Photographic Composition: The Line as a Design Element

Lines are perhaps the most important element of visual design in photography. Utilized properly, they are a powerful tool for creating moods in photographs. They can also be used to direct the viewer’s eyes to a specific area of an image; and they can create a sense of action, points of interest and depth in a photograph.

There are two types of line: straight and curvy. Broken down further, these lines can appear in photographs as horizontal, vertical, curvy, diagonal, zigzag, and converging. These lines can be actual or implied. Each type of line has a unique impact on the mood of a photographic composition.

Horizontal Lines

Horizontal lines are great for creating a sense of calm. They can bring the feeling of peace, tranquility and stability to an image. Horizontal lines are abundant in nature – starting with the horizon line. Lake edges, ocean waves, tree roots, layers of sandstone and sometimes clouds, are all things that often create horizontal lines.

Horizontal lines make peaceful pictures

Dark and stormy ... yet peaceful?

Incorporating manmade objects makes finding horizontal lines even easier: sides of a building, double yellow lines in a street, fences, benches, etc. To intensify the effect, layer multiple horizontal lines, for example the line of street in the foreground, a bench in the middle ground, a fence behind that and the horizon line in the distance. It’s very important to make sure that these lines are straight. If they are angled, or if they enter the frame higher in the photo than they leave the frame, then lines won’t be nearly as effective.

This is a very dark and stormy scene. So why does the image feel so calm and peaceful? Horizontal lines. There are three horizontal lines in this photographic composition: 1. the horizon, 2. the lower cloud, in front of the mountain and directly about the horizon line, 3. the second cloud layer, in the middle of the frame. Without these horizontal lines, this scene would feel just as stormy as it was in reality.

Remember: Horizontal Lines = Tranquility, Stability

Vertical Lines

Use vertical lines to create a sense of power and strength. Consider framing the photograph vertically to accentuate the verticals when composing the image. Keep the lines straight and true – not only parallel with each other but also with the sides of the frame.

Vertical photograph of waterfall

Both waterfalls were shot with slow shutter speeds to soften the water.

Waterfall photo

The water falls at a sloping angle on this waterfall, as opposed to the water falling straight down in the photo on the left.

Here are two waterfall photographs, each conveying very different feelings. Which one feels more dominant? Which one feels mellower?

Note the repeating vertical lines in the photo on the left. The left waterfall is definitely the dominant image, even though there’s a lot less water running through it.

Remember: Vertical Lines = Power, Strength

Curvy Lines

Black and white image of sandstone formation

These curvy lines draw the eye all the way through the photograph.

Photo showing curvy lines

Despite this being a photo of rock, it has a very soft and sensual feel to it.

The curve of a road, a meandering stream, a running path through the park … these are all examples of curvy lines. Curvy lines give a photograph a sense of elegance, beauty, sensuality, relaxation and charm. They don’t create as much action as diagonals and other straight lines. When the eye follows a curvy line, it’s a slower, more relaxed pace. As a result, the image will have a more relaxed feel to it, than a photo with powerful diagonals or strong verticals.

Remember: Cuvy Lines = Sensuality, Charm

S-Curve – The Line of Grace

S-curves are a type of curvy line, perfect for drawing the eye through the photograph and to a specific place. They don’t actually have to be in the form of an S, they just have to be curvy. These curves are really great for creating depth. They’re frequently found in landscape photographs in the form of rivers, meandering through meadows and towards mountains. It’s one of those timeless images that continually appeals to the eye.

Remember: S-Curve = Grace, Balance

S-Curve

The desert trail forms a curvy line, called an S-curve.

Mt. Cook

S-curves can frequently be found in photos of rivers.

Hiking trails makes an S-curve

Like the hikers, viewers will follow the trail, too.

Diagonal Lines

Diagonals are a very powerful design element. They create movement and lead the eyes through the photo.

Hore Abbey behind a diagonal stone wall

The stone wall is arranged diagonally through the photo.

The Rule of Diagonals states that lines arranged diagonally will make an image more dynamic. These lines can be created by placing your subjects on a diagonal path (implied lines), or more literally, they can be the lines of a fence in the photograph. Use these lines to direct eyes to a specific place in the image.

In the photo of the Cistercian monastery, to the right, the wall works well as a diagonal line. Note that it’s not a severe diagonal (it doesn’t go from corner to corner). Be wary of diagonals that bisect your image. They may create the appearance of splitting a single photograph into two. Also, they may draw the viewers eye right off the photograph. This diagonal still creates movement but it’s a mellow,

Subjects lined up to create a diagonal line.

In this example, I lined up my two subjects to create a diagonal line.

meandering movement instead of a race. This is one example of using lines to set a mood in the image.

Although there is not a physical line connecting the woman and her dog, the composition suggests a diagonal just as effectively as if there were. The diagonal created here suggests depth and action. (Another notable aspect of the dog’s positioning is the amount of space in front of him. This is called active space. A photograph of a moving object will keep the eyes moving in the same direction as that object. If you create space in front of that moving object, then the eye will continue to move in that direction. If you place your object on the edge of the frame, then the viewers’ eyes will be drawn right out of the photograph. I’ll talk more about this another time.)

Remember: Diagonals = Dynamic

Zigzag Lines

Zigzags can be great at creating tension. As a result, I don’t have any photographs to show as an example. Tension is the last thing I want to capture in my photography.

Remember Zigzags = Tension

Converging Lines

Railroad Bridge

The converging tracks drawing your eye through the bridge.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Converging lines can occur from side to side, not only front to back.

Eyes tend to follow lines. When there are lines converging in a photo, then the viewer will follow those lines where ever they lead. This can be a very effective method of getting the viewer to see a specific aspect of the image. The act of the eye moving through the photo creates a sense of action. These lines also capture depth. Think of railroad tracks that converge in the distance.

Remember: Converging Lines = Depth, Action

Leading Lines

Great Sand Dunes

The grooves in the sand are great leading lines in this photograph of the Great Sand Dunes.

A leading line leads the eye through the photograph. A leading line can be any type of line – curvy, diagonal, converging, etc – and it can also be implied. Leading lines often start in the bottom of the frame and continue to the mid- and background of the photo. They are very strong when they start in the middle of the frame, as opposed to either side.

The Burren

This leading line is very compelling because it comes from the bottom of the frame, in the center.

These lines are great for directing the eye to a subject. Be cognizant of the entire composition when incorporating leading lines into a photograph and to where the eye is being led. Depending on the composition the eye could be lead right out of the photograph or into a dead end.

In portraits, it’s often popular to have the subject gaze off contemplatively, or look at an object out of the frame. The direction of the gaze is an implied line. The eye will follow the path of the subject’s gaze to where it’s heading — including right out of the photograph!

Remember: Leading Lines = direct the eye towards something specific


Additional examples of lines in photographs :

Railroad tracks converging

Converging Lines: Depth.

Curvy lines in a photograph of slot canyon

Curvy Lines: Elegance, Beauty.

Tombstones

Vertical Lines: Strength, Power.

Charcoal Kilns

Diagonal Lines: Dynamic

Leading Line

Leading Lines: Direct the eyes through the frame.

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About the Author

Valerie earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Applied Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2000. In 2005, she founded Valerie Hayken Photography & Design. Visit www.valeriehayken.com to view her portfolios and see what she's been shooting.