For today’s street photography composition lesson, we will discuss a compositional rule that is simple enough: the diagonal. Credit goes to Adam Marelli for teaching me about this important design element which can help street photographers all around the globe.
Diagonals are one of the strongest and most fundamental compositional elements– something that we all know quite well.
There are 3 types of main lines: the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal line. They also go in degrees of intensity (the horizontal line being the least dynamic and the diagonal line as the most dynamic).
1. The horizontal line
The horizontal line is by nature, flat. If you think about anything in nature that is horizontal — it is at rest and unshakeable. Imagine a man lying on the ground or a tree trunk lying flat on the ground. It is solid — and isn’t going anywhere.
2. The vertical line
The vertical line is much more dynamic than the horizontal line. The horizontal line is going straight up and down– which makes it much more “off-balance.” Imagine anything in nature that is vertical. Trees are tall and powerful, but if they didn’t have strong roots they would be easy to tip over. Skyscrapers which go for hundreds of floors upwards are very unstable, and a earthquake could easily topple them over (versus a flatter structure which is more stable and close to the ground).
Imagine a man standing tall. Would it be easier to tip him over to make him fall? Yes. How about a man lying down (horizontal line). No- the man lying on the ground is stable.
3. The diagonal line
Now let us go onto the diagonal line. It is the most dynamic of all the three lines. After all, in nature anything that is diagonal is far more unstable than both horizontal things and vertical things. A diagonal line is something literally about to tip over.
Imagine a man standing up, and you shoved him quite hard. He would then start tipping over, making a diagonal line with his body. He is about to topple over– full of dynamic energy and tension.
My buddy Adam Marelli (far more qualified to talk about composition than me) told me about a book titled: “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry.” Pretty much the concept of the book is that much of nature follows these mathematical equations — and we could apply these design principles to art. He does a bunch of fancy math in the book (which I don’t quite understand– thus I studied Sociology in school) but makes a convincing claim to me (once again, not a math expert) that seems like works quite well.
In one chapter he talks about the diagonal, and cutting the “reciprocal” line through it. This means, you draw a diagonal line and then draw a line that is perpendicular to it (remember geometry class?) and creates a 90 degree angle. To walk you through it, let me outline two steps:
1. Draw the diagonal line
So to start off, draw a diagonal line from corner to corner. I used the aspect ratio of 35mm film — which is a 3:2 aspect ratio. 3 being the ratio of the width, and 2 being the ratio of the height.
2. Draw the reciprocal diagonal line
So now you see we have drawn a (rough) reciprocal line cutting through the original diagonal line. If we make some (once again rough) measurements– it should make 90 degree angles all around (those geometry classes are finally coming into use!)
So now you see there are (rough) 90 degree lines all around. If you remember geometry class, adding up all those 90 degree angles add up to 360 degrees (the degree of a circle).
Now you have created this reciprocal triangle. For our purposes on composition and street photography let us stop here. There are all these fancier things you can do with these diagonals– but personally I find it too confusing and it isn’t simple enough to actually apply when shooting on the streets.
One of the questions that might be going through your head is: what is the point of drawing the reciprocal line through the original diagonal line? Once again, I am not 100% sure why this works– but it simply does. There is some complicated math that backs up this claim – but let us skip that–and see some real-world examples of how great street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson applied this to his work:
Henri Cartier-Bresson. ROMANIA. 1975. In a train.
This is a superb photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson (that honestly many of us can emulate). He was in a train in Romania, and took a photo of a sleeping couple across from him. Many of us ride subways, trains, and buses to work – so don’t forget, some of the best street photography opportunities are in public transport.
Anyways, first take a look at the photo. Can you see the diagonal that cuts through the shot? If not, take a close look at the woman. Do you see how her body is sprawled across diagonally in the frame- nearly corner to corner? If still not, let us “cheat” by drawing a red diagonal line to make it easier to see:
So you can see, the position of the woman’s body is in a very diagonal position. It runs from her hips, through her chest, to her head, and off into the corner.
Let us now draw a reciprocal line:
So now you see in figure 2, the reciprocal line intersects and brings focus on the intersecting point in the middle. It brings attention towards the couple’s faces– which is where you want it to draw focus.
So if you see in figure 3, it is a clearer sign of the point of interest that the intersecting lines make. You are focused on their faces, which is the most important aspect of the photograph.
If you remember our previous lesson on triangles, let us also see if there are triangles in the shot. Try to imagine them on your computer screen.
Done? Okay let me draw some of which I personally see:
In figure 4, these are some triangles I personally see in the photo.
Now did HCB really see all these triangles when he shot the photo? Probably not. I do have a good feeling that he did see the diagonal elements (Figures 1-3) of the shot and took it. And I think intuitively he saw all the forms which brought the shot together, especially the key being the woman’s elbow arched — which makes a strong triangle.
At the end of the day, I don’t think this photo is powerful because it has all these fancy triangles and diagonals. Rather, I love the feeling of a young couple’s love–holding one another in a loving embrace. I love how they are both sleeping– perhaps dreaming of one another? They both look so peaceful, and confident in one another. I wonder where their final destination is?
So the content (what is going on in the photo) of the photo is strong, and the form (composition) is strong as well. But I think for me personally, form follows content (content is more important than form). Of course both are necessary, but I still feel that being a human being– the emotion of a photo is far more powerful than its composition.
Let us go onto another example where I don’t think the reciprocal always has to be perfect:
Henri Cartier-Bresson. FRANCE. 1932. Marseille.
So in this shot that HCB shot in Marseille, there are two men who are taking a rest in the day. One on the bottom is totally sprawled out– hand on his waist, and his other arm perfectly curved almost like he were a sculpture. And his left knee is up, creating a nice little triangle, with his other leg straightened perfectly out.
So do you see the diagonals? Let us draw the first diagonal that stretches from corner to corner:
So in this shot, you see the primary diagonal line cutting through the man’s body and knee – to the corner of the frame. Having this diagonal element makes the shot feel more alive and dynamic.
Now do you see the secondary diagonal line that connects the man lying down with the other man (on top) who is chilling?
So if you see in figure 2, the diagonal line which connects the two men isn’t perfectly the reciprocal- but it still works. It connects the men together – and adds a visual elegance in the frame.
What probably makes this shot not as powerful as the other shot is that the intersecting point in the middle of the frame– brings your eyes to the man’s knee. Not as interesting as faces (as seen in the prior HCB shot on the train) — but still compositionally it works.
Henri Cartier-Bresson. SPAIN. 1933. Valencia Province. Alicante.
Let us go to another HCB example where he skillfully uses a diagonal to connect all three subjects in his shot– which is a bit more unique:
So this shot to start off is quite enigmatic. You see three characters in the shot, with the person in the middle being the most prominent. But is the person a man or a woman? The person has masculine features in the face, but looks quite dainty and has perfectly sculpted eyebrows and some eyeliner around the eyes. This is the first big puzzle. Then you hvae the other two characters in the frame looking a little uneasily at the photographer (HCB) while performing some sort of play with their hands.
To my understanding the person is transgender, which solves part 1 of the mystery. Part 2, what caused this strange arrangement to come to be? Apparently HCB said all of his photos were unstaged– which actually isn’t true. If you see the contact sheet, they most likely posed in this way for him (he took a few more shots of them in a “dancing pose” after. I can’t find the contact sheet on me at the moment- but you can find it in his “Scrapbook” book.
Anyways, try to draw the diagonal line in the shot. And no- it isn’t perfectly corner-to-corner this time. Still can’t see it? Focus on all the hands that are connecting in the shot. I have illustrated it for you below:
If you take a look at Figure 1 above, you can see that if you start from the far right of the frame and work your way upwards– you see the diagonal line unifies all of their hands together. This is a little bit less obvious than the previous photos of HCB – but it still works.
And take another look at the shot and see if you can draw the triangles in this shot. There are a ton. I have drawn some triangles I see:
Once again- I doubt that HCB saw these little red triangles in his mind when he was taking the shot. But the photograph he took has a beautiful sense of balance and elegance- I feel part of this has to do with the balance of the triangles in the shot– and the strong diagonal that leads through the photograph.
Henri Cartier-Bresson. FRANCE. 1959. Paris. The Palais Royal Gardens.
Diagonals can also add a strong sense of movement and direction. We will see this well in a shot he took at the Royal Gardens in Paris:
So if we look at the shot, there is a strong sense of movement in the shot. Can you see all the diagonals in the shot?
So you can see in Figure 1, all of the diagonals in the shot which add a sense of movement and energy to the shot. And if you look close, you see two figures walking in the scene– their legs making a “V” (which is two diagonal lines connected with one another):
If you see in Figure 2, the two men’s legs make a perfect “V” shape. The figure in the top is a bit small to see on the screen, but if you look closely you can see him.
So diagonal lines don’t have to always be perfect diagonal lines from corner-to-corner in the frame. Rather, they can be used to add a sense of direction, energy, and movement to the shot.
Henri Cartier-Bresson. USA. 1947. Cape Cod, Mass, Independence Day.
Diagonals can also be used with hand gestures–which give their expressions more energy and power, as we can see in this shot by HCB below:
You see the woman– who shows her power and strength of America– by having the American flag around her neck proudly, and pointing off in the corner with energy and might.
This is how HCB explained the shot:
“This woman explained to me that the flagpole over her door was broken but ‘on such a day as this, one keeps one’s flag on one’s heart.’” I felt in her a touch of the strength and robustness of the early American pioneers’.
I think the photo shows this quite clearly — and what makes the shot feel this way is all embedded in her hand gesture- pointing to the top right corner with strength and conviction:
So if you see in Figure one, you can see her hand pointing and adding energy to the shot. There are also lots of diagonals in the background of the building which add the diagonal movement to the top right of the frame:
There are plenty of HCB examples (I think he was the best street photographer when it comes to composition)– but let us move onto some other photographers (for variety):
Cornell Capa. USSR. 1958. Moscow. The Bolshoi Ballet School.
Let us take a look at one of Cornell Capa’s photographs shot in Moscow at a Ballet School:
In the shot, you see the elegance of all of the ballerinas – and the mirror in the top right of the frame that sucks you into the image. Do you see all the diagonal lines which create the leading lines all to the point on the top right?
If you follow the movement of the ballerinas, and the geometry and architecture of the building– you will see all of these diagonal lines which add depth and a sense of space, movement, and elegance to the shot.
Rene Burri. BRAZIL. 1960. Rio de Janeiro. Ministry of Health
Rene Burri (another great Magnum photographer) often shot from high vantage points- and is also a master of composition. In one of his most famous shots, he saw three men hanging out- with beautiful streaks of light. He then waited around – and he then took the shot when two women were passing by (and the men looked over at them):
So in the above shot, can you see the diagonals in the shot? Well first of all- you can draw a diagonal arrow from the men looking over at the women:
So you can see in Figure 1, the men are staring straight at the women – in a diagonal manner. Also see how the direction of their gaze is also parallel to some streaks of light in the shot:
Regarding the women, if you take a close look at them– they are also walking in a diagonal manner (to the top right corner):
If you look at the direction of the women walking- they are moving to the top right–which are also parallel to the streams of light int he shot:
And if you add up all of the diagonal lines and directions in the shot- you see there is a great criss-cross of all of these lines:
So ultimately what makes this shot great (aside from the fact of the great story of the men staring at the women walking by)– is the geometric and compositional elegance of the shot. To have all of these intersecting diagonal lines adds more energy and movement to the shot. Both the streaks of light and the movement of the women, and the gaze of the men. It is a shot that keeps your eyes moving, and feels alive.
In an example of a photo I took, there are also strong diagonals in the shot:
I feel what gives this shot a sense of movement is the strong diagonal that is going from the bottom left corner to the top right corner- which accentuates the direction the man is heading (toward the right):
There are also some minor diagonals I see in the shot which give it some counter-balance:
When I took the shot, I liked the strong diagonal line in the background of the shot (the wall) and the man walking by it. I crouched down and took the shot quickly.
After looking at the shot on my computer, I realized it was the strong diagonal movement and motion is one of the compositional elements I liked about the shot. And in terms of content, I like the dark silhouetted figure of a suit looking kind of like a ghost in the shot- and the dark feeling of the shot too.
How to apply diagonals in the streets:
These are just some examples of diagonals and how you can incorporate them into your photography. Some take-away points:
1. Place your subject in the intersecting points of the diagonal and perpendicular diagonal.
As we saw in the above example, one of the strongest ways to compose your photos is to put the subject (or subjects) of interest at the intersecting points. Of course this is not always possible, but it makes a stronger image.
2. Focus on diagonal leading lines
The great thing about diagonal leading lines is that they lead the viewer’s eyes through the frame- which gives it more space, depth, and movement. Try to incorporate diagonal lines when you see the leading lines.
3. Mix it up
As you see in this shot by Rene Burri– what makes is so compositionally powerful is the intersecting and criss-crossing diagonal lines. The more diagonal lines you can add (in different directions as well) the better the composition will be.
So practically when you are on the streets, keep your eyes out for diagonals–whether it be the way people position their bodies, the way the light hits, the way people move, the direction they look, or diagonal shapes in backgrounds.
Diagonals are one of the simplest–but most powerful compositional tools. Let us keep our eyes open for them- and utilize them in our street photography.
All photographs in this article are copyrighted by their respective photographers and agencies.