Composition: Lead-In Lines :: Digital Photo Secrets

Composition: Lead-In Lines

by David Peterson 5 comments

In photography, composition has one clear goal, and that is to make your image interesting. For most of us, an interesting thing is something that stands out and draws your eyes in. That’s why I’d like to take some time to talk about one very easy way to do this in your photos. By using shapes and lines, you can draw your viewer into an image and make it more engaging. What’s the end result? You guessed it. A more appealing and visually interesting image.

What is a lead-in line?

A lead-in line is any line your eye can follow into an image. It could be the edge of something, the horizon, or an interesting pattern you observe. Possible lead-in lines can be found in almost anything in nature or the world around you. They’re the edge of a building, a flower, a cloud, a street, or your friend’s face. Because they are a purely geometric thing, they could literally be anything.

The image above is a perfect example of that I'm talking about. In the photo, your eyes follow the edge of the plate to the tops of the cupcakes. The plate is your lead into the image.

Why is it important to use lead-in lines?

If you think about it, interesting things stand out for a reason. A person with a bright yellow shirt stands out because most people don’t wear bright yellow. This creates a sharp line between the person and the background. A similar sort of thing goes on when you use lead-in lines properly. You make your subject stand out by making all lines in the scene point to it.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a simple rule for deciding where to place your subject in the frame. A lot of research shows that we find images interesting when the subject is positioned about one third of the distance into the frame, either from the top, bottom, or the sides. Lead-in lines can help you accentuate what you do with the rule of thirds. By drawing your viewers eye to a subject placed at any of these thirds locations, you can create a more visually interesting image.

A very simple example.
John uses the chopsticks to draw the viewer’s eye to the bowl,
which is conveniently placed about 1/3 in from the top and right of the frame.
Photo By John Morgan

Finding a good lead-in line?

To find a lead-in line, you simply need to look at the scene from a bunch of different angles and perspectives. Sometimes they aren’t there at a certain angle, but they’re very present at another. Sometimes you need to zoom in to get a lead-in line to work. Sometimes you need to zoom out. Look from above. Look from below. Walk around your subject and see it from all sides.

Where do the best lead-in lines start?

Lead-in lines can start anywhere on the side of the frame. There really aren’t any hard and fast rules about that. As long as the lines go somewhere through, or point towards, a main subject, they should work quite well. The best way to test a lead-in line’s effectiveness is to take a step back and look at the image. Notice what your eyes do. Do they go through the entire image, focusing on the subject, or do you get the feeling that you’re stuck?

Using shapes and lead-in lines for other purposes

The most interesting part of this whole exercise is using shapes and lead-in lines for other purposes. Sometimes you can use other shapes to stop your viewer’s eyes from moving through the scene. You can also use them to direct your viewer’s eyes back out of the scene. Depending on what you’re trying to do, certain approaches will be better or worse than others. It’s really up to you to step back and trust your intuitions on this one.

Spiral staircases are a quintessential example of lead-in lines.
They always start at the edge and gradually wind toward a central point.
Photo By David Blaikie

Lead-in lines can’t always be used with every image you make, but they do make your images more interesting. Use them whenever they help draw your viewer’s eye through an entire photo, and you’ll have a winning combination.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. David says:

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  2. Leonard says:

    I am wondering if first photo is the wrong photo. I looked at it several times and never noticed the edge of the plate which is supposed to be a leading line. The photo has 4 cup cakes with white frosting. Thanks

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Leonard,

      It's definitely a photo showing leading lines - curved ones. Not only the line of the plate that you saw, but also look at the lines made by the icing on the cakes.

      Leading lines don't always need to lead to or away from a subject to work.

      I hope that helps.


  3. Tom says:

    Thanks, I really appreciate the help from the tips, they have been very helpful and my photography is improving daily.

  4. Mike Dollmann says:

    Thanks for all your tips and advice. They have helped me tremendously and are greatly appreciated.
    I will be holidaying in Mauritius soon and was wondering whether you have any tips on photographing the sea in order to capture that beautiful turquoise water. I make use of a polarising filter but have not been able to capture the true colour as seen in so many of the magazines articles and travel brochures.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.