Street Photography Composition Lesson #1: Triangles

Josef Koudelka / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies.

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© 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”

Josef Koudelka / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies. �
© 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.

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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:

Koudelka1-2
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:

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

Josef Koudelka / CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Rakusy. 1966. Gypsy. �
© 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.

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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

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© 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.

koudelka2
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.

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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:

Note the reoccuring "legs" in the center of the frame
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

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© 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:

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

alex webb2
© 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:

Note how all 3 elements connect into a wonderful triangular form
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?

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
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:

alex webb3
© 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:

alex webb3-2
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:

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

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© 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:

Note there are also 3 main subjects in this shot
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:

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

Mumbai, 2013
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?)

Note the 3 different types of people I captured in the shot- the young boy, the older man, and the religious icon?
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!

Conquer your fears and meet new peers:

Regarding workshops please email my manager Neil at neilta@gmail.com


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