This is Part 2, of a multi-part series of posts relative to composition in photography. The first Post explored the concept of the S-Curve. In this second installment we will look at the Diagonal Line. Future posts will present other types of lines and compositional elements. I hope that you will continue to join me in these explorations and discussions. (Note: for all of the images, you may click on them and view them larger in LightBox Mode).
The Diagonal Line is a line of energy and movement. It is a line that slices diagonally through an image and leads the eye into the frame. You can use these lines to create a strong impression of movement or tension, as well as to create a tremendous sense of depth. As I discussed in the S-Curve, all images are ultimately a collection of lines, and by such a definition an image is almost always made up of many different types of lines. It is up to the photographer to discern how to put the image together. What devices, components, composition, shapes, angles, light, lens, and types of line will contribute to the story I am trying to tell. These are many of the things I am thinking about when I am considering a composition. For the most part I try to isolate one defining conceptual line that can anchor the image. Other lines within the image are also important and I try to carefully considered how they work with the main conceptual line. In many instances the lines are obvious, such as with a stream or river, but in other cases it may be difficult to see. My process for this is often quite iterative. Often, I can easily see the main concept or ordering device that I will use to craft the image. But that is just the beginning and I can only complete the image by working the scene. Lines, shapes, corners -especially corners - lens focal length, and light, must be explored through successive compositional explorations.
Because we tend to read an image from left to right, a strong diagonal line that leads the viewer into the frame from the left is often considered to be the most powerful line. Many photographers’ primary use for a diagonal line (myself included), is to lead the eye to a certain point in the photo. Additionally, I will look for other secondary diagonals as counterpoints that can intersect the primary diagonal. When you intersect a diagonal line, or point it in the direction of a particular object, the tension created not only draws the eye but gives the image a sense of dynamic energy. In the image Morning Light at Muddy Creek (above), the eye is lead into the frame, from left to right, by a very strong diagonal line formed by the water. This is THE ordering device in the composition. But how many other diagonals do you see? The secondary diagonals intersect the primary diagonal line and impart a sense of tension and energy. Notice also how the rock in the lower left supports the sense of movement and is also a counterpoint to the group of rocks on the far right. Both of these components keep the eye within the frame and lead it onward to the primary diagonal line. Two other carefully considered compositional elements are also at play in this image. The first is the circular space within the water that allows the viewer to enter the frame and the second is the use of light and dark. The eye will always move to the light and in this image the light moves along the primary diagonal line.
Diagonal lines are not always one singular line and in fact images can be composed with multiple sets of lines as the ordering device. Can you see the primary diagonal in the image Elakala Number 2 (above)? Can you see the secondary diagonals and how they are used, along with the primary diagonal, to frame the image and lead the eye to the waterfall? The path to the waterfall begins with a strong left to right movement, only to shift to an "implied" right to left movement, before shifting once again to a left to right line up the waterfall. This is a journey of movement and depth. Like the first image there is a carefully considered space to allow the viewer to enter the frame. From there the primary and secondary diagonal lines work together to lead the viewer further into the composition. The interrelationship that diagonals create should be carefully considered when exploring your compositions. Diagonal lines that enter from the edges help direct the eye and give the viewer clues to where you want them to go within the image.
A strong, upward diagonal, that moves from left to right often creates a composition with an uplifting momentum and energy. Such a line can have a strong impact on the way the viewer interacts with the composition. But the same can be said for a right to left diagonal line. Often, based on your shooting location, and perhaps the way the light is working within the landscape, it is not possible to frame the image with a strong left to right line. In Summers Flow (above), the primary diagonal moves from right to left. This was a framing choice largely based on location. Like the other examples there is a place for the viewer to enter the image and the strong line of the flow of the water leads the eye into the composition. There is also an implied line created by the three rocks that line up in the water. This line also recedes which expresses a sense of depth.
Horizontal and vertical lines are lines of stability. They imply a sense of order and balance. Diagonal lines are almost always a counterpoint to stability. They appear to be unbalanced and verging on the unstable. But it is exactly these characteristics that make them dynamic. In Convergence (above), the specific framing of the image is designed to leave the viewer feeling unbalanced. The use of a wide angle lens and a slightly elevated camera position created multiple sets of diagonal lines that intersected the main line of water leading to the opening in the rocks. This is an image of point, and counterpoint with patterns of diagonal shapes that work together to create a sense of tension. The concept of point and counterpoint is also at play in the image Twilight in the Hills (below). Here two very strong diagonal lines, the line in the rock formation and the line formed by the clouds, work in opposition to each other to create a sense of tension and dynamic movement. These two lines also act as a compositional device to frame a series of secondary diagonal lines in the distant mountains and the desert landscape.
In the last image, Sunset at Lindy Point (below), a strong right to left diagonal line is supported by what I would call a power shape - the triangular shaped rock in the foreground. This is a leading device for the viewer and provides a place for entering the composition and a clue to where to go. Other secondary lines intersect the main line in this image and even the clouds support the composition.
Using diagonal lines is a powerful way to add tension, movement, and depth to our compositions. When exploring this ordering device be sure to study the elements within your frame. Ask yourself what type of lens focal length will help capture the feeling and accentuate the concept of the lines. Work the composition by trying multiple camera positions, from low to high, and explore what happens when you add some tilt. This is especially important when using a wide lens where tilt and angular placement leads to very dynamic compositions. And lastly try to organize your composition around one or two singular ordering devices. With too many devices in your composition you risk losing the concept. Images can be complex but they often work better when there is a focus and point to the composition as well as a relative sense of order. In all of this just have fun exploring the possibilities. Hopefully you can apply some of these ideas to your own work.
Thanks for stopping by! RHC