Why Frontline Photography Composition Is Harder Than You Think

Many people go into photography without having an art background or any kind of art training.

Some may say to themselves, “Hey, I know how to use a camera. Why do I need that?”

The answer lies in one word – communication.

Just as anyone can write a paragraph, it takes training and knowledge to become a writer to write a paragraph that will communicate the right message to the widest possible audience.

Sometimes, having a little art knowledge can be as difficult as having no knowledge at all.

There are different levels of artistic training – what I’m talking about here is composition.

Today, I’m going to be talking about a composition tool called, “frontline”.

Leading lines are basic composition tools and represent concepts that most photographers can work with. There are horizontal lines, diagonal lines, vertical lines, and so on.

The problem is that many photographers don’t use leading lines properly, creatively, or even recognize when they’re ruining their composition. There are many opportunities to use vertical lines or horizontal front lines landscape or portrait photography. Or any other genre really – natural lines are everywhere and you might also consider shooting man-made lines.

Let’s look at some frontline examples and discuss what worked and what didn’t. I’ll even include some discussion of the fairly sophisticated use of forefront.

Mainline Photography Example #1Horizontal Main Line

Traditional Use -1 a

Example 1 is the very traditional use of horizontal lines in artistic (photographic) composition. The railroad tracks are quite dominant and form a perfect visual pathway to the three boys who are walking.

A question to ponder-

  1. How do we know that the three boys are the subject of this photo? Why not horizontal lines – railroads? Or, the surrounding landscape?

Before we answer the question – let’s take a look at other examples of leading lines, and maybe you’ll figure out the answer to the question yourself.

Mainline Photography Example #2

Example 2 with arrows

In example 2, it’s clear that the photographer intended for the fence to be the front line. In fact, the photographer uses the tag, “leading lines”, when the photo is uploaded to the Internet. We have a diagonal line here.

On the right, I’ve put an arrow showing one of the main problems with frontline when you don’t understand how it works. Leading lines lead everywhere. This actually leads the viewer’s eye straight from the photo (to the left).

You may wonder… why doesn’t the front line go the other way – towards the fence post on the right? (I think that’s what the photographer meant.)

Part of why leading lines work, as compositional tools, is due to a geometric rule called convergent lines. Another term that comes into play is called the “vanishing point”. In geometry, these lines finally meet at a vanishing point. Our brains are taught, (ever since we started learning depth perception as toddlers), that converging lines and vanishing points indicate distance and depth. This is a subliminal thing that our minds recognize. Artists, going back to the earliest painters also recognized this, and converging lines became the basic artistic building blocks.

Trying to follow the line (fence) the other way – contradicts what your brain knows to be true. It will not follow that path.

If you go back to example 1 – is it now clear why the walking trio is the subject? They stood at the vanishing point for the front line. This gives them the most dominant visual weight in the photo. The eyes stopped there, and the boy’s presence gave the photo meaning.

Knowing this- begs the question…

Does using a leading line always have to end with the subject at the vanishing point?

Not. There are different types of leading lines (horizontal lines, diagonal lines, vertical lines). Using leading lines can get very sophisticated when you understand the concepts around it.

That’s the thing about concept art. They are a bit tricky. They can be very straightforward, like the three of them walking on railroad tracks, or, they can be subtle and blend with other compositional elements changing their usage and meaning. Again, we can have different types of leading lines, such as horizontal leading lines, vertical leading lines, curved lines, etc.

Let’s look at some such examples.

Mainline Photography Example #3

example 3 with arrows

Example #3 makes use of a primary lead, a secondary lead, and a third type of lead known as a “line of sight”. We have all the diagonal lines here.

A question you may be asking is… “Why did I say the leash was pointing towards the dog, and not away from the dog, like the fence in example 2?”

Good question! There are two reasons to answer the question-

  1. Leashes, a good example of a diagonal line, are not convergent lines. It goes across the photo – not “to” the photo.
  2. Since it’s not a convergent line, the direction is set in a different way. In this case, it is the use of focus points and alignment. The additional composition tool occurs when the leash is attached to the dog’s collar. Because that point of contact is the focal point, and it creates a shape’s juxtaposition to the background, it carries more visual power than the left-hand side of the string extending from the frame. This creates a flow from left to right.

Let’s return to the question “What is the subject”?

Is the subject dog? Not too. Dogs are a secondary subject. The main subject is what the dog does with its feet. This is reinforced through the position of the dog’s face and eyes. They form distinct leading lines, known as sight lines. The line of sight drives the viewer’s eye toward the feet.

The dog’s activity on the legs is the main subject of the photo. Other compositional elements that support this conclusion include the use of form and action. At the end of the viewing experience – this is where the eyes rest, and the meaning of the photo is revealed.

The blue arrows indicate the secondary fronts. The secondary leading lines work subliminally to nudge the viewer’s eye in a certain direction. They’re not as obvious as converging lines – but they work subtly to “nudge” the viewer in a direction. The sketch is a subtle leading line. It pushes the viewer’s eye inward. In this case, the focus line, between the bricks, drives the eye inward toward the dog.

Out of focus lines between bricks are not secondary leading lines. Why? Being out of focus has drastically reduced its weight in the composition.

Mainline Photography Example #4

Example 4 right blocked

In example 4, I want you to take some time to decide for yourself where the front line is. Also pay attention to the horizon line! I also want you to make an informed decision about where you believe the viewer’s eye should rest. Lastly, what do you believe is the subject of this photo?

We’ll come back to this towards the end of today’s post.

Mainline Photography Example #5

example 5 with arrows

Just as a misplaced front line can hinder your efforts, an even worse situation is not recognizing the fact that a front line exists, and it doesn’t help your photo.

Example 5 is this scenario.

An interesting aspect of this example is that we have almost exactly the same “composition” situation as in example 3- except it works against the photo and not for it. The forefront of photography doesn’t work all the time.

What do the leading lines examples 3 and 5 have in common?

  1. There are horizontal fronts that are not converging lines.
  2. There are focus points and shape alignment that work in photos from the forefront.

Where does this shot go wrong where example 3 doesn’t?

The problem here is the placement of the elements within the shot. In example 3, all of the compositional elements drive the eye towards the dog and finally towards the raised leg.

In example 5, the subject the photographer is referring to is a coiled rope. The problem occurs when the rope leaves the spool. At that point the string is pointing towards the background (converging lines – strong visual weight)where it stops at the focal point (the knot on the pole), which adds visual weight (away from the coiled rope), plus the use of a juxtaposition of shapes which adds visual weight away from the reel, before the eye follows that last little rope straight off the page to the right.

Important point: When you are ready to take a picture. Take a moment to analyze the scene. Are you using horizontal lines or diagonal lines, and if so, are they going in the right direction? Is there a front line you haven’t noticed, and it’s costing you? Can you change the POV of the camera to make the forefront stronger, or maybe you need to remove the one that isn’t working?

Back to Example #4 On Frontline Photography

Example 4 with arrows

Example 4 is actually a pretty sophisticated use of leading line. Let’s smash this shot-

  • Curved lines on the road provide the strongest path into the photo. There are several reasons for this. They are convergent lines. They were very bright compared to the surrounding area. Plus, they are the strongest movement representations.
  • The red circle is the final resting place in this photo. This is mainly due to placement (as indicated by the rule of thirds grid) and these areas are vanishing points for convergent lines.
  • The blue arrows indicate the secondary fronts. They become a secondary front line because of movement and contrast. This point is important. A leading line need not “always” be a physical line—just as the “line of sight” in Example 3 is not a physical line. Try to think of the leading lines as more of a flow. The water flows, and the tides of the rocks (or whatever) push the water here and there- sometimes hard and sometimes soft. Your use of leading lines will help propel the viewer’s eye through your photo – sometimes hard and sometimes soft. Lines that meet on the road (in example 4) are a hard push. The soft contrasting clouds in the sky are a gentle push.
  • Finally, what is the subject in example 4 of the leading line? It’s actually up to interpretation for each viewer in this case. (I happen to like that.) There is no concrete information that says “THIS IS A SUBJECT”. On the railroad tracks, it becomes clear that a trio of boys are the subjects. In example 4, it’s much more esoteric. I think the subject is the “idea” of speed. What do you think?

If you enjoy learning more about the front lines, and perhaps you are interested in composition in general, Photzy is a great book on the topic. “Understanding Composition” is a great entry point to deepen your understanding of composition in photography. Leading lines are very important when it comes to composition in photography because they immediately grab the viewer’s attention. This means that vertical lines and horizontal leading lines, when used correctly, can enhance your composition in no time!

This book can help propel you (like a forefront) along the path to results! So, be sure to understand how to use vertical and horizontal front lines to your advantage.

In short, the front line in photography is something every photographer should master.

» Click here for a guide on frontline photography

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