7 Leading Line Photography Composition Tips

Dear friend,

I wanted to share you this article on leading lines:

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Why leading lines?

What is the purpose of leading lines? To direct your eyes to the subject.

The easiest way to create leading lines for your photos is to first look for the leading lines, and then try to position your subject at the intersection of the leading lines.

1. Look for leading lines in trees

The classic leading lines photo is from Henri Cartier-Bresson.

This is how he said he took the photo:

“I was walking behind this man when all of a sudden he turned around.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

(c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Marseille. The Allée du Prado. 1932.

What I love about the photo is the minimalism. The leading lines going straight to the man’s face, the face that he is turned around, and he has an interesting circular hat on, a black draped coat, as well as his cigarette. If the character weren’t so interesting looking, the photo wouldn’t be as strong.

With the red lines drawn in:

henri cartier bresson leading lines eric kim marseille

How to apply this:

You can apply this to your photos quite easily. Look for streets, alley-ways, or trees, that have a strong converging line and point. Know that you will have to either tippy-toe, or crouch down, and ‘work the scene’ to get the subject’s head straight in the right converging point of the leading lines.

2. Look for leading lines in walking paths

A photo that I shot that I was inspired by leading lines:

I was in Sapa, Vietnam — and walking along. I saw these leading lines on the bottom, going straight to the man, with his legs crossed (which was the cherry on top for me). I felt this photo worked best as a vertical photo, to emphasize the leading lines going straight to the man:


How you can apply this:

Look for leading lines on the concrete, or in dirt roads. Frame your photos vertically, so it can emphasize the leading line. And try to have it lead to an interesting subject.

3. Wait for the subject to enter the leading lines

One of my classic photos, shot in Seoul, 2009. I lived in Seoul, Korea for the summer, and had my Canon 5D. I shot this photo with a 35mm lens. Pretty much during the time, I was copying Henri Cartier-Bresson, by finding interesting backgrounds, and waiting for subjects to enter my frame.

I saw the interesting pillars in the background, and waited for the right person to enter. The day before, it rained, so the light was nice and soft. I also saw nice little flower petals on the ground.

Suddenly this woman in all white entered the scene. She walked into my frame, and the second she saw me, she slowly covered her eyes with the umbrella. I think that is what made the photo:


How to apply this:

They call this the ‘fishing’ technique — find an interesting background, be patient, and wait, before you catch your fish.

You can also think of it like setting a trap. Or just pre-establishing your composition.

When it comes to waiting for your subject to enter the frame, try to have their legs spread in a “V” form — which adds more movement, and form.

4. Look for leading lines in arrows

For this photo, I shot in 2011, while I was working full-time at my 10-6pm office job in Santa Monica, California. I was walking around the third street promenade after work, and I saw this interesting sculpture, and this leading line on the bottom. I waited a while for someone to enter the frame.

From the right, I saw a man coming into the frame. I took a few photos, and timed one photo perfectly, where it was leading straight to the bicycle:


How to apply this:

When you’re out shooting, look for leading lines in the form of arrows. Then once again, wait, and be patient for your subject to enter the frame at the right moment. And click and time the photo, to have the leading line going straight to the subject.

5. Crouch down low

For this photo, I shot in Tokyo, 2011. I was shooting with a Leica M9 at the time, with a Vogitlander 21mm lens. I saw this interesting leading line of the wall in the background, and saw a man in a suit about to enter. I crouched down, and quickly took one or two photos. This one came out the best.

Initially his face was already quite dark, and I liked the mysterious look. In Lightroom, I darkened his face even more:


How to apply this:

I find when I crouch down and shoot, it emphasizes diagonals and leading lines. I also find that leading lines and diagonals are more dynamic with wide-angle lenses (35mm, 28mm, or wider).

So try to crouch more when shooting leading lines, especially when the lines are above.

6. Direct your subject to stand in the right spot

For this photo, I was at the Lotte Building in Hanoi, 2017. I saw these lovely leading lines, and wanted a photo of Cindy. Patiently, she posed for me. The last photo, she waved her hand and said: “Common Eric, let’s go” in a playful tone.

I love the last photo, with her smile, and her left hand — egging me on. This is the ‘cherry on top’ for me:


Also as a side-note, note how there is enough white space around her head, to give her strong ‘figure to ground‘ (or contrast) in the photo. Here is a close-up:

With the red lines drawn in:

How to apply this:

Practice leading lines with your friends, family, or loved ones. They are the most patient. And you can get a good photo out of it.

7. Work the scene

If you see good leading lines, don’t give up. Take as many photos as possible (horizontal, vertical) and try to perfect it. Also, use a flash, like I did in this photo with Cindy:

eric kim street photography hanoi-0002040 cindy project hat hanoi

The contact sheet, note I had to shoot 40 photos, and the best photo was the last one (with flash):

0-contact cindy hat hanoi


Leading lines is one of the easiest ways to start composing better images. As a general rule, start off with a simple background, with strong leading lines, and then wait for the subject to enter. Better yet, have a friend or a person you can pose, to practice your leading line compositions.

Learn more about composition

Learn more about composition in these new (refreshed) articles on composition:

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