Leading Lines: How Simple Geometry Can Improve Your Photography

Make no mistake – photography is an art form. It is a creative endeavor and it cannot be broken down into analytical numbers or geometric shapes.

While there is no consistent formula for photography, thinking about geometry, more specifically, the use and presence of lines, can really transform your work and elevate it to the next level. It is important to note though, as I expressed above, the use of lines and geometry in your compositions is simply a concept. It is not a fix-all or something that can be applied to every single shooting scenario. Not every image has to follow certain guidelines to be well-balanced, pleasing to the eye, and dynamic. 

When lines are used effectively, they help you create complex, but simple compositions that are pleasing to the eye. They give your images direction, which is extremely important. We will review the Rule of Thirds, the effectiveness of leading lines, how to use lines to arrange your composition, and more. We will review this one simple compositional technique, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important. Next time you are in the field, think about the ‘art’ of seeing and practice looking for lines and shapes. The more you intentionally look for compositions and scenes, the easier and easier it will become. 

Rule of Thirds
It is amazing to think about, but the Rule of Thirds was first recorded way back in the early 1800s. Yes, that is before there were mirrorless cameras. The Rule of Thirds is simply a guideline to help photographers place important elements in a frame. Generally, a grid is overlaid across the frame (horizontally or vertically). The grid contains two horizontal and two vertical lines, spaced evenly. The idea is to place elements where the two lines intersect. This helps visual flow in your image, but also provides energy and tension, which help lead the eye and strengthen the composition itself. 

The Rule of Thirds has become so popular as a compositional technique that most cameras even have a grid overlay in Live View or via the EVF that includes a Rule of Thirds view. 

I like to think of the Rule of Thirds as a suggestion, not a rule. If you think of it as a rule, you can become singular and fixated on adapting every single composition to the ‘rule’. That kills creativity. 

Here it is, The Rule of Thirds in all its glory. This simple grid can help improve your photographic work.

An easy way to apply the Rule of Thirds is by using what I call ‘anchors’. Anchors help with edge control and create some really nice lines in your composition. I think about it like this – using the Rule of Thirds, place an element on one of the bottom corner intersect lines, while placing your focal point on the opposite intersect in the top of the frame. Doing this creates great flow in your image and connects your important elements to your focal point.

See the examples below:

See how the tree in the bottom right is serving as an anchor for the frame. You can draw a line from the tree to the mountains, which are the focal point of the scene. I made sure my edges are clean, I want no distracting elements creeping on the edges because those things will draw the eye away from the focal point. I was also thinking about spacing, see the separation between the tree and the rainbow? That is intentional. Spacing is key to ensure simplicity and reduce distractions. 

This is not a particular strong composition, in my opinion. I was working with what the Himalaya gave me. I tried to anchor the frame on the bottom right with the bush. Multiple diagonals are working together in this image. See how the valley coming in on the bottom right creates a diagonal with the brightest light in the image – that is where I want the eye to go. 

The flowers in the bottom left can be attached to the mountain in the top right with a diagonal line. 

Get out there and try shooting with the Rule of Thirds in mind. It is a simple concept that can immediately make your photos better. Do not get short sighted, though, and consider it a ‘rule’ that you need to follow at all times. As I demonstrated above, I recommend trying to include anchors in some of your images. 

Composition Ideas via Adobe Lightroom
The Crop Tool in Lightroom can be effective at giving you ideas for future images, but also for checking your current images to see how they ‘align.’ This is a feature I just found out about recently and I think it is extremely applicable. 

Click on the Crop Tool in Lightroom and by default the Rule of Thirds grid will be displayed. Press ‘O’ on your keyboard to cycle through all the different grid overlays. Here are your options:

Rule of Thirds – We just discussed the Rule of Thirds above, but you can see the frame divided into 9 sectionals. The Rule of Thirds can be extremely useful for beginners, as it can be a simple way to balance images and at the same time, create a better sense of what makes a solid composition.

 

Simple Grid – This grid will not help you much with composition, but it will help you when it comes to straightening lines and visually distortion – something we encounter a lot shooting with wide angle lenses.

Aspect Ratio – This is less about lines, but there are standard aspect ratios. You often see print companies exclusively offer sizing in specific aspect ratio as well. Aspect ratios do relate to your composition too, and this overlay helps you see how your image looks with different ratios.

Diagonal Lines – This overlay is derived from the Rule of Thirds and relates to anchoring an image. But, there is way more potential than just that. You can see the deliberate ‘X’ formed by the intersecting lines. The ‘X’ can be a difficult composition to find in nature, in its full form. I find this compositional layout great for when you have moving water in your foreground, such as a stream.

 

Golden Triangle, Golden Spiral and Golden Section based on the Golden Ratio– These overlays are all variations based on the Golden Ratio. The ratio is based on mathematics from the 12th century (Fibonacci). These guidelines were used in paintings, sculptures, and architecture long before photography. The Golden Ratio is said to have perfect proportions, which result in derivatives that are very pleasing to the eye. Like the Rule of Thirds, these overlays instruct us to place relevant elements along the dividing lines or intersection point of lines. If these are new to new, I recommend studying the overlays and thinking about them next time you are in the field. Think about how they might apply to a certain scene. It can help going back into your past work and seeing how the grids overlay on your photos. Photography is a study, and you can learn a lot from reflecting and contemplation too, not just shooting in the field.

Leading Lines
Another simple suggestion is to just think about leading the eye to the focal point of your image. Forget the line intersections, the Golden Ratio, and all the rules. Can you find something in the scene to lead the eye? After all, that is the most important thing when it comes to composition, lead the eye to your focal point in an aesthetically pleasing way. 

I stress it a lot, but one reason I shoot so many water features is because they provide easily identified leading lines. They are often powerful lines as well since they are moving features (rivers, streams, cascades, etc.). 

Here is a beautiful waterfall located in Olympic National Park. See how the bottom of the frame is almost like the ‘X’ composition I mentioned. The rapids act as leading lines right up the waterfall. 

Here is a scene from Zion National Park. Very simple. I used the Virgin River to lead to Court of the Patriarchs. See the lines of the water lead right to where I want the eye to go. 

This is a remote waterfall in Jasper National Park, a 55-mile backpacking trip brought me here. The water cascades down, powerfully, before twisting and turning right into the focal point of my scene – the distant peak. 

Summary
I find it funny that a creative venture like photography has ‘rules’ and compositional ideas based off of formulaic studies, such as math and geometry. But, there is no doubt, using the Rule of Thirds and some of the other diagonal techniques can really help improve your compositions. Practice makes perfect, and composition is something you need to practice in the field, but also practice in your head. I spend a lot of time looking at art by some of the great landscape painters, such as Thomas Moran, to get ideas on composition. Artists are able to create a scene from scratch, the composition should be perfect, no dead vegetation, no clear skies, you get the idea. I think you can learn a lot about composition by viewing art. 

Anyways, take this article for what it’s worth and remember these are suggestions. Do not become one-dimensional and obsessed with the so-called rules, it will sap your creativity. I have seen many great images that do no abide by any compositional rules. 

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com