Here’s an assignment for you: Take your camera out into the field, and photograph only those scenes that contain lines. It’s easier than you might think. Lines can be found almost everywhere in our world. And line is one of the most important design elements in photography. That is not to say, of course, that you can’t take a great photo without them, but if you learn to seek them out and incorporate them into your work you will find that they add great visual impact to your photographs.
There are lines in nature: a forest of white birch trees is full of vertical lines, and a fallen tree amongst them adds a horizontal line. When viewed up close, a leaf has fine lines that sometimes travel in evenly-spaced diagonals. Ripples on a sand dune or on a beach at low tide create an uneven pattern of curved lines that can turn a barren or flat landscape into a visually fascinating one.
If you leave the natural world for the manmade one, you’ll find even more lines. Human beings love to create them. Buildings are composed almost entirely of vertical and horizontal lines, and if you change your perspective you can find diagonal lines there, too. The grille of a luxury car has intricate patterns of lines. Bridges, crops and railroad tracks have converging lines that convey a sense of depth and infinite distance.
When you go to sleep at night, you lie down in a horizontal position (unless you’re a horse, or you like sleeping in chairs). This is probably one of the reasons why horizontal lines tend to convey a sense of peace and relaxation. Horizontal lines also suggest stability. The horizon, after all, is the ultimate stable line–it will never tip over, sag or collapse. A photograph with strong horizontal lines will convey a sense of constancy and timelessness.
In a photograph, horizontal lines in particular need to be completely level across the frame, because your viewer’s eye will perceive even a slightly skewed horizontal line as uncomfortable to look at or just incorrect. As a general rule, horizontal lines should be shot with horizontal framing, although vertical framing can also be used as a rule-breaking way to make them stand out and to give the viewer a unique perspective on the scene.
Vertical lines convey a sense of power and strength, especially when the subject itself is towering and imposing, such as a very tall tree or building. Just as horizontal lines are typically shot with horizontal framing, vertical framing will lengthen your vertical lines and make them seem taller and more impressive. Shooting them in a horizontal frame can actually increase that sense of vastness, by making it seem as if those lines are too tall to be captured in a single image.
Vertical lines, too, should be kept as straight as possible in your photo, though this can be more difficult when shooting very tall objects such as skyscrapers, which start to have a diminishing perspective as you look up at them. When facing this problem, try to keep at least one line towards the middle of the frame straight–or just abandon the vertical line altogether and frame your image so that the diagonals become more prominent.
Diagonal lines are great for leading the viewer’s eye into an image and giving it a sense of depth or a feeling on infinite space. They also create a sense of action and movement. Images containing strong diagonals are more dynamic, and when they intersect with other lines they can even create a sense of tension or anticipation. Cleverly placed diagonals can act as arrows, directing a viewer’s attention to a certain element in a scene. And while horizontal lines create stability, a series of diagonal lines all placed at slightly different angles can have the opposite effect, making an image appear chaotic and unstable.
Converging lines are a form of diagonal, with the distinction being that they are two or more diagonal lines that get closer together as they move from the foreground into the distance. Like any diagonal, converging lines create a sense of depth and distance, but the effect is amplified because of the way that the lines interact with each other. You can shoot converging lines so that they lead vertically from the foreground into the distance, or you can position them at an angle to convey motion.
Because converging lines will always lead a viewer’s eye into the photograph, it is a good idea (though not completely necessary, especially if there are other strong elements in your composition) to put something of interest in the spot where the lines appear to meet.
Curved lines imply natural beauty. Rivers, sand dunes, shorelines and flowers all have curved lines, which give the viewer a sense of grace. While straight lines draw the eye directly into an image, curved lines allow the eye to explore the entire image, taking it from one part of the frame on a meandering path into the next part. Curves occur in the manmade world too, of course, while a long straight road implies a direct route from point A to point B, a meandering one conveys the feeling of a more lazy, unhurried journey.
The “S curve” in particular is a classic compositional technique that dates back to the early days of painting. As its name implies, the S curve is shaped roughly like the letter S, and is often used to convey movement and to divide a scene into two balanced parts.
Finally, implied lines are those that can’t be seen, but are still a clear part of a composition. As an obvious example, a group of people standing in a row will create an implied line, or the seagulls above; as will the space at the top of a neat row of columns or evenly placed flowers in a garden. Implied lines are used all the time in photography, and are compositionally just as successful as visible lines.
Regardless of what kind you use, almost any composition can benefit from one or more carefully chosen lines. The trick is to develop an eye for finding and placing those lines. Start by making the pursuit of line a part of every photographic outing. If you spend enough time consciously looking for lines, eventually their pursuit will become a natural part of your work.