Composition and the Power of Line
Lines are all around us in photography. Conscious use of line can add depth or dynamism to your composition. Let me show you what I mean. Take a look at the following image:
It’s an okay landscape. l like it, but it’s nothing special. Maybe what it lacks is a sense of depth. Now compare it to this landscape:
See how three-dimensional it looks by comparison? The lines in the composition create the illusion of depth. They converge as they disappear into the distance creating a sense of distance and space. I’ve marked the lines so you can see them clearly:
Not every landscape has lines that are so easy to find. Most of the time they are more subtle. In this landscape, the triangular shapes of the rocks in the foreground are like arrows that point to the island in the distance and the setting sun:
It is almost a case of implied line, rather than actual line. The shape of the rocks is a visual clue that directs the eye along invisible lines to the horizon:
Let’s look at this image again in a different way. There is a strong horizontal line in the distance created by the horizon. What happens if we crop the image to a panorama? The ‘feel’ of the photo is completely different. Horizontal lines direct the eye from side to side and create a sense of stability and peace. The panoramic crop emphasises that:
Whereas in the original image the implied lines create a sense of motion. The composition is more dynamic. The principles here are:
- If you want to create a landscape with a peaceful, tranquil feel, then use horizontal lines.
- If you want to create a more exciting, dynamic landscape then use diagonal lines.
- In landscape photography, wide-angle lenses emphasise lines that lead from the foreground to the horizon.
Line outside the landscape
Line comes into play in subjects other than landscapes. You need to train your eye to look for lines, and then figure out ways to use them in your composition. Remember lines are not just straight. They can be curved, they can even be implied. Here’s a photo I took with a very powerful diagonal line that creates a dynamic, exciting composition:
Next, here’s a photo that uses a strong vertical line. The line created by the shape of the red sign is echoed by the lines in the wooden wall. The red string creates another line that intersects the others. See how the vertical line isn’t nearly as dynamic as the diagonal line in the previous image?
Lines in portraiture
The most obvious use of line is in landscape photography, but is it useful in portraiture? I think so, although again it’s a case of subtle use of line. In this example, the woman’s arms create lines that lead the eye up through the image to her face:
The lines are created by tonal contrast – her arms are a light tone and contrast strongly against her black dress and the dark background:
Lines are all around us and are a very useful tool that can help you create strongly composed images. One way of making the most out of line is to keep the composition of your images as simple as possible. A busy image has lots going on that may distract the eye from elements such as line. Simplifying the composition makes elements like line stronger and more effective.