It’s time to go exploring! In this month’s episode of Exploring with a Camera, we’re going to look at the use of diagonal lines in our photographs. I’m calling it “Dynamic Diagonals” because diagonal lines add a dynamic element of perceived energy and motion to our photographs.
I started thinking more about diagonals after my portfolio class in March. The instructor commented on the effective use of diagonals in some of my photographs, like the one above from Amsterdam. I tend to incorporate diagonals naturally, so I thought it would be a good exercise do some research on the topic and explore how I use diagonal lines. Of course, I’ll bring you along for the ride too!
The Basics of Diagonals
Diagonal lines are effective because the viewer’s eye will follow them through the photograph. How the eye moves through the photograph is based on how we read, which in Western cultures is from left to right. (It would be great to have a comment from a native speaker in a language that is not read left-to-right. Do you read photographs the opposite?)
The diagonal that provides the greatest sense of motion and speed is a diagonal from top left to bottom right. In his book Photographically Speaking, David du Chemin calls this the “primary diagonal.” We tend to read this as “downhill” and the eye easily moves through the frame. If you place a moving subject in the top left, it will be perceived as moving quickly. If you place a subject in the bottom right, the eye will be drawn to it naturally along the diagonal.
The only other option for direction in a diagonal is the opposite, from bottom left to top right. This “secondary” diagonal is not as easy or natural for our eye movement, and is perceived as “uphill” because of how we read. If you place a downward moving subject on the top of a diagonal in this direction, it will not have as great of perceived speed as along the primary diagonal. You can begin to see that the direction of the diagonal, primary or secondary, is an important choice point for our compositions.
All other diagonals are variations on the primary and secondary diagonals; it’s just a matter of the angle. In The Photographer’s Eye, Michael Freeman discusses the effect of angle, stating, “Diagonals appear more dynamic when they form a stronger angle with the longer side of the frame.” This indentifies one more important choice points for our compositions: the angle of the diagonal relative to the frame. Regardless of what is going on inside the frame, the edge of the frame provides a straight and solid line. That’s the reference for all of our diagonals.
All of this so far applies to one diagonal line, but there are often multiple diagonal lines in a photograph. You can have parallel or non-parallel diagonals, along with converging and zig-zag lines. According to Michael Freeman, “A variety of diagonals gives the greatest energy to an image.” These diagrams will help you visualize the different configurations, and we’ll take a look at some examples below.
[20-Apr-12 Update: After studying this topic, I no longer agree with all of these statements about diagonal lines. Please visit this post for more discussion.]
Now that we know why and how diagonals work for us, we need to find them for our photographs. There are two types of diagonals: Natural and created.
“Natural” diagonals are lines that are naturally diagonal relative to the other elements in our photographs and the frame edges. For example, the clothesline and rooflines in this image from Burano are natural diagonal lines. Along with color, the diagonal lines provide contrast that leads your eye directly to the subject.
The slope of a hillside, or the branches of a tree are other types of natural diagonals. Shadows will often create nice diagonals too. Keep your eye out for naturally occurring diagonal lines to incorporate in your photographs.
“Created” diagonals are those we create as the photographer, through our choice of perspective or composition. I’ve identified several different ways I create diagonals in my images: linear perspective, post-processed or composed tilt, point of view, and implied lines.
The most common diagonals in my photographs are created from linear perspective. This effect, the convergence of straight lines when viewed into the distance, creates wonderful diagonal lines. Changing your angle of view relative to the straight lines will adjust the angle of the diagonals. One of my new scooter sightings from San Francisco shows the effect. Getting down low with my camera, I placed the lines of the sidewalks and buildings such that they lead you right to the scooter. (Visit Exploring with a Camera: Linear Perspective for more on this topic.)
You can also create diagonal lines by tilting your photograph. You can do this at the time of capture or in post-processing. This image of the Milan Duomo in reflection was unique but lacked interest as I captured it in a standard vertical orientation. Tilting the image in post-processing made it more dynamic and interesting. I don’t tilt often — I tend to like my lines nice and straight — but this reminds me I should try it more!
Tilting the camera at the time of capture, I created diagonal lines by running the roof tiles corner to corner. I like the contrast of the diagonal lines created by the smaller roof below.
I somewhere heard a “rule” that you should not to run your diagonals into the corners, like I did in the image above. I don’t agree with this as a blanket statement, since I often like to run at least one diagonal into a corner. Take note and play around with where the diagonals begin and end in your images. It’s another choice point for your composition, along with angle and direction of the diagonal line.
The last type of created diagonal is the implied diagonal. You don’t have to have an actual line to create a diagonal for the eye to follow. A diagonal line can be implied by the gazing direction of a subject’s eyes, or the direction of repeating but separate elements. The sequence of paw prints in the image below form an implied line through the photograph. (I also noticed an opposing line effect, from the contrasting diagonals lines in the texture of the concrete. See Exploring with a Camera: Opposing Lines for more on this use of diagonals.)
As I looked at my images, I noticed that many of them have more than one diagonal element, often in opposition. These images do seem more dynamic, supporting the premise above that images with a variety of diagonals will create more energy.
One of my all-time favorite images, from Cascais, Portugal, uses a zig-zag to lead your eye through the frame. The diagonals were created by my point of view. I’m curious, does your eye move down the staircase or up? My eye moves down.
This image from Paris has a strong primary diagonal, leading you through the photograph to the spirals, my intended subject. The primary diagonal is created by my point of view, and enhanced by convergence due to linear perspective. Opposing diagonals come from the shadows of the bars lead you right back to the primary diagonal line.
In a very simple composition, the diagonal lines created by the designs in the ties make this image dynamic. For me, the direction of the diagonal lines also contrasts with the direction my eye wants to move due to color, creating additional tension.
Time to Explore
OK, that’s enough of my images, now it’s time for yours! Take a look at your archive or go out shooting with diagonal lines in mind, and share what you find.
A quick recap of the principles of Dynamic Diagonals:
- Diagonal lines create a sense of movement in your images, since your eye wants to follow the line. The angle and direction of the diagonal will affect the perceived energy of the line.
- Incorporating diagonals in a variety of directions will increase the energy in the image.
- Diagonal lines can be found as both natural and created elements. Diagonal lines can be created in photographs through linear perspective, post-processed or composed tilt, point of view, and implied lines.
You can link your exploration in below. See you soon!