Photographer Jim Zuckerman talks about the eight basic kinds of lines and how to locate them in a scene to create engaging images in the tenth 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.
The lines that make up an image are the one element that defines the success or failure of a composition. The feminine lines of a model, the circular lines of a staircase, and the bold graphic lines of the support structure for a glass ceiling in a museum or airport are very different, yet they all have one thing in common: If they are striking, compelling, and beautiful, the photograph will be as well. If they are not, the picture probably won’t be very good.
There are basically eight kinds of lines: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, C-curve, S-curve, arch, circle, and spiral. Each one of these types of lines can produce outstanding images, but my personal favorites are S-curves and spirals. I think these in particular are intriguing, although they are harder to find than other lines. Image 10.1 illustrates a classic S-curve on a sand dune in Namibia. One of the reasons photographers are drawn to shooting dunes is specifically because of the incredible curves in the contours of the sand. This kind of line is very pronounced at sunrise and sunset, and it makes such a strong artistic statement that it’s worth traveling halfway around the world to photograph. Nature photographers also love capturing egrets in various poses for the same reason. Their head and neck form an S-curve in almost every position they assume, as you can see in 10.2. In this shot I was also lucky to capture beautiful shape in the wings, as the bird was just taking flight. The C-curve also has a strong visual appeal, and in a shot of the stunning opera house (10.3) in Budapest, Hungary you can see how impressive the sweeping line of the balconies is. The wide-angle lens I used, a Canon 14mm, exaggerated the curvature that, in this instance, makes the C-curve look even better than it did to my eyes.
Curves come in many forms, and in 10.4 I used them in the repetition of arches in a monastery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. To frame a group of four monks in Myanmar (10.5), I used an arched window in a monastery. The curve above the heads of the young boys creates a much more attractive line than a square window frame would have. Curves occur in nature in the form of stone arches, and that’s why one of my favorite national parks is Arches National Park in Utah. Image 10.6 shows the classic Delicate Arch at sunset.
Image 10.7 offers another outstanding example of how lines make an image compelling. The spiral staircase in Austria’s Melk Abbey presents one of the best architectural spirals I’ve ever seen. I shot straight up with a 14mm lens, and although the lens exaggerated the perspective to a certain degree, the spiral design is incredible.
Circular lines can also make a powerful compositional statement. For example, in 10.8 the dome of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary is one of the most spectacular domes I’ve seen. What make it so powerful are the circular and radial lines.
As far back as the Roman Empire, people appreciated the strength and beauty of architectural lines. For example, the elegant columns in 10.9 add power, beauty, and artistry to the famous library at Ephesus, Turkey. By contrast, the abstract lines of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (10.10) have artistic contours and curves that are emphasized by beautiful evening light. This building can be photographed from every angle imaginable, and the graphic lines are magnificent.
Horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines are bold elements in a composition, and it’s always worth composing pictures in which they make dramatic contributions. The striations in sandstone create natural diagonals (10.11), and not only do they draw our eye into the distance, but they are bold and graphic elements that are very pleasing. This picture is all about lines.
In 10.12, look at all the diagonal lines. This is another picture that is defined by the various graphic lines that make up the leaves.
Go to the next article in this series: Balance
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules