follow the lines


Anybody well versed in the art of photography will tell you that key to a well composed image is the presence of ‘leading lines’. These lines can take any form but their purpose is to take the viewer on a journey through the frame of the image. These lines can take you into the image, they can lead you back out again. They may be formed from straight lines or they may show subtle and gentle curvature. They may be naturally formed (rivers, shorelines, horizons) or man-made (stair wells, buildings, roads). They may even be implied lines, connecting strategically placed points of interest within the image. Their shape and nature is mostly irrelevant and will depend on the subject of your image, but if you include them in photograph then you should think about how to best utilise them as you are composing your image. That is, before you press the shutter.

I knew that, but I didn’t realise the influence of compositional lines on what ever it is in your brain that helps you decide between “like” and “dislike”. That is, not until recently when I showed the image above and the one below to a group of photographers (all more experienced and more talented than me).

The images are of a banyan tree here in Hilo and I like both images. I composed the first with the surface roots in the foreground, using them as guides to lead you into the frame of the image. But because the lines are not dead straight and possess curvature, the eye gently sweeps side-to-side as it enters the image, not going too fast. Interestingly, you can run this backward to good effect also. That is, start from the top of the image and the roots now gently lead you out of the image. I know people will argue whether leading lines should lead the viewer out of an image, but for me at least, it works here.


For the second image I cropped in a lot tighter as I wanted a study of the interesting details of the hanging root structure of the banyan tree. When I saw this image on my computer screen back home I was actually quite excited by it, at the time probably more so that the first. I just loved the range of tones, the fact that I managed to get the exposure right and capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows, with interest in all the tones in between. I will admit that the lines are quite linear and follow the shape of the frame (up-down) and so you have to work your eye across to the different parts image.

But as I reflected on the two photographs, I wasn’t sure which one I liked more (and why should I like one more than the other? they’re different, right?). So I asked my photographer friends for their critique, and each and every one of them (I seem to recall) preferred the first. And the reason? Because of the strong leading lines. Not that the other image was poor, but the first had good leading lines.

And as I reflected on that a few days later, I think I learned more about the human brain than my photography. If your brain has to push your eyes across an image then its doing more work than it would prefer to (push “dislike”). If the composition of the image helps your eyes naturally flow across the image, then the brain does less work (cue chemical triggers for “like”). I wondered what kind of response I would have had if I had not presented them side-by-side (or one after the other) and asked for a preference.


2 thoughts on “follow the lines”

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