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Think Like a Photographer: Visual Elements – Lines

Introduction to Visual Elements

Lines, lines and more lines. Look around you they are everywhere. Most of the time we see them without thinking about them unless we see an explicit line like a line on the road or a lineup for a movie. Back when we were young we were introduced to lines and learned what they looked like and how to express them in terms of their direction and length.

As we progressed in our education much of what we learned as young children we have forgotten to make way for more complex ideas. While the title of this series is Think Like a Photographer learning visual design can best be described as Think Like a Five Year Old. All the stuff we learned as young children we need to re-learn and we need to see the world not as adults but as young children.

Learning to see the world again in terms of lines takes a lot of work. This is one skill you will need to practise even when you are not shooting. The reason why lines are so important to us is because they are two dimensional elements that work well in the two dimensional world of photography. After you have learned to start to see lines we can move onto putting them together and they can form shapes. Now we have moved into things like rectangles, triangles and circles.

If you are starting to feel like a child again with this discussion then you are headed in the right direction. Thinking Like a photographer means learning to see the world again like a 5 year old child and capturing what you see to make it new and exciting again. One of the best parts about learning to master visual design is with a solid understanding of how it all works you can take boring subjects and make them exciting again.

Explicit vs. Implicit

One of the hardest concepts to grasp is the difference between explicit vs. Implicit lines. While we can agree on what the shape of a triangle looks like many of us would have trouble finding it in a model’s pose or a family portrait. If you know how to look for them they are there and they are referred to as implicit shapes.

Explicit shapes are easy to understand. We can all agree on what a single line looks like and what it’s direction is but when shown a photograph of a model many of us would be hard pressed to find lines or even shapes in the pose. As children we learn all about explicit lines and shapes but thinking in terms of them implicitly is what separates the 5 year old child from a photographer.

Observe some of the implicit and explicit lines in photograph. Explicit lines are marked in blue and implicit lines are marked in red. I have used the example of a landscape shot of the city and a shot with two models. Hopefully it will get you thinking in terms of explicit and implicit lines and shapes.


Lines come in three basic shapes. Horizontal, vertical and diagonal. Of course we can move beyond that and dray free form lines or curve them in weird in wonderful ways. For the most part we will concern ourselves with with straight lines. The two that we are most familiar with are horizontal and vertical lines.

Both lines when put together can create two dimensional objects which help us to create our images. The problem with both of these lines is that for the most part that is all they do is create two dimensional objects. If you remember from the prior discussion we take a three dimensional world turn it into a photograph and then when other people look at it they attempt to turn it back into a three dimensional world.

If all you have are horizontal and vertical lines then your image is flat. If you have ever heard an image referred to as flat it means an image that looks and feels two dimensional. The line that solves our problem is the diagonal lines. Diagonal lines are the photographer’s best friend because they allow us to see three dimensions even when there is not one to be had. The following (crudely drawn) diagram illustrates the differences.

Even though both shapes are two dimensional shapes the inclusion of diagonal lines in the second shape allows our brains to experience it as a three dimensional object even though it is not. Another important lesson can be learned from the following diagram. If we put 100 new photographers in a room and asked them to photograph the block, I would hazard a guess that at least 90% of the photographs look like the first one. Most of the photographs will end up being flat.

The best place to look at an object is usually not the best place to photograph it from. When we want to look at something we usually stand in front of it. We do not need to worry about it looking flat because we are seeing it in a three dimensional world. However if we stand to one side and photograph it in such a way that we start getting diagonal lines suddenly it will start to look three dimensional in our photograph.

Next time you are getting ready to photograph something remember this diagram and ask yourself if your camera position is best for a human viewer or a camera. If your camera position favours the human viewer you need to move your position.

As another example observe the photo of the Elvis busts at Honest Ed’s Store in Toronto, Ontario. The busts themselves were neatly lined up on a shelf in rows. By rotating the camera and tilting my camera phone I introduced diagonal lines into the photograph which makes it look a lot more interesting.

Convergent and Divergent Lines

Lines in addition to running parallel can also converge and diverge. If I was to use the expression “the whole wide world” you will probably imagine a whole lot of lines that diverge and spread out in all directions. On the other hand if I say “a door at the end of the hallway with restricted access” you will probably think of a bunch of lines converging on a spot where they converge and then abruptly end at a door with restricted access..

We can use converging lines to draw the eye to a certain spot in the photograph or we can use divergent lines to convey a sense of openness. We can use divergent lines to draw the viewer into the photograph or take them out the photograph. Generally we want to favour divergent lines that make viewers want to look at our photograph as away from it.

The converging lines in the staircase and the walkway all serve to draw your eye to the top of the stairs where they all come together at an imaginary point. The use of convergent lines in this photograph serves to bring you into the photograph and draw you to an imaginary point.

Lines Tell Stories

One of the best things about lines is that they can tell stories. Since photographers are visual story tellers, lines represent a way that we can use to help tell our visual stories. Some convergent lines can make for a warm inviting photograph that brings the viewer into the photograph and wants them to keep looking.

An abundance of lines could indicate a natural disaster. The absence of lines after a natural disaster could indicate a violent and devastating disaster. The absence of lines could indicate newly fallen snow while a lot of lines after a snowfall could point to a place where children have been playing. The smooth lines in a baby’s skin vs the hard lines in an elderly person’s skin. A lot of lines can denote age while a lack of them can indicate youth.

You need to pay attention to the lines in your surroundings and ask yourself if they are adding to your story or taking away from it.


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