Landscape Compositional Tool #1:

Leading Elements 

Leading elements can be a powerful tool in a landscape photographer’s compositional toolbox (see here) to help direct a viewer’s eye through a photograph. These are sometimes referred to as leading lines, but they don’t necessarily need to be a line. Sometimes a curve or even a shape can be used to lead the viewer’s eye toward the subject of a photo. Leading elements can be found naturally occurring, or sometimes they can be manmade. Both can be equally interesting and work to lead a viewer’s eye through a photograph. Streams of water, rock patterns, railroad rails, roads, shorelines, fence lines, and walking paths are just a few of the endless examples of things that can be used as leading elements.

In the photo below, the river leads the eye through the canyon to the waterfall, which is the main subject of this photo. Even though the river is not completely visible all the way to the waterfall, the human eye will still follow the path because the brain knows the river is still there, even though it is blocked by the rocks.

April 28, 2021

Water makes excellent leading elements. Rivers and streams can lead the eye toward a waterfall, and adding long exposure can help create leading elements in water. Retreating waves on a beach make fantastic leading elements and can add a lot of interest to a photograph.

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In the photo above, the retreating water creates leading elements to help guide the eye from the first piece of ice in the foreground to the piece of ice in the midground. This effect was created by uses a longer shutter speed to capture the movement of the water.

Besides using water, naturally occurring patterns can also be used as leading elements. Using natural patterns will depend on the scene and whether there are any patterns available to use, but these natural patterns can help create interest and lead the viewer’s eye as shown in the photo below.

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The textured patterns in the rock formations lead the eye to the water. They provide a visual path that is easy for the eye to follow into the water, which is where the interest of this photo lies. Naturally occurring textures and patterns are excellent leading elements because they seamlessly blend in with their surroundings.

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The orange tentacles of Grand Prismatic Spring in the photo above provide natural leading elements into the center of the spring and the colorful transition from orange to yellow to green to blue. Natural leading elements can be difficult to spot, but with practice they can be found while on location and incorporated into you landscape composition.

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Shorelines are an easy natural leading element to spot while on location. They provide a great path for the eye to follow to the background as shown in the photo above. The shoreline leads the eye into the mountains, which are the main subject of the photo. This composition is further helped by the leading elements on the left, which is snow. The contrast of the black sand against the white surf and white snow helps to emphasize the leading elements and provide a natural path for the eye to follow into the focus point of the scene.

Not all leading elements need to be natural. Man-made elements can be used as well to direct the viewer’s eye as shown in the photo below. The snow-covered road leads the eye into the beautiful sunrise colors and textures in the sky.

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Roads, fence lines, railroad rails, and walking paths are just a few examples of man-made leading elements that can be incorporated into a landscape composition. With some practice and deliberate searching for leading elements when on location, it becomes easier to spot items that can direct the viewer’s eye through the scene. Incorporating leading elements into your landscape photography toolbox is a great way to add interest to a photograph and hold the viewer’s attention by leading their eye to the main subject of your photo. For more landscape photography tools, check out this article.

What’s your favorite leading element to use in your photographs? Let me know in the comments below!

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