Compositional Elements - Lines

I once attended a photography class where the instructor did the most fascinating lesson on the use of lines in photography. What he demonstrated has stuck with me ever since. However, in order to understand what he said, we need some knowledge of composition.

What is composition?

Composition in a photograph is the arrangement of the elements in a scene. "Good composition" means that these elements enhance the scene. They make it better and more pleasing to the eye. There is no one right composition in a photograph. Instead, composition is greatly dependent on the likes and dislikes of each photographer.

However, a photographer's choice of composition does follow a common set of guidelines. This is because composition radically changes a scene. What one photographer feels is fitting, might not work for another. Take, for instance, a famous landscape location, one photographed a lot. Line up the millions of pictures taken of it. Soon you will see how differently each person saw that spot. At the same time, you will notice similarities.


The photographer's job in choosing his composition is to think about what the viewer will see in the resulting photograph. What is it about that scene stands out? Similarly, what should be ignored? Also, what should be prevented? The familiar "pole out of the head" mistake does NOT work in an image. It is up to the photographer to notice the pole and adjust his stance to avoid this error.

The rules behind composition are there because certain placements draw the viewer's eye better. Every photographer, as he sets up the shot, must ask himself, "What do I want the viewer to see?" and, "How can I help him see it?" It is the arrangement of the elements in a photograph that will make it successful.



This brings me back to lines. Lines are one of the strongest visual clues in photography. Every photograph has a linear element in it somewhere. The previously mentioned "pole in the head" is in itself a misuse of lines. Buildings, horizons, streambeds, and fences, these are well-known lines.  However, lines can be obscure. The ripples in a pond, stripes of unusual clouds, both of these are also lines.

A photographer can create lines as well - through his choice of lens, his distance from the subject, or his angle of view. Think of a field of cows. Standing in one location, they might look randomly placed. Yet shift one's feet six feet to the left and they line up like bowling pins.


Lines come in a variety of sizes and directions. They can be strong in an image or subtle. Horizontal and vertical lines are the most common. Horizons are horizontal lines, but there are also roads, stairs, and sidewalks. (The types of linear elements are endless.) Vertical lines might include buildings, (again) trees, even crowds of people. But don't limit lines to horizontal or vertical! Lines also run diagonal in an image. In fact, diagonal lines can lead the viewer into a scene stronger than any other. 

Then there are curves. The shape of the curve greatly alters the resulting image. There are two dominant types of curves, C-curves and S-curves. S-curves are great for giving an image an air of mystery - the old "what's around the bend" question. Receding roadways or paths are often best configured with an S-curve.

Lastly, think about circles! Circles are after all, just rounded lines, and they leave a definite impression on a scene. Beds of button-shaped flowers or long rows of round, orange pumpkins are two great examples. Circles can make for fun photography!


The most important part of using lines is in their placement. Where in the image will they be the most effective? The photographer's physical location often determines line placement. I have found that photographers, accustomed to using telephoto lenses, forget they can walk forward or backward. Walk forward and perhaps the vertical lines become stronger. Walk backward and they might recede somewhat. Where you stand will change the photograph.

With curves, moving oneself often enhances or changes the scene. In one location, a distracting group of trees might block the shape of the curve. Move a little to the left and those same trees anchor the scene instead. Physical location can alter the shape of your curve as well. What was a C-curve becomes an S-curve when you are ten steps back and two to the side.

The familiar rule of thirds is another superb way to determine good placement. This rule breaks a photograph into six equal squares (three horizontal columns and three vertical columns). Linear elements placed in a one-third location, rather than halfway, are said to better balance a scene. Yet this rule is not concrete. I have seen a halfway placement be very effective.

Lines-1.jpgAnother great tip for using lines comes through repetition. Where a single line can be good, multiple lines are even more eye pleasing. This is because multiple lines create textures. The repetitive pattern of decorative floor tiles or a display of evenly spaced fruit are both excellent examples.

One image the instructor of the class used was at first perplexing to the students. He asked if anyone could recognize it. In the end, it turned out to be an overhead shot of a box of plastic drinking bottles. To the human eye, they looked instead like rows of fish eyes!

The best way to use lines effectively is to pay particular attention to them to start with. I think this is what I learned the most from that class. I learned to look for lines. The fact is they are everywhere. It is only as we begin to see them that we make use of them. I encourage you to go out and specifically look for interesting lines. The more you do the more fascinating and the more useful they will become in your photography.

Suzanne Williams  Suzanne Williams Photography Blog

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.