Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Leading Lines Are Also a Bunch of Crap

A year or two ago I spent a bunch of time digging to the Rule Of Thirds, and proving that it was a modern idea, only used by photographers, and basically pretty stupid. Turns out that Leading Lines are pretty much the same deal.

We learn about Leading Lines everywhere we look for references on photographic composition. The eye allegedly follows these things around and theye are anciente thinges goinge backe to da Vinci or before.

This is crap. Simply unadulterated garbage. Go find me a reference to these damned things prior to 1900. Go find me a reference to these damned things outside of some crappy book or magazine on taking better photos before about 1980 (at some point this piece of shit started creeping in to popular "How To Draw" books). Go find me an eye tracking study that shows one damned test subject's eye following a leading line. So you can add Leading Lines to the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, the Golden Spiral, and all that other ahistoric shit that only started "appearing" in "Art" in the twentieth century, as modern man tried to systematize beauty into simple rules.

The way the eye actually moves around a picture is actually pretty simple. You're going to be gobsmacked by this next bit:

Our gaze moves from interesting thing to interesting thing within the frame. Our gaze lingers longer on more interesting things. We don't follow the goddamned railroad tracks to see what's at the end, unless we're specifically thinking "ahh yes, leading lines!"

What are the interesting things, you ask? As well you may!

In order from most to least:
  • Faces. Human and animal.
  • Figures. Human and animal.
  • Areas that contrast with their surround. Perhaps, tonally, texturally, or chromatically.

It's really not very complicated.

This is why non-bullshit theories of composition focus on how to make the picture pleasing, not how to "lead the eye". They are not based on bogus physiology or neurology. They're about making the picture interesting, easy to read where appropriate, and so on.

We get ideas like figure-to-ground, in which we might place a human figure or face against a tonally separated background (dark on light, light on dark) by way of clarifying which human figure we're interested in, by way of making it easy to get to the interesting meat of the picture.

We strive for balance, unity, and variety, to make the whole frame work for us, each piece pulling together, while still being interesting to look at. If the entire left side of the frame hasn't got anything interesting in it, well, why not? There ought to be a reason that makes some kind of visual sense.

Here is an experiment you can probably perform in a few minutes. Go find a photo with a very successful use of leading lines (the examples we are shown, by the way, all have the leading lines leading to something interesting, or at least some someplace no less interesting than anything else). Now go make several versions of this photo. Eliminate whatever is interesting at the end of the leading line, be it a person, or simply a bright spot, or whatever. Insert something interesting elsewhere in the photo. Another bright spot, somewhere new. A simple clip-art human figure pasted rudely in at about the right scale will do.

Where does your eye "go"? Does it trot down the "leading line" or does it just go to the interesting things?

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