Regarding Leading Lines

Someone recently asked me to clarify my position on “leading lines” in composition. While it is true that individual lines or configurations of line can direct attention successfully in many contexts-many claims about the leading line are simply nonsense (A). Here’s a few from contemporary websites/books on composition:

…When we look at a photo our eyes are naturally drawn to the lines within it, and we tend to follow them to see where they go. In other words, the lines are “leading” our gaze through the photo.”

“…Our eyes are naturally drawn along lines and paths…”

“…lines can take your eye right to the focal point of a drawing or just guide your eye through the whole composition.

Now due to the fact that much compositional preference within representational work is demonstrably predicated on prediction tasks—actual or implied lines or linear configurations that may emulate something like optic flow may steer our gaze very effectively. We may also respond to visual cues that emulate a situation that WOULD often cause use to shift our gaze/attention (e.g., looking in the direction of a subject’s gaze) (B). In addition, some configurations of line that we have been conditioned to associate with direction can also influence attention ©.

However, it is important to understand that our eyes DO NOT inherently follow lines as is often claimed. Even when a viewer is instructed to do so—it has been shown to be quite difficult. (D: results from Alfred Yarbus eye tracking experiments in which an observer was asked to follow the lines/contours of geometric figures with their eyes.)

In his 1967 publication Eye Movement and Vision, Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus wrote: “…outlines themselves have no effect on the character of the eye movements. In the movements of the eye we have no analogy with the movements of the hand of a blind person, tracing the outlines and contours. Outlines and contours are important for the appearance of the visual image, but when the image has appeared and is seen continuously, the observer has no need to concern himself specially with borders and contours. Borders and contours are only elements from which, together with other no less important elements, our perception is composed and the object recognized. Clearly the outlines of an object will attract an observer’s attention if the actual shape of the outline includes important and essential information.

To read more about these topics please see my Primer on Pictorial Composition available here: