Leading Lines--Tony Sweet Extends An Invitation
Maine, Sweet got a great stock image. "The planks
seem to lead to the light in the distance. Just follow
Photos © 1999, Tony Sweet, All Rights Reserved
The idea is as old as composition
itself: lead the viewer into the picture.
"If there's any hesitation on the part of the viewer, the
picture fails," says nature photographer Tony Sweet. "Viewers
should go right into it, and be logically led around the image to see
the things the photographer wants them to see. If there's any
kind of distraction, if they hit a wall, you've lost them."
Leading lines are just one element in composition, though. You can have
great lines that involuntarily sweep the viewer into the picture and
still make mistakes. "If there are good leading lines but a lot
of hot spots, the photograph won't work," Sweet says. "A
hot spot being a bright white area, something out of focus, anything
that's attention getting but isn't what you want the viewer
to be led to. All the elements have to work in together, with no visual
A studio photographer or a commercial shooter doing large scale outdoor
productions knows the secret, and will often create the leading lines.
For most of us shooting nature and outdoor images, the lines have to
be found. But if you look around, it's amazing how nature will
section of fence was in early morning fog. "If I couldn't
get shadows, I wanted something else, so I used the tree
as a frame within a frame."
"Susan Sontag said that
artists create, photographers disclose," Sweet says. "The
lines exist, we see them and then use them in our pictures." Actually,
it's a bit more complicated than that; between the seeing and the
using, the photographer has to make some crucial decisions--what angle?
what time of day? what light? and maybe most important, what lens?
Sweet likes to use wide angles simply because the leading lines idea won't
work without lots of depth of field, and that means small apertures regardless
of lighting conditions. On his 35mm camera, he most often mounts a 20,
24, or 35mm lens; maximum for leading lines photos is a 70mm optic. And
because he might have to work at slow shutter speeds, a tripod is absolutely
necessary. "Don't even think of doing these kinds of photos
without one," Sweet says.
at Corkscrew Swamp, Florida. "The rhythm and tremendous
line of the boardwalk made this a no-brainer. The viewer
wants to go down that pathway to see what's beyond
the frame. There are no distracting elements."
Once he's ready to shoot,
he has to decide where the leading lines lead. "The line or lines
should lead somewhere other than dead center of the frame," he says.
"Although there are exceptions to this rule, I find that in general
anything leading to dead center is too static. I try to avoid bull's
Of course, Sweet's photographic compositions involve more than lines.
"I'll use leading lines whenever the situation is right, but
there are certain core elements I look for all the time. Leading lines
is one; framing inside a frame is another; dramatic color and light in
the early morning or late afternoon is a third."
in Vermont. "This is kind of a Hallmark card--you
want to follow that road to get home to the family. There's
no mistaking the message here."
His partiality to these lines
is more than an esthetic consideration. "Leading lines photographs
are great for stock because there's a storytelling quality to them.
We wonder what's going on. We look around, follow the path. There's
a lot of implied meaning to the photographs, and that makes them very
marketable to a number of publications."
A successful leading line, Sweet maintains, means "there's
nothing else to say: people look and they're taken right into the
picture. If your pictures aren't working, see where the lines are