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Understanding Lines

I often suggest that beginning photographers learn composition one step at a time. Each element in composition can be handled individually or as a group. During the next few sessions, we will investigate each of the elements of composition individually. Starting with line, then shape, then color, and finally contrast.


Mainly we consider three types of lines, vertical, diagonal, and horizontal. Let's learn how to use each of these types of lines individually. Please note, these lines do not need to be straight, and can have many curves.

Horizontal lines convey stability rest or steadiness. think of fallen trees, people at rest, the ocean,or a park bench, and the most common of these, the horizon. Horizontal lines can create a framework around which the entire image is composed. To accentuate horizontal lines the camera is usually framed in a horizontal manner. Layers of horizontal lines can create patterns in an image. Careful, they can become the focus of the image itself. Use great care when repeating horizontal lines so that they don't overpower your subject. Remember the first rule of composition, we want to strengthen the subject, not weaken it.


Speaking of horizons, generally horizons should not be positioned in the center of the image. It is better to place the horizon on the upper third line or the lower third line. This is a very common mistake made by new photographers. When we see with our eyes, we see the horizon in the center of our field of view. Doing so in a photograph tends to make the composition feel unbalanced. As a final note, make sure your horizons are level to the frame. It can be very unsettling watching the sailboat appear to slide off of the edge of your photo. This can apply to other horizontal lines, though not a strict.

Vertical lines

Vertical lines can convey their own meaning also. Think of tall buildings, trees, and waterfalls. They all convey the meaning of power and strength. Vertical lines can be strengthened by framing the camera at 90°, making your image taller than it is wide and getting more impact to the vertical lines. as with horizontal lines, it is important to keep the vertical lines aligned with the sides of your image is much as possible. This may not be possible with images of buildings and tall trees as the lines will tend to converge from the sides towards the center. In this case, try and keep the center lines as closely aligned to the edges of your photograph as possible. Remember the rule of thirds, a strong horizontal line left in the center can segment your image into two parts.

Diagonal lines

Diagonal lines can be very powerful to lead the eye through the image. They can convey motion. We in the West, read from left to right. Diagonal lines in a photograph tend to pull our eye, from left to right and from bottom to top. Diagonal lines have a great power to pull our eyes through in image, however, these lines can also pull our eyes out of the frame. Avoid the corners, don't let strong diagonal lines run from corner to corner. It has the same effect as a centered horizonand can make your images unsettling and unnatural. Numerous diagonal lines leading different directions and intersecting with one another to Madison's action and excitement to your photo, too many can make the image chaotic and confusing.

Converging lines

Converging lines can be any of the above lines or combination thereof. Converging lines can fool the eye into believing a two dimensional space has three dimensions. Think of how a roadway disappears into the horizon. We know things far away appear smaller, therefore the road disappears into the distance becoming smaller and smaller until it is just a single line. The use of converging lines in a photo hints that there is depth and distance.


Finally, lines are one of the strongest design elements we have in our toolbox. Just following the simple rules can improve your photographs dramatically. After you're comfortable with lines, breaking the rules can create some interesting results. Remember rules are made to be broken, you just have to know when and where and how. Sometimes breaking the rules doesn't work, other times, it can make a dramatic image. You just have to practice.

horizontal lines..

vertical lines

converging lines.

the layers of a horizon

Michael S Richter © 2000 - 2008 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED