Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies.

All photos in this article copyrighted by their respective photographers.

One of the things I don’t talk much about is composition on my blog when it comes to street photography. To be quite honest, I am not as interested in composition of photographers when it comes to their philosophies when it comes to photography. However it is still something important to consider. Therefore I want to start a series inspired by Adam Marelli on how you can improve your compositions in street photography. Some of these lessons may be new, others familiar– and I will use the best examples in the history of street photography to illustrate the compositional techniques (while throwing in a few of my own).

Triangles are one of the best compositional techniques you can use in your street photography to fill your frame, add balance, and add movement in your images. (Thanks also to Patrick Bryan for the inspiration for doing this article).

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, “Skeleton boys”

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies.

I think Josef Koudelka is one of the best photographers who have ever lived (and is still living). His photos are full of pure raw energy- while having beautiful compositions that hold them together.

Koudelka often utilizes triangles in his compositions when it comes to shooting multiple subjects– in one of his finest books, “Gypsies.”

For example, take a look at the photo above in which he shot three boys, protruding their chests, hands by their sides. They kind of look like scarecrows, and the detail of the ribs is a bit grotesque– they look like living skeletons. But at the same time, it is a fun photo – I remember all the times I did this as a kid to show off or pretend I was flexing (before I had muscles). So the photo is first of all great in terms of content (what is actually happening in the photo). And of course you have some little kids in the back (you can see the outline of a girl with her short hair) looking over– wondering what is going on.

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Figure 1: Note how because there are 3 kids, they balance each other perfectly

What works well when it comes to multiple subjects is when they come in threes. When you think of threes in popular folklore– what comes to mind? The three little pigs, the three blind mice, and so on.

So first of all, the great thing that Koudelka did was employ 3 kids- that fit in perfect harmony and fill the frame of the shot quite well. If you look closer, there are also more repeating triangle shapes in the frame in the kid’s ribs:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Figure 2: Notice the repeating triangle shapes in the kid’s ribs.

But let’s not stop there, let us find all the triangles in the scene:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Figure 3: Note all of the triangles in the scene that make up this photograph.

Now the question you might be asking yourself is: did Koudelka intentionally do this?

I have a good feeling that he had an intuition to make the first composition of having three kids spaced out evenly like in “Figure 1.” However did he intentionally try to get all the little triangles in “Figure 3″? Who knows. All that matters is that the composition works. Sometimes it is intentional- sometimes it isn’t. Regardless it is a beautiful image in terms of the storytelling aspect– as well as the composition. This is one of my favorite shots of Koudelka because it has a beautiful harmony of content (what is going on in the shot) and form (composition).

Let us inspect another shot by Koudelka:

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, Reclining man

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Rakusy. 1966. Gypsy.

Triangles re-occur a lot in Koudelka’s work, especially in his “Gypsies” project (one of my favorite books).

In this shot, you see a man casually lying in his bed, proudly displaying a pictureframe and a large metal coin. I don’t know the exact story behind the shot, but I look at the picture of the man in the frame as a younger former self of the older man– and not sure what the coin is. Perhaps it is a symbolism of money, or power? Regardless, I love the guy’s cool expression, his relaxed position, and his proud gaze.

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note the 3 main subjects and faces in the shot. The “real face” on top, the drawn face on the left, and the metal face on the right.

Once again what works for me in the shot is how there are 3 “main subjects.” First of all, the man. Secondly, the man in the picture frame. Then thirdly, the face of the giant coin (or whatever it is).

There is a beautiful balance between these images, and it fils the frame perfectly. And the fact that there are 3 faces (all different versions of faces, one real, one painting, one from metal) makes it all the more phenomenal.

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, 3 guys

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Kadan. 1963. Gypsies.

The last example I will pull from Koudelka is this shot he took of three Roma people (politically correct term for “Gypsy”). I love the shot in several different ways. First of all, I love the framing of the shot. I love how Koudelka shot it from the door– looking in, which creates a nice rectangular frame to the men sitting inside.

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note the first frame of the door in the shot

After that, I love the 3 guys, all placed perfectly in a triangular form — doing different gestures. The man in the middle is relaxed, with his legs in-between the chair sitting forward – hunched over and looking quite relaxed. The guy on the left has a nice little vest and a tie, and a nice hat– with his hands put together properly at his waist over one another. The man on the far right looks the most moody, tilted over to the right, with a hat as well, legs crossed, and hand on his head– a gesture that generally is when you are tired, moody, or thinking about something deep.

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

3 subjects again, in a triangle

This is an aside, but I also enjoy the strong vertical aspect of this image– of all the repeating “legs” in the shot and the strong verticals:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note the reoccuring “legs” in the center of the frame, and of the frame holding in the subjects.

Once again, I am sure that Koudelka didn’t purposefully look for all the vertical “legs” in the shot or such. But I think that using 3 subjects in his shots, and orienting them in a triangular shape– is something intentionally he is doing.

Alex Webb, Istanbul, Telephone booth

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Alex Webb / Magnum Photos / TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001.

Alex Webb is also a master of using triangles in his work.

In this shot in his “Istanbul” book, he creates 3 different layers: one of the man on the far right closest to us, then the older man in the bottom middle corner, who is a little further away, then the security guard in the far background on the top middle. What unifies them all is a triangle:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note the 3 primary subjects in the shot, their depth in respect to one another- and the triangle unifying all of them.

Alex Webb, Istanbul, Kids playing with ball

Let us take a look at another example:

What I love about this shot is the surreal aspect of it. First of all, it looks ordinary enough: a kid in the center kicking a ball upwards. But out of the corner of your eye, there is a kid that is popping his head in (like he is dangling from the side). In reality the kid was probably hanging off some jungle gym or something – but it creates a strange and immediately surreal image.

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Alex Webb / Magnum Photos / TURKEY. Istanbul. 2004.

One thing in terms of the composition that worked really well was the triangular composition Webb made with all the elements of the frame:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note how all 3 elements connect into a wonderful triangular form

What I think is really the “cherry on top” which completes this image is the ball in the top right corner. Imagine if the ball wasn’t there- wouldn’t the photo feel a bit empty?

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

It is distracting without the ball – what is the kid in the middle looking at in the top right corner? It is missing that special element, and without the ball there is no triangular shape

Once again, I have no idea of the story behind the shot. But what I do know is that Webb (either while shooting or in the editing phase) found that the ball in the top right corner was essential for the shot. And without the ball in the top right corner, the triangle composition is killed- and the shot feels empty.

Alex Webb, Cuba, Woman and 3 dogs

The last example I will bring from Webb is this enigmatic image of a woman in Cuba, with three dogs around her:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© Alex Webb / Magnum Photos / CUBA. Matanzas. 2008.

What I really love about the shot is the mood and expression of the woman in the middle- looking outwards longingly, with her fist clenched and over her beating heart. Then the pattern of her checkered shirt adds a nice little texture.

In terms of the three dogs– this is where things get interesting. First of all, they make a nice little triangle:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note how the 3 dogs make a nice triangle

However even more interesting than that– they are all looking different directions, which adds a sense of tension and “pulling” the woman in different directions:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

All three dogs pulling opposite of one another- creating a tension for the woman in the middle

The dogs looking in all 3 different directions gives me an uneasy feeling of tension. It reminds me of in Roman times when they would take prisoners and tie each 4 of their limbs to 4 horses, and then whip all of the horses (killing the man, by pulling all his limbs off his body). I am certain that is not what Webb intended with this image, but it creates a captivating tension nonetheless.

David Alan Harvey, Cuba, Street scene

The last image I will share for this triangle composition lesson is from David Alan Harvey, one of my favorite color street photographers.

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

© David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos / CUBA. Trinidad. 1998. Street scene.

Upon first look, the shot is simple enough. There is a hand sticking out of a corner pointing to a black dog, and a little girl running. I think it is beautiful in its minimalism- and only having 3 characters. Once again we can create a triangle of all 3 subjects:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note there are also 3 main subjects in this shot

However what makes this shot a hundred times better is that there is great movement in the shot– your eye is lead all around the frame. First of all from the finger pointing at the dog, then the dog’s tail pointing towards the girl, then the girl about to run left back to the hand. It creates an infinite loop- that keeps playing over in your mind:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Like a spinning wheel, the movement in this shot doesn’t stop. It is alive

I will also share some of my images in which I think I utilized a triangle well in my compositions:

Eric Kim, Mumbai, 2012

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Eric Kim. Mumbai, 2013

This is a shot that I very much like that I took when I visited Mumbai — hosted by my awesome buddy Kaushal Parikh. I was out shooting with KP when we came upon this scene. There was a boy just kinda hanging out over a bench, an older man (maybe his grandpa) on the far right, and an interesting mural of a man on top (not sure who he is, but it looks religious).

I saw all three of these elements when I was shooting it, and I took about 5 different shots. This one came out the best. Note how I have three different subjects in the shot who are all people, but different. The main subject is the boy (youth), then the older man on the right (elderly), then the painting on the top (religious?)

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Note the 3 different types of people I captured in the shot- the young boy, the older man, and the religious looking person on top?

Conclusion

Triangles are a great compositional tool in street photography. They work best when you have 3 subjects– and you space them evenly around the frame. Note it doesn’t necessarily have to be 3 “people” per-se. It can include body limbs, objects, animals, etc.

The greatest part of triangles in composition is the balance it gives to the viewer- and fills the frame quite nicely.

So try to incorporate triangles to your work sometime (either when you consciously shooting on the streets) or during the editing phase (figuring out why you like a photo or not). Because sometimes the triangles you create are intentional– and other times it is by accident. But at the end of the day, if the shot works– it works.

Learn more about composition

Below are some more articles on composition and street photography– enjoy!

Upcoming Street Photography Workshops

If you want to conquer your fears and meet new peers, join me in Stockholm, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, NYC, Istanbul & More!

See My Upcoming Street Photography Workshops

  • Michael Ares

    Good article Eric. I always thought that for tight close-up shots 2 points of interest were essential. For more “standing back” photos it should be at least 3 things that tie a photo together. And that’s a challenge that I have with my photography. I’ve been trying to experiment more with layers in my images, and it’s hard to find the perfect combination of things that make the image stand out. But I’ve come to realize those types of images are the most fun to dissect and break down :)

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Definitely – excited to see what you get!

  • yasar k. canpolat

    Eric,

    Thank you for this inspiring article with the detailed explanation and example images.

    Nowadays, I’m interested in tricks of our brain which effect us in perceiving the images. I believe that along with the content of visual, composition is another key point to create great images (Not only in photography, but in all kinds of art). So I think that an image becomes a successful image as long as it combines the good content and the good composition at the same time in compliance with each other.

    Anyway I would like to draw your attention to an article written by Gonzalo Benar which I have recently read regarding this triangle matter in creating composition. It is a quite good one; http://gbenard.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/the-conspiracy-of-the-triangle/ .

    Look forward to your further articles with respect to composition.

    Take Care.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      You are definitely spot on Yasar – I think in the end form (composition) should only be a means to highlight the content. So for me, content is a bit more important than form – but you need both.

      And thanks for the link – got some good reading ahead of me :)

  • Matias Gonzalez

    Me encanto ! :)

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Muchas gracias!

  • Blake
    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Sweetness- thanks for sharing this too Blake! :)

  • Dylan

    While this certainly is good advice, a word of caution should be mentioned – some triangles work better than others, the compositional link can be lost with too scalene a triangle. That said, triangles which don’t necessarily act as way of actively guiding the viewer through the composition or linking things together can also have a pleasing effect, such as the patch of grass on the right hand side of the frame in Webb’s “Kids playing with ball”

  • Giovanni M

    Thank you Eric for this insight
    You push me to look back at my own portfolio and see if my picks were driven by triangles without my even realizing it… Will report back, it’s an interesting experiment about the theory!

  • canvas prints

    I really enjoyed the photos and your work. the compositions are so good to.

  • Stephen_BRAY

    This was quite a compelling article, until, that is, I went on to read your: ‘Interview with “ECHIE”: New Dutch Photography Collective with Peter Gerritsen, Regina van der Kloet, Peter de Krom, and Caspar Claasen’ which, to my mind, is illustrated with equally compelling but stylistically different articles. In these I am hard pressed to find any triangles at all.

    The problem with compositional techniques is that they tend to cause people to lean on them like crutches. I recall recently watching a television programme where teams were sent out in the African bush with cameras to photograph wild-life, and one judge said that she was awarding the winning shot to a team that had, ‘followed the rule of thirds’, as if this were a criteria for a good image.

    The truth is that we are not in the business of photographing an objective world ‘out there’ waiting to be manipulated by clever camera-work. As photographers we might do better to start by attempting to photograph our own projected dreams and demons, and only after these are tamed by making images of them attempt to make sense of life both in nature, and on the street.

  • Pingback: Gestures In Photography | Michael Ares Photography

  • Craig

    I noticed the more I shoot, sometimes you capture compositional elements you may have not noticed at the time, which tends to provide an extra bonus in terms of strenghting the image. What I enjoy abut Alex Webb’s phonebooth image is not only the triangle, but the layers and eye contact he was able to capture in the frame.

  • Nimish

    Hi Eric,
    I am really liking this series. Yesterday I finished the article on depth while waiting for my train home and I decided that I will check out this Composition series. I like the way you are dissecting classic street photographs from the veterans of this art form and explaining the compositional technique behind them. I don’t think the street photographers you have mentioned must have even thought about all the triangles and must have just shot it knowing that they are making a strong composition. These veterans have spent hours, no months on the streets and after a point it will just be pure instinct for them to make strong compositions.
    Always a pleasure to discover new street photographers:)
    I am heading to the next article in the Composition series.
    Cheers:)

    PS: Just to answer your query about the third person in your Mumbai photograph, his name is Shivaji Maharaj. He was a warrior and the ruler of the Maratha kingdom in Western India, before the British took over. Wouldn’t say he is a religious figure as such, but more of a respected person from the history of that era. The mural of the tiger is the symbol of a political party called Shiv Sena (Shivaji’s army) which is a right-wing political organisation.

  • Dave Franz

    Eric, great article and site! I’m new to photography and want to try street photography, but don’t understand it. Your slight looks like a great place to get started and learn about it. Thanks!

  • Pingback: Street Photography Composition Lesson #11: “Spot the Not” — Eric Kim Street Photography

  • Pingback: Street Photography Composition Lesson #13: Multiple-Subjects — Eric Kim Street Photography

  • Pingback: Exercise – Real and implied triangles | yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah

  • Pingback: Street Photography Book Review: “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka — Eric Kim Street Photography

  • Udai

    Dear Eric,

    The picture you thought was religious, is actually not, its a picture of Chattrapati Shivaji. He was a warrior back in the day, fighting for the Marathis (From Maharashtra). There is a political party called “Shiv Sena” (Shivs Army), which like Chattrapati Shivaji, is pro Marathi. However the party and their methods have been slightly controversial. They blame north Indians for taking over jobs in Maharashtra (capital Mumbai) and can get violent over there protests. The writing under the picture says “Shiv Sena”, however I dont know what the other word means, It could be the ward number.

    I’m just glad I could help you, the way you have helped us thank you Eric.

    Take Care,
    Udai

  • Pingback: Introduction to Composition for Street Photography Presentation (Gulf Photo Plus 2014) — Eric Kim Street Photography

  • Pingback: Composition in Street Photography | Alex Ciocoiu Photography

  • flickr.com/nobruskt

    Muito bom , sempre procuro ler suas matérias para a melhoria de minhas fotos .

  • Hhamayoon

    Erik

    I’m grateful for the efforts you are putting to educate not only in street photography field, composition is an element of visual arts. This is the main ingredient, which involve our seeing human nature. Knowing where to place the various elements in your images is basic to great
    composition and unless you can master this your images will be average. You need to grasp these fundamentals early in your journey as you learn digital photography. A great photo is a result of a great composition. The quicker you learn this principle the faster you will arrive at stunning images. Thanks!

  • http://www.LeslieDeanBrown.com/ Leslie Dean Brown

    I finally got around to reading this. I see what you mean. I think with 3 subjects your eye naturally wanders around in a circle and doesn’t stop. When you just have only two subjects (elements), your eye has to fight between the two. Just one subject can end up being quite boring and I think those photos don’t tend to stand the test of time… thanks once again for a great article.

  • Pingback: L’EQUILIBRIO NELLA FOTOGRAFIA (5) | LO SBUFFO

  • Pingback: — Eric Kim Street Photography

  • Pingback: L’EQUILIBRIO NELLA FOTOGRAFIA | GO,SHOOT.IT

  • Pingback: Saigon Diary #2: Learning Vietnamese, Seeing Common Threads, and Triangles

  • Dipu Sampang Rai

    One of the best photography blogs I have read!!!! I tried to use this composition particularly after reading it and it actually looks great and feels great to take shots…..Thank you Eric,…..

  • Pingback: Best Face Mask and Helmet Designs in College Football | IamDistinct

  • Pingback: 写真の構図が良く解るErik Kim氏の素晴らしいプレゼンテーション | YOUのデジタルマニアック

  • Pingback: Eric Kim's FREE Online Course – Composition in Street Photography – Art London

  • Pingback: L’EQUILIBRIO NELLA FOTOGRAFIA. | GO,SHOOT.IT