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.
Henri Cartier-Bresson FRANCE. 1932. Marseille. The Allée du Prado.
This is a classic street photograph by HCB in Marseille. You can see he photograph itself is intruiging. The man has a great bowler cap on, an ominous black cape, a umbrella by his side– and what appears to be a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. He is facing toward HCB — but looking off to the side. It was almost if HCB caught this man by surprise– and he turned around to see what was going on.
In the background you have the alley of dead trees– going all the way straight down. The whole photo feels a bit dark, mysterious– and slightly sinister.
In terms of the composition– you can see the leading lines perfectly pointing straight towards the man’s head (the main subject):
The way HCB shot this was crucial. He stood straight up enough that the man’s head was perfectly framed in the center. If he crouched down a little too low — he would have messed up the shot. A photoshopped example of what it may have looked like if he crouched low when shooting this photo:
So if HCB were to crouch a bit lower, you see it would make the man move up. And then the leading lines (while still pointing to him) wouldn’t point exactly toward his head. Therefore the effect of the leading lines wouldn’t be as powerful as it was in the original image.
Therefore when you are trying to shoot photos like this with leading lines– realize that you need the angle and perspective just right. If the perspective isn’t right– you might need to tippy toe a bit, you might need to stand upright (normal), or even crouch down. So as a takeaway point, realize that often bending your knees makes a huge different (for the better or the worse).
Josef Koudelka / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Kendice. 1966. Gypsies.
Sometimes leading lines aren’t so obvious. In this photograph by Koudelka (also from his “Gypsies” book) — you see three subjects in the frame. There are two men who are grown adults– and the one kid on the bottom right.
But when we look at the photo– they all pop out and grab our attention. Why is that?
Well it is due to the leading line. Do you see the leading line here? It is a little less obvious. I illustrated it below:
When I first saw this– I was absolutely blown away. Koudelka is a freaking genius. To make a composition like this blows my mind.
Now did he get all of the people to stand this way? I am not 100% sure. He might have seen them all like this and took the photo. But in all realism, he probably was going to take a photo of the two men– and then saw that leading line in the background — and wanted to fill the shot at the bottom right. He might have saw a lone kid wandering around– and asked him to stand there. The shot is completed because of the kid. Imagine the shot without the kid:
So due to the help of the epic “content aware” tool in Photoshop CS6– I photoshopped the kid out. Now doesn’t the shot feel so empty? The kid competes the shot– and it is because of the leading lines. If there were no leading line in the background – it wouldn’t be as distracting:
So you see in Figure 3 I have totally took out that leading in the background. Now the shot is a bit plain– but not as distracting.
The leading lines takes our eyes through the frame. If we utilize the leading line well– we will make a strong composition. But if a leading line takes your eyes in the wrong way– it will distract.
Constantine Manos. USA. 1988. Florida. Daytona Beach. “American Color”
Leading lines can also be utilized when it comes to signs and the direction in which people look at.
In this photograph by Constantine Manos from his “American Color” book (American Color 2 is also great)– you see two arrows in the shot. One of the arrows that says “New York Style Pizza” points -> to the man on the far right. But the interesting movement is the man in the far right is looking over his shoulder towards the left– where there is a man in the shade. There is also a “one way” sign that points left.
So if you illustrate it — the only reason we can see the man in the dark silhouette in the far right is because the “one way” sign is pointing left, and the man on the far right of the frame (who is lit well) looking over to the left:
So you can see although there is one small arrow (on the New York Style Pizza sign) pointing right– the majority of the arrows are pointing left. If you look at the other lines– they are also pointing toward that direction:
So you can see the architecture of the building in the background (and the streets in the back) also point left.
Finally what gives the photo tension is that the man on the far left is facing right– and presumably walking that way too. Therefore you see a collision of the man on the far left and the gaze of the man on the far right. This creates a sense of drama:
So I am sure you are reading this analysis and you might be thinking to yourself: “Did Constantine Manos intentionally do all of this while he took the photo?”
I doubt it. But it doesn’t matter. After he took the photo and if we sit down and really analyze it– there is this sense of movement and tension in the shot. And I think this is what makes it partly a great photo compositionally speaking.
So you can see in the prior examples the leading lines were mostly going on direction. But in this example by Manos– the arrows are all colliding in different directions:
Henri Catier-Bresson / USA. 1947. New York City. Manhattan. Downtown.
Let us go back to HCB. In this photograph he shot in NYC — he took a photo of a lone man, hunched over — hands on his knees, looking at perhaps his only friend in the world– a small cat (or dog). The small outline of their bodies and the overwhelming presence of the alleyways and city makes them feel so small. But it is a beautiful moment he captured between man and animal.
In terms of leading lines- it is pretty straight-forward. You see all of the alleyways and building point straight toward the subjects in the center of the frame:
The reason I wanted to show this photo is because it is a great example of a street photograph we have all seen opportunities for. It is also a street photograph that any of us can easily shoot in terms of incorporating leading lines.
Leading lines are a great way for any street photographer (starting off or advanced) to create more tension, focus, and direction in their street photography. Some practical tips:
1. Look for leading lines, then add your subjects
Often there are certain structures or backgrounds that work well for leading lines. This includes alleyways (think the photo by HCB), signs in the street, or vanishing points. Try to put your subject at the intersection where the leading lines take them.
2. Look for the direction people are looking
Some examples of “less obvious” leading lines are the direction in which people point or look. Our eyes often track the gaze of the subjects in our frame. So for example, in the Constantine Manos photo where the man on the far right looks left– which adds direction to bring your eyes that way.
3. Ask your subjects to move
If you see a great leading line in the background — simply ask your subject to move his/her feet a bit to the left or the right. It can make all the difference in completing a leading line (as seen in the example above by Koudelka).
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