A very powerful method of improving the composition of photos is the use of lines. Properly used, lines can significantly increase the impact of images.
Lines serve to affect photographic composition in two ways. First, they serve to create a mood. Second, they lead the eye through the photograph. By affecting mood, lines add emotional content to images. By leading the viewer’s eye, they keep the viewer’s attention focused on the image. When dealing with lines, the subject can be broken into the following types:
- Horizontal lines
- Vertical lines
- Diagonal lines
- Jagged and irregular lines
Horizontal lines tend to indicate a sense of homeostasis (lack of change). This use in an image often projects a feeling that an image, or part of one, is somehow frozen at a point in time. Horizontal lines should be used when a photographer wants to impart a sentiment of timelessness or lack of change to an image. In addition, they can serve to provide a contrast with more dynamic parts of an image. Examples can be found in buildings, horizons, and fallen objects (e.g. trees).
Vertical lines can project either a mood of stability or peace. When projecting a mood of stability, they often function similarly to horizontal lines. This can convey an implication of substance or permanence. Examples of vertical lines used to impart a mood of stability can be found in rock formations, power line poles, and vertical lines of buildings.
Proper use of vertical lines can also impart an impression of peace and tranquility. Examples of this use are trees in a fog shrouded forest, old fence posts on an isolated prairie, and a figure on a secluded beach in the early morning.
Diagonal lines can convey a sense of action or make an image more dynamic. For this reason, diagonals are a very powerful tool. Their power resides in their ability to grab the attention of the viewer. The viewer’s eyes tend to travel back and forth along diagonals. Diagonal lines can be formed not only of objects such as streets or sidewalks but also of color. For instance, a diagonal section of color can add drama to a flower image. Examples of diagonals are plentiful: roads, streams, waves, and branches are but a few examples of objects that can be utilized in a diagonal manner.
Jagged and Irregular Lines
Jagged and irregular lines take us one step further on the continuum of emotion and feeling. While diagonals move us into the area of the dynamic, jagged and irregular lines often impart a sense of unease, tension, or fear to the viewer of the image. Heavy use of jagged and irregular lines can cause a negative feeling in the viewer (which may be exactly what the photographer intended). Therefore, they are the tools of choice for the photographer who wants to create a feeling of disquiet or agitation in the viewer. Examples can be found in roots, a crocodile’s teeth, stark mountain peaks, and the twisted metal of an automobile wreck.
Leading the Eye
As powerful as lines are in helping to create a mood in an image, they become even more powerful when they are also used to direct the viewer’s attention. When using lines to direct the viewer’s attention, two rules need to be followed. First, make sure that the lines always point toward the most important object in the image. This will direct the viewer’s attention directly to that object. Second, make sure that the lines never point outside of the image. Lines that point outside the image will make the viewer’s eye leave the image. This weakens the image and may result in the viewer losing interest in the image entirely.
Since lines are such a powerful compositional tool, we should learn to think of the effect of lines when we compose our images.
However, lines are just the start. There is much more to photographic composition. To learn more composition techniques, check out Ron’s three part article series on Advanced Photographic Composition.