usually, this area is the image’s main subject — however, lines can help you to convey either a sense of stability or a sense strength and growth. Let’s see how different types of lines can accentuate your composition to convey different feelings.

In general terms I’d say there are 5 types of lines: horizontal lines, vertical lines, diagonal lines — converged lines and “leading lines” are, from my perspective, special use cases of diagonal lines — curved lines, and last but not least implied lines. Let’s take a look to each of these 5 type of lines.

Horizontal Lines

Using horizontal lines as the dominant elements of your composition conveys a sense of stability, calmness, peacefulness.

Moreover, horizontal lines — wisely and I’d say rationally used, of course — can provide the perfect balance for the subject in your photograph. Take a look for example to the image in figure 1, the dominant horizontal line formed by the horizon in conjunction with the suggested horizontal lines on the sky near to horizon, give a sense of calmness and stability to the overall image, although other elements, such as the suggested diagonal lines formed by the sunlight beams bring some dynamism to the composition which in certain ways balances the composition — see “Diagonal Lines” section below.

Fig. 1 THE WHISPERS OF THE STORM © Enrique Peláez

One caveat about about horizontal lines, If you use them without other elements that bring dynamism to the overall composition in order to balance it, you put your image at risk of “sounding boring”. Just imaging the picture in figure 1 without the sunlight beams, boring right?

Vertical Lines

Using vertical lines conveys a sense of strength, a sense of power, and in many ways also a sense of growth — remember, we humans beings, grow vertically, so probably the sense of growth conveyed by vertical lines is genetically ingrained in our minds.  

So, skyscrapers, tall trees, and big fences are just a few examples of subjects in which vertical lines can be the dominant composition element.

Fig 2. IMPRESSIONIST FOREST © Enrique Peláez

Take a look to the image in figure 2, this is a “minimum color” water reflection of a group of trees that was turned upside down to resemble a kind of impressionist picture. The vertical lines suggested by the trees convey a sense of power, a sense of strength. So, as inviting as this scene can result to the spectator, one would think twice before getting into the forest, right? In my opinion the reason why the spectator probably feels that way is because the apparent tallness of the trees (e.g. vertical lines).

Diagonal Lines

In general, horizontal and vertical lines despite given a sense of either calmness or strength they usually resulted into static compositions.  In the other hand, diagonal lines usually help to make compositions more dynamic. As example, see figure 1 again, without the diagonal lines formed by sunlight beams the composition would turn into something totally static, moreover probably boring to the spectator’s eye.

Fig. 3 FLYING I © Enrique Peláez

A diagonal lines use case that is used extensively by photographers is the so called “leading lines”, so leading lines is about using converging lines  — two or more lines that get closer and closer towards the end. —  in order to guide the viewer’s attention to a particular area into the image, usually (but not always) this area is the main subject.

Take a look at the image in figure 3, is there any doubt what the subject is in this image? In my opinion, it shouldn’t be. The converging lines formed the walls in the foreground gently guide the viewer’s eye to the 3 pelicans flying near to the horizon line, in the same way the implied lines formed by the borders of the clouds in the sky guide the viewer’s eye to the same point.

You could argue that the image in figure 3 is a triangle-based composition, and you’re probably right, the beautify of composition in visual arts is that you can get similar results using different approaches.  We’ll get back to triangle-based composition in another post of this series.

Finally, I’d recommend you to always look for diagonal lines in the composition of your images. Usually, what makes the difference between a static, boring composition and a dynamic image are diagonal lines (e.g. leading lines, triangle-based composition).

Curved Lines

A great way to add smoothness and grace to your compositions is to use curved lines. In general, curved lines soften the subject and allow the viewer to freely “travel” through the image.

Fig. 4 SIMPLICITY I © Enrique Peláez

Take a look to the image in figure 4. The soft curves caused by the distortion — purposely introduced to the image — cause the viewer to freely wander through the image exploring the smoothness of each part of the image that subtly suggests human forms.

Fig. 5 AESTHETICISM I – © Enrique Peláez

Figure 5 is an example of how to use curved lines to frame a subject and add grace to the overall composition.

Implied Lines

Implied lines (a.k.a. suggested lines) are less obvious than vertical, horizontal, or curved lines. Implied lines are many time created  because of the positional relationship of the different elements of an image. For example, a man looking up to a bird, so there is an implied (imaginary) line between the man’s eye and the bird.   

Figure 6. “FLYING II”  ©Enrique Peláez

Take a look to the image in figure 6, if you consider the two birds and the tip of the boat next to the left of the photo are the vertices of a triangle and trace imaginary lines connecting the three vertices, the implied triangle beautifully harmonize with the more real triangle formed by the boat´s sail — this is called triangle-based composition, and we’ll talk about it in a future post.

The next post I’ll discuss more about the most common rules of composition. So, keep in touch.

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