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Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Leading Lines


BY Jim Zuckerman March 14, 2017 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use leading lines to direct the viewer's eye in the second article of his sixteen-part series on composition.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.


Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.


One of the things that make a photograph successful is that it directs attention to the subject. This can be done with good lighting, muted backgrounds, or graphic design. An important design element that directs our attention into the heart of a picture is called a leading line. This is a line that usually begins at the bottom of the composition and extends into the heart of the scene, bringing with it our eye. This line can take many forms. It can be railroad tracks, a line of colorful flowers, a split-rail fence, a gravel road, and many other things.

Distant Draw
The rows of tulips in figure 2.1 presented me with dramatic and colorful leading lines when I was in Holland, and the striations in sandstone and the boldly defined shadow seen in 2.2 that I found in southern Utah do the same thing. They draw our eyes into the distance or into the heart of the picture in a very engaging and artistic way. In a very different way, the gravel road in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains (2.3) visually pulls us into the distance. In this case, the line starts from the lower right corner instead of the lower middle portion of the image, but the effect is the same.

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.2

Figure 2.3

Line and Depth of Field
When you compose a picture such that it has a defined leading line, I feel it’s important that you have complete depth of field. The foreground portion of the line should not be soft, and similarly, the background should be sharply defined. That only makes sense, since the point of the leading line is to direct our attention to the subjects in the distance, and what’s the purpose of doing so if those subjects are not sharp?

Therefore, you should choose small lens apertures in the f/16-to-f/32 range, and that will almost always require a tripod. The reduced size of the aperture means that the amount of light is less, and therefore to maintain the same correct exposure the shutter has to be open longer. A longer shutter speed means that you will take a blurred picture unless is the camera is motionless during the exposure. And that, in turn, means that a tripod is essential.

If there is any wind, long shutter speeds will make this a challenge, however. When I shot the stunning flowers in Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam (2.4), I had to wait for a lull in the wind to render the flowers on the left tack sharp. This was one of the most compelling leading line photographs I’ve taken, because not only is the graphic design strong but the colors are outrageous.

Figure 2.4

Line and Light
One of the things I look for in seeking out leading lines is distinctive lighting. Light versus dark, streaks of moving lights, and long shadows can create distinctive foregrounds. Tail lights, for example, make beautiful leading lines at night as you can see in this photo (2.5) taken in Los Angeles. In this case, the lines are diagonal, which adds another dynamic compositional element.

Figure 2.5

The seemingly endless road leading to Monument Valley in Utah (2.6) makes a classic leading line, and notice how I stood in the center of the pavement to underscore the symmetry.

Figure 2.6

In 2.7 I used the same idea but with a very different subject. I purposely shot at sunset to capture the long shadow that pulls our eye toward the tree.

Figure 2.7

When I stood on a bridge overlooking Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park (2.8), the leading line of the river did the same thing as the long shadows in the previous example. It brings our eye into the rest of the image. This is a powerful compositional method that is used to create a strong picture.

Figure 2.8




Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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