holt_1002_025.CR2When trying to find a good photographic composition in a garden, a key concept is to look for leading lines. These are lines, either straight or curved, that you, the photographer, find that will lead the viewer’s eye into the photo, ultimately to your focal point (Lesson 2.2). These lines may also frame a composition, but, fundamentally, they will start at the bottom, out of the frame, and lead up into the composition.

The lines can appear in the form of fences, walls, streams, rows of plants, hedges, or, especially, pathways. A pathway is designed to lead people; it can also lead viewers into a photograph. Whenever you find a path in a garden, you can use it to help compose a photo and guide your viewer into the frame.

holt_409_0240.tif Note how the diagonal lines of path and border lead you across the vegetable bed and end where the designer, Rosalind Creasy, just “happened” to have placed some bright red flowers.

Sometimes a leading line will go completely across the frame; other times it will stop at a key point, as in the photo, above, where the house becomes the stopping point, blocking the viewer’s eye from wandering out of the frame. This photo is all about the vegetable bed, so I wanted the eye to stay in the frame. holt_1002_080.CR2 At other times, a diagonal line may help draw the viewer’s eye to the bottom of the photo, as we see in the photo, above, with the small trough fountain. Here, the lines of the retaining wall parallel and reinforce the angle of the path.

Walls and fences also can be used as leading lines. In this next photo, I backed up just enough so that my point of view allowed the wall to frame the left side of the composition and also let the line of its natural curve lead the eye through the frame. holt_1028_001.CR2 I love finding curving lines with which to arrange a composition. A good technique for working with a curving path is to get just outside of the curve and point the camera down, using a wide-angle lens, which will exaggerate the curve. holt_1028_006.CR2 Note how the path leads both the visitor and the photographer’s eye into the garden and to the patio.

When you come across an interesting line of sight in a garden, work that angle as soon as you see it; then go to the other end of the sight line and look back for another photo. A strong leading line in one direction may offer another worthy (sometimes better) composition from the opposite direction.


Upon entering this garden, I could see that the strong line of the stepped path leading up the hill would create a good photo.   The pathway in this California garden continued up the hill and curved around the back of the house. From the very top of these stairs looking back:


What a fine leading line the path made, as I looked back down to where I had started.

Leading lines in a vertical photo can really help create a strong graphic composition. When the garden presents strong lines, recognize the potential and work them. The lines do not have to start as walls and paths; a small garden stream might offer great potential:


In some gardens there are no obvious leading lines, no paths, walls, or other hardscape elements to guide the photographic composition. In such situations, look to the plantings for inspiration. You may find shrub borders, a line of trees, or a group of similar plants, echoing each other and providing visual connections, that you can exploit as a photographer.

In this mass planting at the Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago, the meadow provided swaths of color, but it was a jumble of shape and texture. To find a photo with strong composition, I looked for some leading lines.


See the little camera icon in the photo above? Moving to that spot, dropping low, and looking across the purple drifts of meadow sage, I found an interesting point of view that provided me with a leading line:


The colorful curve leads the viewer through the garden.

Once you find a line in a garden, you can use it in all sorts of ways to enhance your composition. For this lesson, when you go out with your camera, work on looking for any kind of lines. Start with paths and fences, but be aware that garden beds, tree branches, patterns in flowers, light streaks, and other elements of the garden may provide you with useful leading lines.

In a discussion about the “rule of thirds” (Lesson 1.2), we used this image from Mt Cuba Center as a good example of a balanced photo:

Before/After Slider – move bar to visualize lines

The light streaming into the photo creates a fine triangle that, combined with the reflection and the line of the water’s edge, makes a composition that moves the eye past the chairs to a rock focal point, creating a bit of yin-yang dynamic balance.

Recognize lines formed by triangular shapes; they are lines that can lead the viewer’s eye through the composition.

Sometimes we can use the edge of the frame to create shapes and triangles whose lines will help organize the photo. We will talk much more about shapes in a photograph in Lesson 2.5; here I simply want to point out the lines.

In order to make a composition out of the potential chaos of foliage colors and textures at The San Francisco Botanical Garden, I looked for ways to create lines.

Before/After Slider – move bar to visualize lines

Note the interlocking shapes and how the main lines that create the overall balance divide the composition into three shapes, each roughly a third of the image.

All the above examples deal with landscape views—wide-angle shots of gardens—but there are plenty of times when we are simply fascinated by a single plant. There will be an entire chapter on macro photography later, when I will talk about all the compositional tools that can be used for such images. For now, look for lines in close-up images, and use them to your advantage.


Note how all the petals create lines that draw the viewer into the center of the flower.   When you study a flower, you will often find interesting lines in the striations, the pistils and stamens, or the arrangement of petals. Use that discovery in composing your photo.

Leaves and branches have lines built into their structures and patterns of arrangement. Use them too. Here is a palm tree where the leaf structure and stems provide an explosion of lines:


“Palm Rays – Palma de Guadalupe” is available as prints and notecards. Click photo.

Lines are everywhere. Sometimes Mother Nature provides them, sometimes the garden designer. Go out and look for them.


Supplemental Posts

The Photo Workshop

Find the Photo Leading Lines