One of the most famous uses of triangles in art is that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. The position of the body from the head to the waistline gives a subtle indication of the two sides of a triangle. This is not limited to traditional art; you can see evidence of the presence of triangles in architecture as well.
Using a triangle adds depth, dimension, and interest points to an image. It can also contribute to the balance of a composition.
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Triangles in Popular Photography Works
Most artworks don’t make use of literal triangles, but rather implied triangles – triangular formations created by the placement and posing of the elements inside the frame.
For example, three people standing at different distances from the camera can be connected by the three implied lines forming the sides of a triangle.
Josef Koudelka, young Romani boys
Another interesting use of triangles can be found in the works of the legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in one of his books – “Paris Revisited“
In one of the images, a man can be seen rushing through the snow in what appears to be an impoverished neighborhood.
The man is nearly perfectly framed within two poles which creates the shape of a triangle. His legs also create a triangular shape. This makes him the focal point of the photo, despite not being centered in the frame.
In another image from the same book – “Quai St. Bernard, Paris,” two men can be seen looking from an overpass towards a railway track. The overpass/road and the platform below make a perfect triangle.
Of course, how can I leave out Elliot Erwitt’s famous “Umbrella Jump“?
Elliot Erwitt, Umbrella Jump
This particular image is a treasure trove of lines and shapes. Can you identify the triangles in the image? This image ticks many boxes, but I like it for the subtle use of lines, shapes, and layers.
One of the more conventional and cliched uses of triangles in photography is to use of merging lines. You may have seen images of railway tracks that seemingly merge at infinity – an example of a triangle.
Sometimes you can see straight roads that stretch all the way to the horizon – another example of how merging lines can be used in photography to create triangles.
Sometimes though, the use of the triangle is much more subtle. For example, three glances from three people in a photograph produce an implied triangle.
The Effect of Triangles on Balance
The triangle is not only a less complicated form than alternatives, but it’s a very stable shape. We can cite the example of the Egyptian pyramids.
They chose a Polyhedron (a shape with a polygonal base and four triangles connecting to an apex). Not only is the triangle a truly stable and supportive structure, it also looks stable.
When you use a triangle in a composition, the image gives a sense of balance and rest that none of the other polygonal shapes tend to impart the same way.
But at the same time, if you use a triangle in a different way, you can introduce stress and disorder into your composition. For example, if a triangle is positioned on one of its vertices instead of its sides, an image is likely to create tension.
Use as Leading Lines
Triangles have a natural tendency to work as leading lines. The lines forming a triangle, changing direction, tend to naturally take the viewer’s attention from one aspect of the image to the other.
Essentially, they guide a viewer across the image. That suggests that if you can use a triangle in a meaningful way in your composition, you will be able to control your viewer’s attention to tell a meaningful, chronological story.
Triangles, just like arrowheads, also serve to tell a viewer to look in a certain direction, and a viewer is likely to look in that direction.
How to use triangles as leading lines in your photos?
A good example of triangles as leading lines can be light and shadow in your composition, especially when the source of light is lower in the frame and casts long shadows. Let’s look at a few examples.
Let’s say you’re photographing a street scene at dawn or dusk. The sun is lower on the horizon, and the light is coming at an angle almost parallel to the surface of the earth.
When that happens, the light can cast long shadows across the scene. You can see the shadows stretching across the scene or straight in front, depending on where you’re standing (and the resulting camera position). Both have their own advantages.
If you’re standing at the side and the light (and resulting shadows) passes across the scene from right to left (or left to right), you can see interesting triangle shapes. Not always, but this will happen when the light is coming through two buildings or a large window, etc.
The best way to use this light is to place a human element in the mix. You can make it appear that the light ‘beam’ shaped like a triangle is pointing at the person who is the image’s subject.
Another thing you can do is use the intermittent shadow and light areas in the frame in an interesting way. So, the frame could have intermittent shadow and light areas, giving the illusion of many triangles.
The use of triangles in the image is often implied and yet easily decipherable. Other times it’s not that simple, and it may take a few seconds to realize that triangles have been used in the composition.
In one of the previous paragraphs, I gave a couple of examples of how you can use converging lines in your photos in the shape of triangles. For example, a road or railway track seemingly converges at infinity, creating the illusion of a triangle. This is an example of how you can use triangles as leading lines in your composition.
One of the most interesting uses of triangles in photography is the Golden Triangle. If you’re unaware of this compositional concept, it divides the frame into two pairs of equal triangles.
How do you incorporate the golden triangles in your composition?
You can incorporate the Golden Triangle in your composition in many ways. One way is to place the main subject of your composition within one of the larger triangles. Place the secondary subjects within the shorter triangles if there are multiple subjects in your composition.
The diagonal line that divides the frame can also serve as your guideline, along which you can place other subjects of interest.
To conclude, a triangle is an interesting shape you can use in your compositions to create a point of interest in your images. You can use triangles as leading lines, as frames, or as a way to introduce balance or even tension in the image, depending on how to use it.
Triangles can be a very powerful compositional tool and one that can pull all the elements together to form a composition and make it a dynamic one.
As you keep using triangles, you’re only going to get better and start incorporating them in new and creative ways.