The Tip-Off
Leading Lines--Tony Sweet Extends An Invitation

In Maine, Sweet got a great stock image. "The planks seem to lead to the light in the distance. Just follow them."
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 distractions."

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 cooperate.

This 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.

Shot 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 eye compositions."

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."

Winter 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 leading."