Leading Lines & Balance

Closely related to perspective is the concept of leading lines. When you look at a photograph for the first time, your eye will naturally be drawn to certain areas. It is possible to subtly lead the viewers eye around the image to areas of interest using the visual cues of line and perspective.

For some reason our visual cortex finds broad “S” shapes very appealing, so any feature in a photograph that resembles this shape will naturally tend to attract the viewer’s attention. The eye naturally tends to follow the S-shape into the picture, usually starting at the closest and/or lowest point and moving upward. Many features can be used to create leading lines, but favourites include rivers, streams, footpaths, roads, hedgerows, or the line of surf on a beach. In figure or portrait photography, the line of the limbs, hands, hair or items of clothing can also be used to create leading lines that draw the eye into the photo.

In this example, the elevated angle allows the long curving line of beach huts to form a leading line drawing the viewer into the picture.

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Leading lines are most often used in landscape photography, because so many natural features make those appealing S-shapes. Here the line of the stream leads the eye up to the waterfall in the background.



Leading lines don’t have to be S-shaped curves, straight lines can work as well. In this example, the perspective of the walls and the water stains on the concrete path lead the eye inwards to the focal point of the photograph, the bicycle in the background. Use leading lines to emphasise a particular point in a photograph, or to highlight a particular subject in a busy environment.



In this studio portrait shot, the position of the model’s hand and the line of her hair combine in a leading line directing the viewer’s attention to her eyes.




Balance

When your photograph has more than one subject, you can achieve a more pleasing composition if you give each subject equal weighting in the composition. The best way to do this is to position the camera so that the subjects form a harmonious balance within the frame. It’s largely a matter of practice and experience, and as with many artistic techniques it’s also mostly down to aesthetics and individual taste.
As a rough guide, try to position your subjects so that they are roughly the same distance from the edges of the frame, and also more-or-less symmetrically balanced around either the centre of the frame or some visible dividing line. I find that a diagonal composition works best in most cases, especially with portraits of couples. Perfectly symmetrical arrangements where the subjects are at the same height within the frame tend to look forced and unnatural.

In this first example, the two fish are balanced by the stone jar in a diagonal arrangement that makes for a pleasing and harmonious composition. If you can’t see it, try covering up the jar with your hand and see how dull the fish look on their own.



In this second example, the photo was heavily cropped to balance the composition between the two guys talking in the background and the horse in the foreground. In this case the horse is closer to the edge of the frame, but then it is much bigger and closer to the camera, so it looks more natural that way.



In this formal wedding portrait, the balanced composition and diagonal alignment make for a simple but classy portrait. Some wedding photographers like to get all arty with their shots, but if you want a photo that’s still going to be cherished 30 years from now, my advice is to stick to what works.

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