We’ve looked at horizontal lines, which are great for creating stability in a photo. Diagonal lines in photography do exactly the opposite – they create dynamic tension. Sometimes they create a sense of uncertainty.
Why do diagonal lines in photography create tension?
We’re used to seeing the world in terms of horizontal and vertical lines. These are strong and reassuring. Anything placed on a horizontal surface will stay there. Something leaning up against a vertical surface will be supported.
A diagonal line can do neither of these things. Place an object on a diagonal line and we expect it to slide off. It’s also not easy to lean something up against a diagonal line without it slipping.
This tension grabs our attention, so the photo is more engaging.
The dark paint, then the rail and then her arm and far leg are parallel diagonal lines creating dynamic tension in the image. In addition, the diagonal lines of the stands also lead our eyes to the model.
Using diagonal lines in photography
We don’t always want to make our viewers feel uncomfortable, which too much tension would cause. Sometimes it’s just a matter of doing enough to make a photo stand out purely because of the human reaction to a diagonal line.
I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s look at:
- How to create diagonal lines in photography
- How to use diagonal lines effectively
- Using multiple diagonal lines
Keep reading to the end for a bonus tip on using diagonal lines in photography composition.
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1. How to create diagonal lines in photography
There are three ways that you can include diagonal lines in a photograph:
Actual diagonal lines
Look for actual diagonal lines to include in a scene. These are the easiest diagonal lines to use, because you just need to look around you to see them. I bet you could spot a few now if you looked up from the screen. Examples include:
- Telephone wires
- Rock formations
Objects placed diagonally
To create diagonal lines with objects they don’t have to be objects that you’ve placed. It could be anything including naturally occurring diagonal lines of objects or manmade lines.
- A row of fruit
- A person’s arm and leg placement
- Posing groups of people
The lead image to this article is a good example. The wooden pillars on the beach run in straight lines down from the top of the beach to the sea. By changing my position I was able to line them up in a diagonal line leading to the fisherman.
Diagonal lines created by viewpoint
A horizontal line viewed from the side becomes a diagonal line and instantly more interesting. The same with vertical lines when viewed form above or below. You can use a wide angle and a low viewpoint on a vertical line to increase the distortion and make it even more diagonal.
So where you place your camera in relation to the element can alter the nature of the line in your photo.
- Road (the lower you go, the more the sides of the road converge into diagonal lines)
- Buildings (stand and the bottom and look up)
- A wall (look down the length of it instead of face on)
Further reading: 4 of the best viewpoints for impressive composition
In the photo above I am directly in front of the model, who is standing in front of a boat on the beach. I then shifted position slightly to the side and she turned her head towards me for the photo below. As a result the lines behind her became more dynamic diagonal lines.
Creating diagonal lines out of nothing
- Dutch angle (tilt the camera, but do this sparingly as it’s a bit dated now)
- Subject’s line of sight (it’s an invisible line leading from the subject to where they are looking)
Now that we know where to find diagonal lines, the trick is to learn how to place the diagonal line in a photo to strengthen the composition.
2. How to use diagonal lines effectively
Like with all things related to composition, the placement of an element, such as diagonal lines, is vital to how well it works in a photo. Where you place diagonal lines is directly related to their purpose in the photo.
The most dynamic placement of diagonal lines is to lead into the image from the corner. You don’t, however, have to place the diagonal line exactly in the corner. It can be offset. It all depends on what you want to do with the diagonal line.
You’ll see, as we explore how to use diagonal lines, that they are often used in combination with other composition techniques.
Diagonal lines are used to:
- Lead the eye
- Divide an image
- Create depth
Leading the eye with diagonal lines
When diagonal lines lead directly to the focal point of an image they are being used as leading lines. The tension of the diagonal line, versus a horizontal or vertical line, makes the composition more engaging.
Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition
The little boy’s arms (and gaze) lead the viewer to his mom’s baby bump, which was the reason for the shoot. The positioning of her arm also creates a diagonal line to lead the viewer.
Creating depth with diagonal lines
When diagonal lines lead into a photo they create depth. We are able to interpret, for example, a road disappearing into the distance and then associate that sense of depth. In the same way, the diminishing perspective of a bridge getting smaller as it leads away creates depth.
A path leading from the back of the image to a person or from the front of the photo to a person shows the person’s journey, depending on which way they’re going. They might be heading away along the path, or approaching us. This brings a sense of movement to the photo and encourages the viewer to think about the person’s suggested journey.
A recent trend uses this very well. When a woman is photographed with her arm stretched back to us, leading out of shot to the photographer, we feel that we are being taken along on her journey. Sometimes the photographer’s hand is also included in the frame, which makes us feel as if we are the photographer and are about to step into the scene.
The sense of depth created by using diagonal lines to lead the eye momentarily suspends the reality that the photo is two dimensional. It feels more real life and three dimensional.
That right there has got to be more interesting already!
Dividing a photo with diagonal lines
There are two ways that diagonal lines can divide a photo.
- When diagonal lines intersect each other they create points of interest at the intersection. It’s ideal to place the focal point of the image at an intersection, because our eyes are naturally drawn to the intersection of two lines.
- Alternatively, a diagonal line can intersect the entire image by running through it from one edge to another. The line doesn’t need to be from the very corner to the opposite, although that is where they are most dynamic. You could also place it off center.
Remember that the diagonal lines don’t have to be actual lines. Even a subject’s gaze (or line of sight) can create a diagonal line, because as the viewer, we naturally look to see what the subject is looking at.
The sea and the beach create a diagonal divide in the image. Additionally, the couple’s limb placement and gaze lead our eyes to the glass of bubbly that he is pouring, which highlights the celebratory reason for the shoot.
3. Using multiple diagonal lines in a photo
You can use multiple diagonally lines in three different ways.
There is a fine line between using just enough multiple diagonal lines going in different directions and using too many. When a few diagonal lines go in different directions it lends a sense of action to the photo, making it more dynamic. If there are too many lines going in different directions the photo will feel chaotic.
When several diagonal lines all go in the same direction, they create a pattern, which in itself is an engaging photography composition technique.
When you drive past a ploughed field do you find your eyes drawn to the changing pattern of the lines that’s created as you pass?
Further reading: Pattern in photography composition makes photos interesting
A zigzag line is simply several diagonal lines joined together going in roughly the same direction. The slight change of direction with each zig or zag, engages the viewer, leads the eye and creates interest in the photo. It’s not often we see zigzags, so we tend to notice instantly when we do spot one.
There are a lot of lines here and there’s a lot going on. The diagonal lines could be confusing, but placing the father and daughter at the point where the lines intersect draws the eye directly to them. Our eyes then move to his son, lead there by a diagonal line also. One last thing – the zigzagging of the diagonal lines add to the high energy of the image.
4. The bonus tip – triangles!
You can’t have triangles without using diagonal lines in photography composition. Whenever a triangle is used in an image it creates both a sense of stability and a sense of tension. So triangles are excellent composition tools.
The base of a triangle is a horizontal line, which is where the stability comes in. The two sides are of course diagonal lines, creating tension and interest. This is one of the reasons why arranging a family group in a triangle shape is ideal.
When diagonal lines lead in from the sides of a photo and converge, several triangles are formed. All these lines lead the viewers’ eyes around the photo.
Further reading: 5 ways to use triangles in photography composition
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By Jane Allan
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