One of the strongest elements of composition is the use of visual lines. You often hear them referred to as leading lines, s-curves, image flow or roadmaps. They are actually just a way to lead the viewer’s eye slowly and carefully through a photo or to draw a connection between two or more objects in the scene. They are also help to create depth within an image.
The goal, however, is essentially to “walk” the viewer’s eye around the image without a direct exit or straight line out; making sure that they stay engaged in the scene along the way. A straight leading line that brings the viewer to a primary point of interest can also be very effective.
Some of you may be having questions like; how do I find these visual lines? Are they hiding? I can never find these lines or s-curves, why? The answer is that sometimes we find them and sometimes we create them, and other times they are simply just not there.
To find the “lines” I start by taking my camera off of my tripod so that I have complete flexibility to inspect the scene. I like to walk around the scene looking for elements that I can use as leading lines or foreground elements. I also like to get down low or get to a higher vantage point to change my perspective. I often times will change out my lens if I can’t find anything useful. I find that a wider angle lens for some landscapes works much better and other times a medium zoom lens is the ticket, there is no set lens to use. It is not a technical matter with exact numbers or equations. You really have to rely on what looks good to you. I take many test shots and review the images on the back of my camera before I even get my tripod set up for the actual shot.
Sometimes I need to de-clutter or simplify the scene. To do that, I start by taking away unnecessary elements from the edges, including the top, bottom and both sides. Moving your camera position or having a zoom lens can be helpful with this. Otherwise, I like to employ “human zooming” -- just moving your body. Another way to eliminate distracting background elements is by getting down very low. By getting low you can make some background elements virtually disappear.
I will also turn to B&W to help me simplify a scene. I often set my Picture Style on my camera to Monochrome so that I can get a look at what the photo will look like in B&W before I capture it, I find this very helpful when trying to compose in a cluttered situation.
To create a visual journey when there are no obvious leading lines available I will look for color, contrast, light, darkness, sharpness, blur and even sun rays to help me create those lines. In the example image below I used the receding water to help create a visual line for my image.
The truth is that sometimes you will have to work harder, trying to find interesting and innovative ways to draw the viewer into your photograph, be creative and resourceful.