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3 Common Mistakes You’re Making with Leading Lines

Leading lines can help turn your photo from a snapshot into a story. They impose a sense of order amidst the chaos of the natural world. So when they’re not used correctly, they may confuse your viewer and create a photograph without direction.

I’ve taught photography workshops around the world in my career as a travel and nature photographer. In that time, I’ve seen the same few mistakes come up over and over again when it comes to using leading lines.

The line doesn’t lead toward your focal point.

Let’s say you’ve identified a stream cutting through the forest as your leading line. In the distance there is a grove of trees. By lining up the stream so it leads toward this grove of trees, you’ll take your viewer into the grove, leading them somewhere unknown and more interesting.

If you take your photograph so that the stream leads away from the grove, now you’ll have competing elements in the image, and the eye doesn’t know where to travel through the photograph. It lacks cohesion and elegance. The photograph loses its potential for story.

There are too many lines in your photo.

Another common mistake gives the viewer too many roadmaps to follow at once. When there is more than one leading line in an image, the viewer can become confused. The eye wants to follow all the lines at once, missing the point of your image and traveling back and forth without a clear beginning or end.

It’s up to the photographer to isolate the singular story of a photograph and to present that to the viewer in a way that makes sense and is easy to follow. That’s what separates the eye of the photographer from the non-photographer.

Your line conflicts with the story you want to tell.

When you create a photograph as a piece of art, you use many elements to tell the story. The lighting, the composition, and the subject matter all work together to create interest for your viewer.

But sometimes the leading line can be misleading. If you’re trying to create the sense of something daunting, a clear leading line that takes the viewer out of the picture might be in contrast with the story you’re trying to tell. Make sure you’re keeping with the theme of your photo as you develop the composition.

When it comes to using leading lines, you have to know the rules really well before you can begin to bend them. That’s why I encourage you to watch my live workshop on August 19 at 8:30 AM Mountain Daylight Time, on Facebook live. Email for more information.

Want feedback on your photos, to see if you’re falling into these common mistakes? I’m offering a few private critiques. Get in touch with my office at 970-879-3718 to learn more.

How Leading Lines Improve a Photo

When you set out to create a photograph, if you’re using a leading line in the image, you’ll want to be able to identify it so that it will become part of the photo’s composition. This is how, as a photographer, you remain in charge of the visual components.

Identifying Leading Lines

Many examples of leading lines in photographs are actual roadways or paths. Think of a path cutting through a forest, for example. The path is set apart from the rest of the landscape in material and color, and it creates a line for the eye to follow. That’s why I call leading lines the photograph’s roadmap. It gives the viewer direction through your image.

Leading lines are not always so obvious. A leading line can be the curve of a shoreline, the bend of a branch, or a winding river. When you create the composition, look for the contrast between your leading line and the remainder of the image. Consider where you want the viewer’s eye to travel and how you’ll move the viewer across the photo.

Leading Lines Create Emotion

Because leading lines give you control over how the viewer interprets your image, you can use them to set the tone. A winding path that leads into the underbrush of a dark forest may suggest suspense and mystery. Using a rainbow as a leading line into the rounded mountains in the distance might call your viewer to a sense of wonder and adventure.

The emotion your photograph elicits depends partly on your viewer’s interpretation, and partly on how you use your leading lines. You can create hope by leading your viewer out of a dark place, or elicit interest by leading them in.


Learn More about Leading Lines

If you want to learn more about leading lines, I’m giving my first live workshop on Facebook Live on August 19 at 8:30 AM Mountain Daylight Time. I’ll be in the Yampa River Botanic Park, which offers an interesting selection of winding paths and stone staircases that will become the leading lines in our photos.

I’ll show you how to train your eye to find these lines and how to make your photos a success. Then, I invite you to share your own photographs with the hashtag #photographicroadmap so I can feature your photos on Facebook and Instagram.

If you want even more critique, I’ll be taking on a few students for individual critique after the lesson. Contact my office– or 970-879-3718– for scheduling and pricing. Individual critique will be remote (over video call), so it’s open to everyone, no matter where you are in the world.

I look forward to trying this out–I hope you’ll join me and learn something new.