Visual Design Elements: Lines

Visual Design Elements: Lines in Photography

Visual Design Elements:

Lines in photography are one of the fundamental visual design elements. Learn how to use lines effectively to convey emotion and meaning in your photography composition.


Lines in photography may be actual objects, like a road or the stem of a plant, or even the human form. As we learned in the previous section about light, lines are be created by the juxtaposition of contrasting tones or colors.

The main line in an image tends to lead the viewer through the picture space. You don’t want a line that leads straight out before passing through the image, or one that ends abruptly. You want to guide the viewers eye around the image. This is why the "S-curve" is considered desirable; it "meanders," leading the viewers eye slowly through all parts of the picture. In the image below, the road and the river are a similar color, and together, form a S-curve through the photo.

Lines in photography: S-curve
Together, the road and river form an S-curve.
© Julie Waterhouse Photography

Lines can run horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or be curved. The direction of the main lines in a picture compsition actually convey emotion. I believe that this is because we naturally attribute human characteristics to objects in our world. For example, if an object stands upright, we liken it to a human standing tall and proud.

vertical lines in photography
This human form carries a positive message in its vertical stance.

If an object is bent over, we see it as being sad or tired, the way people tend to "droop" when they feel that way. Take a look at the next three images, all shot of the same flowers. Consider how each one conveys a different emotion, simply due to the direction of the stem.

vertical lines in photography
These flowers seem proud.
© Julie Waterhouse Photography

diagonal lines in photography
These flowers are dynamic.
© Julie Waterhouse Photography

curved lines in photography
These flowers appear rather melancholy.
© Julie Waterhouse Photography

Vertical lines are uplifting, strong and powerful.

Diagonal lines imply motion, action or change. They are dynamic.

Curved lines are slow and meandering. They say "take your time, and don’t rush." They can appear melancholy or hopeful, depending on the direction of the curve. The can also be sensual.

Horizontal lines are steady and calm. They imply tranquility or stability.

Whatever the message you want to convey in your picture composition, consider positioning the main line of your subject to reinforce the appropriate emotion. You may find that you are subconsciously drawn to subject matter whose lines "align" with your mood!

The following image of reeds in a pond was taken just before sunrise. The scene was calm and tranquil and the water was still. I chose to place the line of reeds horizontally across the image to reinforce that feeling. Had I chosen a diagonal placement, it would have conflicted with the other cues in the photography composition that indicate peace and tranquility.

horizontal line
The horizontal placement of the line of reeds echoes the tranquility of the scene.
© Julie Waterhouse Photography


Does the diagonal placement of the subject in the following picture composition reinforce the message?

diagonal line
The diagonal positioning of the subject reflects the action
taking place in the image.
© Julie Waterhouse Photography


Picture Composition
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Next, I recommend you read about another visual design element: shapes.