Sunday, September 13, 2009

Leading Lines

Sometimes rules about composing photographic images just seem like way too much effort. The problem is, even if you understand the rule thoroughly (and some of them can be hard to understand), it's just not a natural impulse to think about following obscure rules right before you press the shutter. I mean, there you are, snapping photographs of your kids playing at the park on a bright spring afternoon. What's running through your mind is probably not missing that great shot of Billy on the swings, or how little Amanda's hair is blowing in the breeze so adorably while she's playing in the sandbox. What you probably AREN'T thinking is, how can I make this shot more compositionally pleasing?

Well, sometimes it's worth it to think that way. There are any number of elements with respect to your photographs that are squarely within your control. While you can't change things like the weather or the time of day, you can move closer to or farther away from your subject, you can change the vantage point from which you're shooting, you can turn the camera horizontally or vertically, and so forth. If doing some of these things at least some of the time can produce photographs that you find more pleasing, that you're happier to share with people, or maybe that make you want to grab your scrapbooking supplies, then there is really no downside to trying them. The trick, though, is to learn and practice some of the so-called "rules" of good composition, so that they become second-nature. It's when they become second-nature that you'll find yourself using them to compose those everyday shots of your kids playing at the park. And when that happens, you'll also notice (not coincidentally) that you're getting a greater number of really good, and really compelling, images. Also, the more you know about compositional rules, the more you'll understand that, like all rules, sometimes it's better to break them.

Over time, I'll make an effort to discuss several different rules of image composition in my blog posts. But, since the overall goal is to make thinking about and applying the rules second-nature, I think it's important that they be introduced and discussed individually. That way, you'll have sufficient time to practice using one rule before trying another one. Oh, and by the way, these rules are by no means exclusive to photography; they're actually basic principles of design. As you learn them, start looking out for real-world examples of their application. After awhile, you'll notice these principles being used in print advertisements, in movie scenes, and many other places.

I thought I'd start with the rule or principle that I consider one of the easiest to learn and apply -- the use of a "leading line." What is a leading line? Well, when you take a photograph, you want your viewer to focus on your subject and, more generally, you want to "draw the viewer in" to the scene that you've photographed, whether that's a landscape or Amanda in the sandbox. A "leading line" is simply some line-shaped element in your frame of vision, whether real or man-made, that you purposely position along the bottom edge of your image in such a way that it acts as a kind of "line," effectively drawing the viewer's eye into the photograph. The "line" can be straight, curved, or squiggly -- it doesn't matter. It will still have the effect of drawing the viewer's eye into the image.

In terms of natural leading lines, a river is the easiest example to visualize. A road is probably the quintessential man-made leading line -- after all, a road is perfectly line-shaped and it was built to lead somewhere! But the truth is that all kinds of things can act as leading lines. It all has to do with where you position yourself so that you can take advantage of the linear properties of the element that you've chosen.

In the photograph above of my son Brian playing at the park, the tires embedded in the ground are the leading line. Brian was having a blast jumping from tire to tire; using the line of tires to draw attention to his activity gives the photograph a dynamic component that would be missing in a simple photograph of him standing on one of the tires. It's almost like you're jumping along the trail of tires right behind him. Here's another example. This photograph was taken at Lake Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park:

In this photo, I used a fallen tree along the shore of the lake as my leading line. I noticed the tree near me as I was standing there taking photographs of the lake, and I simply positioned myself a bit behind it so that the tree was "pointing" toward the horizon in the resulting image. I found the almost eerie-looking shapes of some of the fallen trees at Yellowstone to be fascinating, so this shot allowed me to showcase both the shape of the tree and the serene beauty of the enormous lake. Landscape photographs are perfect for using leading lines, although as illustrated by the photo of Brian on the tires, the use of this technique certainly isn't limited to landscapes. But, generally, in a photograph you've composed using a leading line, you'll probably want everything in the frame to be in focus. This is as opposed to, say, a close-up, detailed image of a flower, where the flower likely looks better with a slightly blurred background. This means that you want great depth of field in your leading line photograph -- you want everything that the viewer sees, or almost everything, to be in acceptable focus. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use the "landscape" setting on your camera. Usually it's an icon of a mountain with a cloud over it. Using this setting will narrow the lens opening (aperture) of your camera, which will cause things both far and near to be in focus.

Remember how I said that a road is pretty much the quintessential leading line? Well, as the leaves start to turn beautiful fall colors (in my area of the country, at least) here is a great exercise for you to try. Drive along a country road (or any non-busy road lined with trees) and find a stand of trees sporting the beautiful yellows, reds and rusty browns of autumn. If fallen leaves litter the road, as well, so much the better. Set your camera on the landscape setting as described above, then experiment with using the road as a leading line into your photograph depicting the colorful trees. You can stand along the edge of the road, or right in the middle of it (if you're sure traffic won't be a factor). Take several different shots from several different perspectives, each time positioning the road along the bottom edge of your framed image. You'll see pretty quickly that it's an easy technique, and one that naturally lends itself to landscape photographs. If you're ready to branch out, think of a few other non-people photos that you'd like to take. Try to compose those images by looking for leading lines that can be incorporated into your photograph. Remember, a leading line can be almost anything -- a river, a tree branch, a sidewalk, the edge of a path, a row of flowers, etc. Have fun, and pretty soon, you'll be seeing potential leading lines everywhere!

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