Using Lines in Photography

Excerpt from PHOTO DESIGN: Image Design and Composition for Photographers

Lines are one of the most basic elements in image design and their uses are many from functional to artistic. They also go a long way in helping us to create and organize our compositions. They serve as functional elements including visual paths, focal points, dividers, natural frames and borders, and in many cases they even act as the subject itself. Lines can also be used in more subtle, non-direct ways, including to create a sense of tension, mood and drama.

Following are brief introductions to the various kinds of lines found in nature, and some of their uses:

Straight Lines
Straight lines can act like miniature highways in our photographs. Long straight lines, in particular, tend to grab the eye and pull it from one end of the line to the other, skipping everything between. The longer and straighter the line, the faster the eye moves. This can be good when used as a direct guide but with a more complex composition it can cause the eye to skip important parts of the image. Use long straight lines with care and awareness of their effects.

Vertical Lines
Prominent vertical lines are the most powerful lines in visual art. We may associate them with a feeling of strength, height, integrity, solidity, dominance and power such as when viewing a tree, skyscraper, flagpole or anything else standing tall and sturdy.

Solid vertical lines are attention-getters and can be used to create tension, to act as direct guides and paths, and to act as dividers and natural frames. Being the powerful composition elements they are a certain degree of care should be taken when dealing with prominent vertical lines.

Horizontal Lines
In contrast to the effect of vertical lines, horizontal lines can lend a lazy, calm feeling to a photograph. They may bring to mind how it feels to lie down and be relaxed. Some examples of using horizontal lines to create a calming mood are to capture long, rolling waves on a shoreline, using the solid line of a fallen tree as a main element; and capturing the peaceful line of an ocean horizon. The calm, relaxed feeling created in all of these scenes can be further enhanced by using a horizontal format.

Diagonal Lines
Diagonals are considered more visually dynamic than verticals or horizontals. Where vertical and horizontal lines sit in the composition and are restricted to up-down, left-right movement, diagonals can sweep across any area of the image and go in any direction and this is what causes that ‘dynamic’ feeling associated with these lines.

Diagonals are often used to create a sense of tension, or this can happen naturally as the Tension map illustrates. In addition to this, diagonals can serve the same purposes as horizontal and vertical lines in that they can guide the eye, and act as frames, borders and isolators.

Converging and Diverging Lines
Lines that converge are lines that come from different areas of the photograph and lead toward a common intersection, object or area. Conversely, diverging lines lead away from each other, a common intersection, object or area. These types of lines are usually strong compositional elements in and of themselves, but the shape(s) that are created when they are in close proximity, or actually converge or diverge, can act as strong a focal point, main shape or it could even be the main subject of the photograph. The use of converging and diverging lines can often result in highly creative, artful compositions.

Arcs and Semi-circles
These lines can isolate, emphasize, frame and cradle areas of an image. There is an abundance of natural arcs to be found in nature, both as positive and as negative space. It is a good idea to examine their potential uses within a composition as they can be many.

Zig-zags and Odd-shaped Lines
These kinds of lines, depending on the composition and artist, can add artistic flair, a sense of style and/or tension or serenity to an image. They are powerful composition and design tools and can make for spectacular abstracts in the hands of a skilled artist.

Curved Lines
Curved lines may add beauty and grace to an image. They are also used as a popular design technique for leading the eye into the frame. In contrast to straight or patterned lines, meandering curved lines allow the eye to explore an image in a smooth, free-flowing manner.

Groups of Lines
Groups of lines, especially short lines in close proximity to one another, or lines that form patterns are almost always guaranteed to command attention. They can cause density and give considerable weight to an area, which can affect the sense of visual balance and draw the eye to the area.

Repetitive Lines
An image comprised entirely of lines arranged in a pattern, especially lines in a precise, mathematical arrangement, can be powerful and high-impact. Because of the repetition and sense of predictability of repetitive lines, the eye travels in a predictable way that is natural and comfortable. Repetitive lines can go a long way to help create a sense of rhythm and movement.

Suggested or Implied Lines
In addition to the obvious lines found in nature, we need to be aware of suggested lines that can be created or simply happen with or without our knowledge. An example of a suggested line would be a man standing on a path, looking up at a rock. A suggested line would exist between his eyes and the rock. It is not a visible line and it does not affect our composition structurally, but it acts like a line, and it is just as powerful. Because we are curious about what he is looking at, our eye follows his gaze.

Other kinds of implied or suggested lines are those that result from forms and shapes converging or diverging in a way that naturally creates a line or visual path.

We need to be aware of these kinds of special lines when composing. They are powerful and if we’re not careful they can inadvertently weaken a design, lead the eye straight out of a photograph, create unwanted tension, divide an image or otherwise compromise a thoughtfully composed and hard-earned piece.

Creating Fluidity, Movement and Motion with Lines
Lines, both actual and suggested, can have a great impact on how the eye travels within a composition. Instead of having a viewer jump from one part of the image to another, skilled artists will often guide the viewer around their image with focal points, lines, and visual paths. The flow and momentum of this movement is dependent on the kinds of lines doing the guiding and the structure of the composition.

Using Lines to Create a Sense of Rhythm
Examples of images that use lines to create a sense of movement are: an image of concentric lines that slowly expand outward from the center, increasing in distance as they go; a sharp horizon line that sweeps the eye quickly from one side to another; a complex path of implied lines that wander slowly throughout the image such as an aerial view of a mountain range; or an abstract image of zig-zag lines that mimic the movement of rippling water.

Tension Created by Lines
Tension is what we feel when we view objects that are not in harmony, or not at rest. In a photograph this sensation can be created in a number of ways and is another powerful design technique that should be used with care.

Tension in an image can be created using color, values, patterns, textures, light, forms and lines. When used in the context of image construction it refers to the positioning of the physical elements in the frame and the feeling that their spatial relationships to each other and the frame creates within us.

One of the most famous examples of a photograph loaded with tension is one of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Because it is leaning over, we feel that it may tip over at any moment. This sense of anticipation mixed with the sense of unrest we may feel from the lean of the structure is what creates the sense of tension we feel when looking at the building.


Excerpt from PHOTO DESIGN: Image Design and Composition for Photographers

Text and photographs copyright Gloria Hopkins, All Rights Reserved