When viewers take a look at your photos, they often want to go some place. And they don't even know it. You can help take them on a journey within your photo by leading them in a number of ways. At times people love to be guided by art and not have to think too hard. That were is the technique of leading comes in.
The first tool, or trick, is to create an actual path in your photo to guide the viewer. Front to back, side to side, top to bottom. Make the path something distinguishable such an actual path (pictured here in Olympic National Forest in Washington state), road, valley or even a river course. With imagination, you can see other paths in nature as well as in the man-made world.
If you are starting out in photography and are wondering how to use a path, start with one of the most basic techniques; The Rule Of Thirds. This rule is an easy way start getting your feet wet. Take the path from one point to another, often having it start or stop on one of the meridians of the Rule. A river starting in the distance from an intersection of the meridians on the upper right third then flowing towards the foreground and finishing in the bottom left third. Foot prints in the sand along the bottom third meridian.
Action will lead your viewer through a photo as well. Take a look at this hippo for instance. It's moving in one clear direction and you know where the photo is heading. Most people I've shown the picture to admit to not really seeing the tail but certainly remember what the head and nose looked like. That's because the sense of action and motion gives viewer's eyes some place to go. It also brings up another point about eyes.
Whether actual eyes are in the frame or not, having a subject which is looking off to one side or the other, even slightly, helps lead viewers inside the frame. It's part of that ‘wanting to be lead' mentality when we are viewing art for pleasure. Seeing someone, or something, looking off to a side will guide us.
Here is where focus inside the frame becomes important. You may want to highlight what is being looked at by achieving a tight focus on it, or make it more abstract, as I did in the photo above of the Legal Nomad Jodi Ettenberg (although you can obviously tell it is a sunrise). Focus can also be held on both near and far subjects if you desire. The choice is yours and, as always, experiment with picking one or the other to see how the finished image feels to you.
Position inside the frame is also important to leading. Take a look at these two photos from Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.
The first image is specifically cropped to place the safari truck at the intersection of two Rule Of Thirds meridians. It is also pointed to the open ground to the right. Viewing this, you know which direction the truck is traveling and what it's going to encounter.
The second, vertical shot is not framed as well. The truck is getting close to the edge of the frame and on a subconscious level, we don't like not knowing what's next. Most people get anxious when faced with a new, unknown situation and photographs often cause the reflex to inject itself into our like or dislike of a photo. There will be some who like the second photo more than the first, for sure, but for the majority, knowing where an object is going helps in enjoying a photo.
Lines and Patterns
I'm not going to use the tried and true (and maybe a bit pummeled) railroad track photo here. But I'm guessing just mentioning that image helps you to understand the use of lines. While lines can be considered a path (and certainly would be in the case of a railroad), they can be more abstract, such as railings or horizons as in this shot of a ferry boat on a gray Puget Sound day.
Patterns are also used in the railing covers and the seats on the right side. Another example of patterns and lines, although in this case not pointing the way.
Leading your viewer through your photo takes the forethought of setting up the shot when in the field (or studio). Rather than a static “Here's a hippo,” photo, give your viewer some place to go inside the photo. It is one more tool to use to make your photography more engaging.