Elements of a Photograph: Line

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There are seven basic elements of photographic art: line, shape, form, texture, color, size, and depth. As a photographic artist, your knowledge and awareness of these different elements can be vital to the success of your composition and help convey the meaning of your photograph.

Line, the most fundamental of these, is the topic of this first part of our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Lines separate three panels on a sedan.
Lines separate three panels on a sedan.

Definition:

The Merriam-Webster definition of “line” comprises 15 parts, 46 sections, and 41 subsections. With all of that, the part that we, as photographic artists, are concerned about is this:

8: A straight or curved geometric element that is generated by a moving point and that has extension only along the path of the point

Horizontal and vertical lines visually indicate stability.
Horizontal and vertical lines visually indicate stability.

Types of Lines

Lines are either straight, curved, or a combination of the two. Lines can be solid, dashed or interrupted, implied, or psychological. They can be vertical, horizontal, or somewhere in-between.

Straight lines often show up in manmade objects. Curved lines can be manmade but are often organic in nature. Solid lines are common in scenes.

The lines on the flight deck are physical. The gaze of the sailor is a psychological line.
The lines on the flight deck are physical. The gaze of the sailor is a psychological line.

Interrupted lines are easily drawn but are not as prevalent in the physical world of the photographer.

The horizon is a great example of an implied line. The gaze of a subject, or the extended pointer finger of a person in a photograph, create psychological lines.

Diagonal lines give a sense of dynamics to a photograph, even in a static scene.
Diagonal lines give a sense of dynamics to a photograph, even in a static scene.

The Orientation of Lines

The type and general direction of lines in your image convey meaning inside the photograph. Vertical or horizontal lines convey a sense of stability or a static feel to an image. Horizontal lines can indicate distance and vertical lines can indicate height, balance, strength. Diagonal lines convey a more dynamic scene.

Lines can be straight or curved, thick or thin.
Lines can be straight or curved, thick or thin.

This is especially true with the horizon line. A level horizon or a vertical building in an image give a static sense of calm. Angle the horizon, or building, and the image implies movement or action.

Curves can be comforting. Zigzagging straight lines shows energy.

Where the hangar wall meets the ground is a horizon line in this scene.
Where the hangar wall meets the ground is a horizon line in this scene.

Where Are Lines in Photographs?

Lines are everywhere in photographs. Lines surround us, and every photograph contains lines.

“Where are the lines in the photograph of a featureless white wall?” you ask. Well, while not in this frame, four lines in this fictional photograph form the edges of the image. Even a blank canvas for the painter is bordered by lines—you cannot escape them; nor would you want to.

Curves can be sinuous.
Curves can be sinuous.

Lines in photographs often connect points inside the image. Sometimes lines enter the image from a point beyond the frame or exit the image to a point beyond the frame.

The next element of photographic art we will discuss is shape.

A mix of horizontal and diagonal lines.
A mix of horizontal and diagonal lines

Your thoughts on this article are welcome in the Comments section, below!

About the Elements of a Photograph Series

There are seven basic elements to photographic art:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Size
  7. Depth

It’s worth noting that many articles and websites covering this subject list the basic elements of art as: line, shape, form, texture, color, space, and value. My list of seven includes size and depth in place of space and value. I base my list not just on graduate studies of photography and years of creating images, but on the names of basic elements featured in the personally influential Kodak book, The Art of Seeing.

With paintings and drawings, these elements are added to the blank canvas. In photography, they are presented to us in the world before our lens. Regardless of the elements of art that you learn, as I said above, it is your knowledge and awareness of these elements that can become a valuable tool in your compositional tool kit as well as help you deliver a clear meaning to your work. This awareness will generally be subconscious, but, at times, when making a photograph, these elements might come to the forefront of your artistic eye. In such moments, you can create your composition with these factors in mind.

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