We hear all the time that it is important to consider line and form in photography. However, it is rare that someone is specific about exactly what this means. Here are several tips for using lines to improve your pictures and make maximum impact just like the pros do.
Use lines to emphasize and de-emphasize different elements.
Leading lines are called this for a reason; the photographer can use them to lead to the eye to a particular subject, making it more important within that particular photo. This by proxy de-emphasizes other parts of the photograph. Lines occur in both nature and in manmade settings, such as crop lines, fences, and roads. Use these and other elements to lead the eye to certain elements, effectively taking viewers on a journey into your mind.
Use lines to portray emotion or to add emotion into a ‘dry’ photograph.
Like color, line can be used to invoke emotion. Different lines give people different feelings. Here is a short primer on using line in this way.
- Horizontal lines create calm, natural feelings. Think about ocean-scapes and other landscapes dominated by horizontal lines; most make us feel rested and at ease. If anything, they can even be dull and boring. This may be why we see these lines so often in the background of portraits. Horizontal lines are good for creating patterns in more artistic photographs as well; just remember the rule of thirds and be careful to create the all important balance.
- Vertical lines give a sense of power and growth. Trees, skyscrapers, and turrets: all are very different yet create the same sense of wonder in viewers. We feel small and powerless next to very tall things, so they seem larger and more powerful by comparison. Use these types of lines when you want to inspire awe in your viewer, and keep in mind that the effect is intensified by multiple lines in close proximity. Again, be sure to consider the Rule of Thirds when using these lines, to avoid having a cluttered picture or visually cutting the photo into sections.
- Converging lines give a sense of scale. When these are symmetrical and relatively even, they can help create a sense of scale and/or distance. Think of power lines, fences, and stairs. They all help the viewer to gage length and width carefully, which can be a great tool in photographs that are emphasizing either a very large or very small scale.
- Diagonal lines add depth. Not only do these add physical depth, they add emotional depth as well. If the line is straight, it draws the eye through the photo, while adding a curve or wavelike shape creates an overall sense of movement. Because we tend in Western culture to look at a photo from left to right, moving diagonal lines from the bottom left to the top right is often best for creating a very attractive sense of beauty and symmetry in your photograph.
- Curvy and S-shaped lines imply elegance and femininity. From violins to the female form itself, many of the things that we associate either with women or with upscale elegance have s-shaped curves and other wavy lines. A winding line of any type creates a sense of flow and serenity, but that deep s-shaped curve will bring in elements of sensuality and good form. This type of line can be beautiful or completely unattractive depending on the subject of your photo, so use it with care.
Practice capturing lines by themselves.
Before you can effectively use lines as a background or foreground, you must learn how to capture them correctly. Look around your world for different combinations of lines and different materials. Take pictures of these from a variety of angles and vantage points. This will help you master lines, and later use them as elements of more complex photographs. It will also train your eye to instinctively recognize scenes with good ‘bones’.
Try different lenses.
Nowhere is this more effective than in lines that travel from very near to very far away, usually converging at some point in the distance. You can create an interesting and artistic sense of depth by positioning yourself between two of the lines and then using a wide angle lens to create a sense of space. In general, wide angle lenses will exaggerate space when used in conjunction with lines because they make things that are up close appear larger, but don’t convey this effect over the rest of the photograph.
Provide contrast to add interest.
As you can imagine, many lines are accentuated by the use of other, contrasting lines, especially if these are in a different color or texture. Using contrasting lines in your photograph can be interesting enough of a visual image that no other subject is needed.
Keep it simple.
While using a variety of lines can add interest, too many elements can result in a chaotic and confusing image. There is a fine line between ‘just right’ and ‘too much’, and only practice will help you learn to identify it consistently. This is especially true if you are using the lines in question as a background and not as the actual subject.
Practice whenever possible.
As with any photographic or artistic technique, the only way to master the use of lines in photography is to practice over and over in a wide range of settings. Keep a camera on you at all times and start taking it out whenever you notice one of the types of line that we have talked about. Before you know it, working effectively with line will be second nature, something that you adjust for without even thinking about it.
Using good lines in photography comes naturally to some people, but most of us need to learn this technique just as we would take care to learn anything else. Hopefully, this guide to using lines to add beauty and meaning to your work will lead to huge improvements in your work.