Using Lines to Improve Photographic Compostion

Photographic composition requires some practice to master, but when someone has reached a point where their personal style is really developing and becoming apparent they can then begin to “play” with the various elements of their photographs. 

One thing that can be fun and exciting to “tinker” with is the lines in any image. Whether these are lines that frame the subject, are the actual subject, or serves as a major focal point in the composition, they can be extremely powerful and effective.

It is easiest to begin with the use of lines as the actual “theme” of the photograph. Railroad tracks, boards on a building, lines along a road, and even elements of a setting such as the horizon, window frames, and objects in the background can all become a theme in the photograph. They can all also ruin the results if they are crooked or out of balance.

When lines are used as the theme they must form a recognizable pattern for the viewer to understand. For example, the railroad lines, telephone poles and pavement extending into the distance must be consistent and the central focus of the image. If not, they run the risk of cluttering or confusing the viewer’s perception.

Lines that are very distinctly “directional” such as horizontal or vertical boards on a building are best photographed in their direction. For instance, the photographer should take a shot of vertical lines holding their camera in the portrait mode. Additionally, lines must be straight or as straight as possible to allow them to work effectively. The general photographic “rule” is that lines of a distinct direction – horizontal or vertical – must be precise or they must then be completely out of whack if they are to be used properly. A slight skewing of the angle can make the mind perceive the image as “wrong”, but a totally obvious tilt of a line allows the viewer to perceive the pitch as intentional.

This leads to diagonals, and many landscape photographers actually look to diagonals rather than horizontals for their work. Remember that a landscape will usually contain at least one very distinct horizontal line in the horizon, but this is something that must be precisely “flat” across the image, and this is not always possible. This is the reason that many successful landscape photographs contain vertical streams running into the distance; downed trees jutting diagonally through a portion of the image; or man-made walls or roads that give the photograph some distinguished areas.

Lines can be used very effectively to add depth, drama, or even meaning to a photograph particularly if the photographer knows how to add them effectively.

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