In a picture with vertical lines the eye is drawn up and down the picture. Many of our experiences with vertical lines involve strength, height, grandeur, growth and expansiveness. This is not surprising since trees, buildings, our fellow humans and many of mans most impressive achievements use vertical lines and make us look up. Using verticals in our pictures is one way of conveying these feelings to the viewer. They are strong compositional elements and provide a powerful incentive for the eye to follow them. Often the use of an upright, vertical frame to the shot also strengthens the feelings these elements give us.
Lines that go across the page promote a wide range of feelings. Because the horizon is a strong horizontal line it is also regarded as a strong compositional element. By association other strong horizontals include prone or lying people and animals, roads in landscapes, the beach/sea line and many more. The feelings promoted by strong seascapes are almost universal, similarly with skys – they both invoke something primeval, stirring and uplifting our feelings. As with vertical lines the orientation of the picture can strengthen the horizontals. A ‘landscape’ view flatters horizontals. A ‘letterbox’ crop of a picture can also improve long horizontals as the eye is drawn across the picture and through the scene by the exaggerated length.
Sometimes horizontals can be negative. When a horizon is not straight, or any strong horizontal is off-line with the edges of the picture, it can be very negative. Make sure that you keep the horizontals lined up and true-to-nature. A strong horizontal foreground element can block entry into the picture. The eye travels down the length of the edges of features and pop out of the picture at the end – that’s when you lose the viewer. Barbed wire, when directly horizontal across the scene is a strong negative, reinforcing our cultural view of it. So be careful what you pick to create your horizontals.
Composing with Horizontal and Vertical Lines
When you see horizontal or vertical lines in your frame during composition of the picture you should look out for the way that they impact on the viewer. It is the viewer of your picture that will, consciously or subconsciously be affected by what is in the picture. So you need to be aware of any potential impact the lines will have. So here are a few points to look out for when considering the use of verticals or horizontals as compositional elements.
Lines should do something…
- lead the viewer into the picture
- draw the eye along them
- point to something
- emphasis or minimise the impact of something
- create a pattern
- develop a way to go
- indicate something to reach toward
- develop a sense or feeling of some sort
- make you feel you want to follow them
- create a frame in the picture
Lines should not…
- create a barrier to getting into the picture
- preventing the viewer seeing other things
- upset the balance of the picture
- unintentionally draw the eye out of the picture
- create unintended chaos
- complicate the picture beyond understanding
- draw the eye away from the subject
Of course there are two sides to every story. Using lines effectively could mean deliberately using negative things about them. You might be trying to shock or make the picture complex. The point is that we use horizontal and vertical lines a lot in our lives. There are always ways to do it differently. That is part of the creativity that makes us photographers. The most important thing about the use of lines as compositional elements is that you are in control. When composing, pick out the ones you need and try to minimise the impact of the others. It is about trying to ensure you know what effect the lines will have in the final picture. Work to make them effective and lines provide great ways to move the eye around, create patterns and to emphasis things. Ignore them and you will lose your viewer. They will not be able to get into your picture if the lines prevent them from doing so.
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