All photos in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers.
For today’s street photography composition lesson– I would like to discuss leading lines.
Leading lines are one of the most basic photography compositional techniques– I am sure you have all heard of it before. But it is a technique that we often don’t listen to or follow. For example, it is easy to have a leading line in the background (for example, a background) that leads your eyes away from the main subject, rather to the main subject.
Whenever I look at a photograph, the first question I ask myself is: who is the subject?
If I cannot easily identify who the main subject is– it causes me to get stressed out and disoriented. I frantically look around the frame trying to find the central subject.
Therefore you can utilize leading lines to point out your main subject to the viewer. Imagine leading lines to be like a road sign saying: “hey guys, look over here!”
I will bring up some examples to further illustrate the importance of leading lines:
Josef Koudelka : CZECHOSLOVAKIA. 1963. Slovakia. Jarabina.
In this compelling photo by Koudelka for his “Gypsies” book — you see a man dead in the center of the frame, hands in handcuffs– and onlookers in the background. The story behind the photo (to my understanding) is that the man in the center is being tried for murder– and is on his way to get hanged.
The feeling of the photograph is tense. The man has a look of fear and death on his face– and his hands slouched by his sides (with handcuffs holding them together) makes him seem even more dead. He doesn’t look like he is struggling against this fate (of him being put to death). And in the background you can see people looking over and following– observing the whole event. You can also see some police officers taking care of things.
There is one small subtle leading line in the photograph. Can you see it?
If you look at the jagged line in the ground, it points straight to the man about to be convicted.
In “Looking at Photographs” by MOMA photography curator John Szarkowski — he likened the line on the ground almost looking like a rusty hook, about to pull the man to his imminent death. I have made another illustration perhaps showing the feeling of a hook dragging the man to the right:
So you can see the photograph works on an emotional level (the expression of defeat his face, the handcuffs, people watching him go to his death) and on a compositional level (the leading line).
The leading line in Figure 1 points you straight to the man in the center (your main subject) — while in Figure 2 drags the man towards the right of the frame to his imminent death.