Forget Photography 101, it’s Time to Break the Rules!

I’m aiming this article towards those who are at the birth of their photographic journey. However, there’s also value in this for the more advanced photographer. I will cover some skills and techniques that people tend not to teach to folks at the beginning of their photographic practice. Read any photography 101 article, and you’ll read the same thing. Well, today, we’re tapping into our rebellious side. We’re ripping up the rule book and sharing techniques you should try, even if you’ve just picked up a camera for the time.

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Photography Cheat Sheet: Using Lines to Evoke Emotions

Whether you’re drawn to abstracts and patterns or simply want to use leading lines to make your compositions dynamic, this photography cheat sheet brings some ideas to try.

Experimental approaches to photography often borrow from other creative disciplines like cinema, illustration, and painting. With this in mind, we thought it would be interesting to glean from the pages of Creative Illustration by American illustrator, author, and art instructor Andrew Loomis. Today, we invite you to look at his concepts on lines to supplement what we already know about using leading lines and shapes for photography composition.

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Creating the Decisive Moment: Leading Lines in Street Photography

The decisive moment is one in street photography that is often spoken about being captured, but it can also be created. In many cases though, it can be a combination of the two options. Bresson often spoke of looking at a scene and seeing geometry; but not everyone can do that and capture what’s going on in a split second. Even as you get very advanced, the chances of you being able to do this in the same way can vary. So instead of capturing it, creating the moment can work out even better. That doesn’t always mean using photoshop, but instead using the methods that photographers have been using for years: cropping, dodging and burning.

The Photo Wait

While some photographers pride the idea of the photo walk, other photographers really enjoy the idea of a photo wait. This is the idea of standing in a specific area and waiting for something picture-worthy to happen. Street photographers have been doing it for years if they find something interesting in the scene. So what could be interesting?

  • The light: lighting can cast interesting shadows or can sometimes provide a sliver of lighting in a scene that otherwise is fairly dull. Think of it as a spotlight like when you’re watching a play at the theatre.
  • Lines: In cities where street photography is usually done, the lines in a scene can lead a person’s eyes around the frame
  • Interesting things in general: think of the world as your canvas. Your scene is a backdrop and the people moving in and out are your subjects. If you’re a portrait photographer then this is really crucial.

Photo waiting can be done at any time of the day, but when it comes to black and white photography the best time could be during the middle of the day when the lighting can be harshest. That harshness creates a contrast that allows photos to get some of that extra pop to them. Essentially, it means that you need to be vulnerable to your environment and look at everything moving in and out as elements; then just snap the photo at the right moment–which you’re bound to be able to see.

Photographers such as Jonathan Higbee tend to use this tactic often and it works. Like it or not, it’s a perfectly valid way of shooting photos. The photo wait is a way to create/capture a scene using leading lines that send the viewer’s eyes all around the frame because you often start out looking for the lines to begin with. People and subjects moving through can also act as lines themselves. If that sounds crazy, think about the many silhouetted street photography images there are out there. Those people are nothing more than darkness amongst a ton of light. Are they specifically important? Probably not, but their shape is.


Unfortunately, not enough photographers crop. Instead they simply just shoot with some sort of overlay for the rule of thirds and then they worry about the rest later. But cropping is perhaps the most important tool that you can use when doing street photography and making the leading lines in the scene more effective. A part of this comes from the fact that different crops such as a square or a 16:9 crop can make people focus on exactly what’s important and nothing else.

How Do Leading Lines Work in Black and White Photography? (Premium)

Leading lines: they’re one of the first things that every photographer learns about when it comes to shooting images in school. If you learned online and without format training, then you probably studied the rule of thirds first. But when you’re looking at a photo, one of the best ways ro artfully create an image that photographers have traditionally been taught is by using leading lines. Call it a rule that needs to be broken, it’s still a very effective one that when done correctly, can trump pretty much any other rule out there with the exception of using text in an image. For many years, black and white photography was the way to go. But when color came around, things changed quite a bit. So let’s explore leading lines and black and white photography.

What are Leading Lines?

First and foremost, what are leading lines? Well, let’s look at the image above. The main lines in the image are:

  • The shadows of the people on the boardwalk
  • The people casting shadows
  • The horizon that goes inwards to the people
  • The lines and patterns that the birds are making

Why are these leading lines? Well, it’s because those are the areas that are leading a person’s eye around a scene. That’s more or less what leading lines do. Leading lines in photography find a way to take the viewer’s eye and direct it to exactly what the photographer wants someone to look at. Some photographers think about this later on while others are on point and look at it as it happens. Typically, the latter requires a specific creative vision but it can also just come with an understanding of how light works.

Leading lines can be used in conjunction with other compositional methods like working with the rule of thirds for example. They’re an inherent part of geometry–which is what Henri-Cartier Bresson worked with and that a number of other photographers work with every day. And in order to make the most effective, there needs to be a whole lot of contrast. But we’ll get into that deeper later on. As a preface, these days the movement of urban geometry and cityscape photographers tend to work the most with leading lines. They work just fine during the day, but arguably when they tend to come out the most is during the night. At nighttime, there tends to be a whole lot more contrast.

Understanding When Leading Lines are Most Effective

Now, let’s get something straight here: not every image will have leading lines per se. But you can find them in an image through cropping, editing, or even composing in a specific way. The old school photography minded folks out there will think that the image above is absolutely horrible due to the leading line that it cutting the man’s head off. This is why photographers use techniques such as depth of field and decluttering their background. Of course that works when you’re not being candid and quick, but you’d otherwise need to take your time and search for a background that isn’t visually distracting. The old school mentality would call this image a technical failure even though new school techniques would find it acceptable.

This is a problem that can be pretty easily fixed in post-production. The long way of doing this is by creating a mask and lightening up that entire area. But that becomes too tedious and not always fun.

In the example above, I simply created a gradient from the side going into the center and lightened the entire right side of the photo. It still looks pretty natural and the line doesn’t have as big of an effect now because it’s not extending out into the very end of the image. In this case, the leading line effectively worked against us but it can be negated pretty easily if you’re just careful. This satisfies both schools of thought.

Leading lines can also work really well when they’re not there simply because the human eye is designed to look at something and make sense of it. The example above with the roller coaster showcases that pretty well. It goes from tallest, to slightly shorter, to even shorter. It’s using the horizon to make your eye create a sort of triangle.

In Color vs Black and White: The Contrast

Believe it or not, black and white works significantly different when it comes to creating leading lines and working with them vs color. With color, you’ve got various shades of the ROYGBIV spectrum and colors can be used subtly to differentiate one subject from the other. Photographers have been using this technique for years. Here are a few examples:

  • Steve McCurry’s portraits
  • Landscape photography
  • Pretty much almost all of drone photography

Color is more or less easy to work with, but black and white is…well, different. Where color relies on luminance/saturation of colors, black and white photography relies on their tonality more so when it comes to working with leading lines. 

I want you to take a look at this example above. Can you guess which building was a shade of green? If you’re guessing the one all the way at the end, you’d be wrong. Instead instead the building with scaffolding on it. That building was a light shade of green but because of how light that shade is, it tends to blend in with in the white buildings on the right side of the frame. The buildings on the left were more greyish. However, just by looking at this image in black and white, you couldn’t tell.

So how do you use that effectively when it comes to leading lines? For starters, ensure that there is a high degree of contrast in the scene. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • What colors are in the scene?
  • Are each of these colors bright or dark?
  • What is the ratio of bright to dark colors in the scene?
  • Do these colors contrast a whole lot if you were to make them monochrome? Further, are there enough bright colors next to dark colors that create contrast and layers?
  • Do those tones end up leading our eyes around the scene in a specific way? How?
  • Is the scene distracting?
  • Should I step forward or move back?

Let’s start out with these.

How Color Affects Leading Lines in Landscape Photography

On the Phoblographer, we tend to talk a whole lot about color, black and white, and how incredibly important it is to use them effectively in your photography. We typically apply them to portraiture, but it’s also not too terrible of an idea to apply it to landscape photography. You see, in landscape photography there are a few basic rules to creating better landscapes photos and for the most part they apply to creating better color images. But when it comes to making black and white or even just creating more striking color, there are a few other techniques you may not have tried yet.

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How to Create More Visually Interesting Street Photography

You’ve got the same fear so many others have had: being way too afraid to take photos of people candidly on the street. I mean, what if they get angry and blow up on you? The good news is that it’s not the end of the world and what you’ll realize is that moment is so small and fleeting it won’t really matter. Nor will it weigh heavily on your mind later on. Once you get over this though, know that you now have to go beyond just pressing the shutter. Weird, right? 😉

Here are a few tips on how you can go about creating more visually interesting street photography.

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A Primer for Effectively Using Leading Lines in Photography

Eric Kim recently posted a great primer on leading lines on his YouTube Channel. If you’re new to photography, this is a perfect video to learn more about the compositional technique; when used properly, leading lines can help guide viewers’ eyes to the subject of your photograph. As an aesthetic tool, leading lines can help add drama or humor to your compositions. In the video below, Kim provides some practical tips on how to effectively use leading lines and how he’s incorporated the technique in his street photography.

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Screw the Rule of Thirds: “Composition” For Street Photographers

All images by Mason Resnik


It may be cliché to say that rules are made to be broken, but it can be argued that the genre of street photography is the photographic discipline where breaking the rules will most likely allow you to see—and capture—more interesting photographs.

Traditional compositional rules come out of pre-photographic art forms. Leading lines, the rule of thirds, centered subjects and so on were developed over centuries by painters, and others using two-dimensional forms in order to organize the content of their images and create a common visual language.

Visual artists—painters, photographers, cinematographers and the like—are taught these rules and mostly conform to them.





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Six Ways to Draw The Eye to a Specific Subject in a Photo


You know all about the rule of thirds already, and in general it works. Sometimes, however, rules are meant to be broken. The way to draw someone’s eyes into an image isn’t extremely tough, as it has to do with what people already do when they look at scenes–try to make sense of them. Because of this, there are so many different ways of making someone pay attention to a specific subject in your photos.

Here’s how to draw someone’s eyes onto your specific subject.

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How to Use Leading Lines in Portraits

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Leading lines in photography are some of the best ways to naturally tell the viewer where to look–besides using depth of field, rule of thirds and more. But they’re very important in regards to portraits because of the way that it can make a body specifically look. The folks over at Weekly Imogen talk about specifics like using corners and other lines based on the specifics of the portraiture (such as posing.)

Essentially what they’re saying is to use natural areas but don’t look at your scene in terms of simple emphasis on your subject. Instead, they’re trying to teach you to look at the entire scene. Don’t think that’s important? Consider the fact that simple things that are out of focus can end up bothering viewers because of the way that it looks like they’re coming out of a person’s body.

One of the absolute best ways to teach yourself to look at leading lines is to shoot an image and render it in black and white. Then after this, print the image out and draw the lines out on another sheet of paper. Look at the shape and decide whether it’s interesting or not. This exercise will teach you to see the world in a different way.

The video on using leading lines is after the jump.

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