Here’s the thing about diagonals in photography:
They’re incredibly useful.
And yet very few photographers actually talk about their importance!
That’s why, in this article, we’re going to lay it out:
Everything you need to know about diagonals, and how they can improve your photographic compositions.
Let’s get started.
What Are Diagonals in Photography?
Diagonals in photography refer to tilted lines in your images, like this:
They can begin at the edges of the frame and move toward the center, like this:
Or they can begin in the middle of the frame and stay firmly within the center of the composition, like this:
The key thing to remember is that diagonals must be slanted. While straight lines can make for very compelling photography, diagonals offer something different–which is why it’s worth drawing a distinction between the two.
Why Should You Use Diagonals in Photography?
Diagonals are powerful compositional elements.
And here’s why:
They create visual flow.
In other words, they move the viewer’s eye through the frame, from one end of the diagonal to the other.
So if a diagonal begins at the edge of a composition, it draws the viewer in, and then takes them on a journey all the way to the other end.
Now, you might be wondering:
What’s so great about visual flow?
Visual flow is a fundamental part of photographic composition. If you can move the viewer through the frame, they’ll engage with the photo for longer, they’ll appreciate it more, and they’ll become captivated.
Visual flow is also important for another reason:
It directs the viewer toward the most essential part of the photo, while keeping them away from the less essential parts.
Put another way, visual flow helps focus the viewer, so that they’re able to understand your photo and what it’s about.
And that’s why diagonals are so useful; they guide the viewer, keep them engaged, and take the viewer where you–the photographer–want them to go.
Common Examples of Diagonals
You might be wondering:
Where do diagonals actually come from?
If you look carefully enough, you can find them everywhere–especially because a straight line, positioned properly within the frame, automatically becomes a diagonal.
For instance, you might find a fallen tree in a forest, which initially presents itself as a straight line.
But if you change your angle…
…it immediately becomes a compelling diagonal, stretching from the bottom corner of the frame to the top opposite corner of the frame.
You can even use horizon lines as diagonals if you’re especially bold. Simply tilt your camera for a tense, disorienting, dutch-angle effect:
And you’ll have a strong diagonal to work with.
Do you need diagonals in every one of your photos?
But diagonals do enhance the composition by keeping the viewer both focused and engaged, so if you get the chance to incorporate diagonals into a shot, do it!
Diagonals and the Golden Triangle
You may be familiar with the golden triangle compositional overlay, which suggests that you place the key elements of your composition along these gridlines:
As you can see, the golden triangle overlay incorporates several very clear diagonals, from the strong diagonal down the middle, to the smaller diagonals coming from the other corners.
And note that you can use the golden triangle overlay to place your diagonals. As I said above, there are a number of different types of diagonals you can work with; you don’t always have to use diagonals that run the entire length of the shot.
Really, I’d urge you to experiment with positioning diagonals in different places. You can start with a diagonal that’s positioned straight through the middle of the shot, running from corner to corner, but then experiment with moving the diagonal more toward the middle of the frame; you can also see what happens when you let the diagonal start outside the frame versus inside the frame (both effects are interesting!).
Diagonals and Leading Lines
Leading lines are a popular photographic composition element, especially among landscape photographers (though street photographers, portrait photographers, and more use leading lines to great effect).
The idea is that a line leads the viewer up from the foreground and toward a compelling background, which creates the illusion of depth, while also focusing and engaging the viewer.
Now, not all leading lines are diagonals. For instance, S-curves are a famous example of powerful leading lines, which wind their way up toward the back of the shot in a meandering fashion.
And some leading lines are completely straight, taking the viewer up and back.
But diagonals are frequently featured as leading lines, and they’re extremely compelling. For instance, check out how these trees move diagonally through the shot in order to take the viewer toward the background:
And how this road edge slices through the frame from foreground to background:
That’s what diagonals can do. Don’t you feel yourself pulled along?
Diagonals vs the Rule of Thirds
Diagonals run through the frame, well, diagonally.
Whereas the rule of thirds states that the best compositions include key elements a third of the way into the frame.
Take a look at the rule of thirds gridlines, and you’ll notice something peculiar:
There are no diagonals!
And it’s true:
The rule of thirds doesn’t say anything at all about diagonals.
But this isn’t because diagonals are bad; it’s because the rule of thirds is not the only useful compositional guideline that you should follow.
In fact, when you combine the rule of thirds and diagonals together, you get especially compelling images. For instance, you could position your main subject at one of the rule of thirds intersection points, and then include a leading line running through as a diagonal, straight toward the main subject.
Or you could put a main subject around the top-third gridline, but then include several diagonal leading lines running up from the bottom of the frame.
The results are bound to look good!
Diagonals Plus Triangles
I’ve talked all about diagonals in photography and how they can help your images, but triangles are where things really come together.
Because triangles are diagonals arranged in a stable shape!
And triangles are very stable indeed, which is what makes them so great for photography; they combine the motion of diagonals with the stability of a fully-formed shape.
That’s why I recommend you incorporate strong triangles into your photography whenever possible.
Note that you don’t have to find full triangles to incorporate into your compositions. You can also work with partial triangles or implied triangles, which are almost-but-not-quite there, and can still result in beautiful compositions.
So whenever you see the opportunity to work with triangles, take it!
You’ll get some beautiful images.
Diagonals in Photography: The Next Step
Diagonals aren’t the most talked-about compositional element out there, but they play a key role in creating dynamic, focused images.
That’s why I recommend using diagonals whenever you can. Just experiment with positioning diagonals at different edges of the frame, as well as toward the middle.
And see how your images turn out!
Diagonals refer to slanted lines in an image. You can find diagonals all over the place–as lines that lead the viewer into the image (i.e., leading lines), or as lines that take the viewer around the shot (from the edges in toward the center, or from the midground on toward the background).
Diagonals are a fantastic composition element, so I recommend you use diagonals wherever possible!
Diagonals and the rule of thirds are useful compositional guidelines. And the truth is that you can use either one for beautiful compositions–or you can use both diagonals and the rule of thirds together to create ultra-powerful images (by positioning diagonals leading the eye into the frame toward a subject that’s carefully placed using the rule of thirds intersection points).
Diagonals are naturally a part of triangles, so diagonals and triangles go very well together. While it’s true that diagonals work well on their own, you can also create triangles out of your diagonals, and get some amazing shots that way!
Diagonals are great for photography because they move the eye through the frame. This is useful for a couple of reasons. First, movement tends to be a positive compositional element, as it helps the viewer to engage with the photos. Second, movement helps direct the eye toward the areas you want it to go, such as from the foreground to the background, or the edges to the main subject.
Diagonal lines guide the eye! So when you include a diagonal in your composition, it moves the eye along it, toward its end point. For great results, try positioning your main subject at the end of the diagonal; that way, the viewer will be drawn into the image (via the diagonal), then move to the main subject!
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.