Did you know that triangles in photography are literally everywhere?
Look at some of your favorite images, and you’ll immediately see triangles left, right, and center.
But why is this the case?
For one, triangles make for amazing compositions.
Which means that triangles are a fantastic way to take your compositional skills to the next level–if you know how to use them correctly.
In this article, I’m going to take you through the essentials of triangular compositions.
And when you’re done, you’ll be a triangle expert–ready to capture shot after shot that uses triangles to great effect.
Let’s get started.
What are Triangles in Photography?
Triangles exist all throughout photographic compositions.
For instance, you’ll find very clear, obvious triangles:
As well as more subtle, implied triangles:
These all count as triangles in photography, even if they’re not obvious, and even if they don’t immediately jump out at the viewer.
In fact, the best triangular compositions often don’t immediately present themselves as triangles.
Instead, the triangles work behind the scenes, creating a strong, stable, eye-catching image.
Are Triangles in Photography a Good Thing?
While triangles may seem like an unconventional composition element, triangles are all over the place in art, and for good reason.
You see, triangles are great at stabilizing images, like this:
Do you feel how complete that image is? It’s thanks to triangles, which help the image stay strong and solid.
(Note that lines, on the other hand, are not stable. They shuttle the viewer along, but they don’t really offer a strong stopping point.)
Triangles are also great for another reason:
They add visual flow.
What do I mean by this?
Well, visual flow refers to movement within a composition. Leading lines guide often establish visual flow by moving the viewer from the foreground to the background; spirals often establish visual flow by swirling the viewer around the frame.
Triangles, too, add visual flow–but in a way that mixes both spirals and lines. The edges of the triangle tend to guide the viewer along, but at each vertex, the viewer turns toward another part of the image.
Which means that triangles take the viewer on a journey, generally moving them from area to area, until they’ve appreciated the entire shot.
Do All Scenes Include Triangles?
Here’s the thing about triangles:
If you look, you can find them everywhere.
And so every scene has triangles just waiting to be uncovered–but you must use your compositional chops to find the triangles and display them in a way that makes photographic sense.
Landscape photographers often use triangles to take the viewer from the bottom of the frame toward an interesting background element (at the triangle’s peak), like this:
Portrait photographers often arrange their subjects in a way that creates a triangle of heads, like this:
Or, in the case of a single subject, a triangle of limbs:
And street photographers will often use multiple moving subjects to create a triangle, or incorporate linear elements from surrounding buildings to create triangles, like this:
The lesson here is that triangles are pretty much always an option, but you can’t just point, shoot, and expect a triangle to appear. Instead, you must work the scene, looking for potential vertices, and create a triangle with your composition.
Types of Triangles in Photography
As I said, triangles are everywhere.
And this means that there are many different types of triangles in photography, all offering different effects.
Let’s take a look at some of the key triangles you should be aware of:
The Symmetrical Triangle
Symmetrical triangles are the simplest triangles out there, because they offer a clear element of symmetry to use in your photos.
Note that symmetrical triangles can technically sit horizontally (where the top of the triangle points left or right), but tend to sit vertically, with the top of the triangle pointed up.
Symmetrical triangles are very stable, and they’re also very intense. They’ll give your images a very in-your-face feel, especially if the triangle takes up most of the frame.
Now, symmetry often prevents images from having visual flow, which isn’t always a bad thing–but is usually best avoided.
And symmetrical triangles can feel a bit static for this reason.
That’s why I recommend you carefully consider before using a symmetrical triangle, and instead aim for the next type of triangle on this list:
The Scalene Triangle
The term scalene triangle may sound very mathematical, and it is.
But it’s very simple to understand.
Scalene triangles have different lengths on all sides.
Which means that they don’t include symmetry.
Therefore, scalene triangles tend to be far more dynamic than symmetrical triangles, and are great for creating visual flow that moves the eye throughout the frame.
Here’s an example of a shot with a scalene triangle:
Nice, right? The triangle is there, but it takes the eye on a journey around the frame, rather than just presenting itself in a static way.
Now, scalene triangles are actually very common in photography, because they occur naturally.
(On the other hand, it takes a lot of work to find or create symmetry.)
So when you see a scalene triangle, embrace it. Use it in your composition, and let it help you move the eye all around the frame.
The Implied Triangle
Implied triangles aren’t obvious.
They might consist of a couple of vertices and a line. Or they might consist of a few lines and a vertex.
Because implied triangles aren’t fully formed, they don’t generally provide the same level of stability as a true triangle.
But they can still help stabilize an image, and they can certainly create interesting visual flow.
Here’s an example of an implied triangle, where the flowers, the box, and the hourglass create a loose triangular arrangement:
Posing People in Triangles
If you’re a portrait photographer, then it pays to understand triangles well.
And here’s why:
Some of the easiest poses involve triangular shapes.
For instance, if you’re photographing a single person, you can have them push their hair back, which creates a triangle between the top of their hand, their chin, and their elbow.
Or you can have them put their hand under their chin with their elbow on their knee, which creates a triangle out of their body.
Or you can just have them stand so that there’s an implied triangle created out of their head and shoulders:
Do you see what I mean? These shapes are very simple, but they’re super effective, and they can easily take an image from being good to great.
Note that you can also use triangles when posing subjects in groups.
For instance, you can use triangles in family photography to pose a parent with their child:
Or you can create three-person poses, where the heads of each subject together form a triangle of some sort.
What’s especially nice about triangles is how many variations there are. After all, a single scalene triangle can take on thousands of different rough shapes! So shooting with triangles never really gets stale.
The Still Life Triangle
Still life artists love triangles.
This is because of their stability, as well as their visual flow.
And that’s why plenty of famous still life paintings use triangles to great effect, as do many still life photos.
But how do you incorporate triangles into still life images?
One easy way is to start with tall items in the back of the still life, while using shorter items to spread out the composition and move it forward.
It’s possible to do this for a “classical” still life, but you can also use the same technique to create powerful product compositions.
Nice, right? You can even create this type of triangular composition with only a few items, as long as you’re creative about how you arrange them!
The Golden Triangle
If you’re familiar with photographic composition techniques, you may be familiar with the golden triangle, which suggests positioning your key compositional elements along this overlay:
In other words:
You can create triangles along the diagonals. And you can position your main subject at one of the intersection points (if you so desire).
This results in images that are very powerful, but also very dynamic.
But don’t feel like you must use the golden triangle overlay if you’re going to work with triangles. You can think solely in terms of simple triangles, if you like–or you can think in terms of the rule of thirds, leading lines, and more (all while incorporating triangles, of course!).
Triangles in Photography: The Next Step
Triangles are a great element to include in your compositions, but they’re not always easy to see.
That’s why I recommend you memorize the tips I’ve given here today…
…so that, the next time you’re out shooting, you can incorporate triangles into your images like a pro!
Triangles are great for creating stable compositions. But because triangles are complete, simple shapes (and therefore relatively stable), as well as diagonal, triangles also ensure you capture impressively dynamic compositions (i.e., compositions where the viewer flows from one part of the image to the next).
In other words, triangles are a huge help when it comes to creating powerful images! Note that you don’t have to find full triangles; you’re also free to work with partial (implied) triangles, and you’ll get a similar effect.
The golden triangle is a compositional overlay that helps create strong compositions. It includes several (four triangles), as well as strong diagonals. By positioning elements of your composition along the golden triangle overlay, you can create images that engage the viewer and ensure they move smoothly through the composition.
There are several key types of triangles that you should know. Symmetrical triangles are, well, symmetrical, which means that you can divide them in two and each half will appear identical. These make for more static compositions (and, when used correctly, can make for very bold results). Scalene triangles don’t have any symmetry, because each side is a different length. These triangles create much more flowing, dynamic compositions. Finally, there are implied triangles, which aren’t full triangles; they’re suggested by the lines in the scene.
An implied triangle is simply a triangle that’s partially complete, but not fully realized. So you might have several triangle points (created from the heads of your portrait subjects), which together suggest lines moving between them, but don’t actually include the lines. Or you might have two lines, but the third line is imagined.
Triangles exist everywhere–you just have to look for them! For instance, you can find triangular mountains, triangles made out of fallen trees, triangular leaves, triangular waves, and more. You can also find corners of buildings that create triangles, triangular windows, and much more.
Note that triangles aren’t always immediately obvious; you sometimes have to create the triangles by changing your perspective. For instance, a corner of a building can become a triangle if you get down low and point your camera up!
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.