THE DIAGONAL

The diagonal is a fairly simple and obvious concept: it is the line connecting diametrically opposed corners of the frame. Now, it must be noted that diagonals don’t always need to be perfect corner-to corner, nor always perfectly straight; it just so happens that of the samples selected, those are the dominant properties.

The basics

The simplest form of the diagonal composition is to take a straight-line subject and position oneself such that the subject follows the corner to corner line.

A Chain is only as Strong as its Weakest Link by Steve Marvell

A Chain is only as Strong as its Weakest Link
A perfectly simple diagonal composition, corner to corner, with the added benefit of perspective. Additionally, the focus being on the broken link – which happens to be at the golden ratio – gives the eye a natural point around which to gravitate.

Dampotto Koloher Por… by -Dhrubo-

Dampotto Koloher Por...
The use of the diagonal in this image is both blatantly obvious (everyone can feel it is there) yet subtle (identifying the technicality of the implementation is a bit harder). The beauty here is that there are two lines in use: the birds’ heads, and the steps. Neither, alone, is a perfect diagonal, yet they work in harmony to provide an overall diagonal flow to the image, from bottom right to top left.

Perspective

There is one very obvious form of diagonal that can be taken: that created by a vanishing point, if there are subject elements in at least three of the four corners of the image which extrude towards that vanishing point. The key to this approach is that the vanishing point needs to be at the centre of the image (for a double diagonal) or somewhere on the dominant diagonal when there are only three corner-positioned subject elements.

Manchester airport boundary walk: air pollution by annemmu

Manchester airport boundary walk: air pollution
While perhaps not the most exciting subject, the combination of diagonal line elements on both fence and hedge into a long tunnel perspective makes for compelling composition. This is one of the few ways that centring an image can work effectively.

Anchored leading line

When the diagonal plants firmly within the corner of an image, it can serve as a very powerful anchor. With an appropriate subject, this can also provide a leading line, either to the primary subject that sits on the diagonal, or simply through the complexity of the image.

If Looks Can Kill… by VikasAher

If Looks Can Kill… (Explored!)
While the snake’s face makes for a compelling subject in its own right (and would work very well in a much tighter shot), the wider angle means it needs to be given context. That is provided perfectly by its body anchoring it – on the straight line – in the opposite corner. Wherever else the eye may inadvertently wander, it is always drawn back to the imminent danger…

Lead-through

Obviously, the diagonal “line” that is the core of this compositional principle does not need to be created from a single object. It can be implied by a series of elements that lead one trough the scene, creating a sense of direction what happens to anchor at each end in the relevant corners.

yellow by mav_at

yellow
While the elements of subject could be fascinating here in their own right, it is the way the entire image holds together – the flow of destruction and chaos – that makes it most interesting. That line may not be perfectly straight, but therein is it exciting: there is a natural inclination to jump from one element to the next, following the scattered pattern along the dominant diagonal.

Cross-lead hashing

As with leading lines, which can be at cross-purposes to the direction they are pointing, the diagonal element within an image can also be implied by elements that individually point across it, but the combination creates a sense of direction along the dominant diagonal.

Waiting… by -Dhrubo-

Waiting... (Explored)
Even though there is a clear line here joining the bottom left corner to the top right, it is the flow across this line, and its echoes, that is the real diagonal composition. The depth implied through the depression in those lines gives the eye a gully down which to travel. And the leaf sits comfortably in the foreground, providing a subject to keep our attention on the right diagonal.

Sides of the triangle

The shapes implied by a diagonal composition are, at an extreme, triangular. Each half of the image is a triangle. If we follow this logic, then it is obvious that a triangular composition which places one side of the dominant triangle on the diagonal is going to gain anchoring, as it points to two corners.

Dawn by andy_57

Dawn
While the model’s eyes here are on the bottom-left to top-right diagonal, the flow of the image is along the other diagonal – the one emphasised by the triangle of forearm, knee and buttocks. This combination of a dominant triangle providing direction and a primary attention subject (face) outside that area makes for an excellent dynamic.

The diagonal diptych

Taken to the extreme, creating an image that uses the side of a triangle approach to diagonals splits the image along the diagonal middle: two images: one above and the other below the line (which is, of course, coming full circle with the triangle approach). In essence, a diptych.

Memento mori by Art Rock (Hennie)

Memento mori
This simple picture has great impact specifically because it is split diagonally into two parts: the grey with an engraved skull, and the blue of water, of life. A natural diptych, it has balance specifically because the split is diagonal (and suffering a little from the wear of time); had the split been arranged any other way, it would not balance so well.

Fill-the-frame

There is a simple photographic technique for creating impact: to come in close enough to the subject that it fills the frame, spilling beyond its edges. Now, most subjects have a longer axis: they are not the same size from all angles. In order to completely fill the frame, yet keep as much of the subject visible as possible, it makes sense to align this longer axis with the longest space within the image: the diagonal.

open by jenny downing

open
While the diagonal in this image is in part defined by the space between the two right-side petals, it is the way that line goes to the corner that allows so much of the subject to be shown, despite the tightness of the framing. This technique allows the full area of the crop to be used.

Dynamic tilt

Placing the longer axis of a subject along the image’s diagonal does more than simply fill the frame. Depending on the subject, the angle required to achieve this can create an additional sense of dynamism.

Like No Other by andy_57

Like No Other
What is the reality here? Does hair really fall in that way (even if assisted by wind)? Or is this portrait shot from an angle that allows the subject to fly across the frame, removing negative space and taking on a vibrancy far more impactful that would exist if the image were “straight”? The use of the unconventional angle creates that sense of motion – it no longer matters whether the model is really leaning forward like that, or whether the camera is simply above her. There is life in the motion.

Implied diagonal

Most of the examples of diagonals shown so far have involved actual subject matter following the diagonal itself. But as with so many approaches to composition, this one too can be implied by negative space and a few subtle markers.

teppichboden und rolltreppe by mav_at

teppichboden und rolltreppe
Admittedly, if it were not for the angle of the pattern on the floor, this image would not work as a diagonal composition. But as it happens, the subtle pattern is there, giving direction to all that negative space. And the subject being tucked away in the corner provides a destination for the eye to be moved towards.

Creating context

In what would well do as a twist to the concept of diagonals, or as an example of dynamic tilt, the approach can be used very effectively where a subject sits within a large negative space. The use of angle, and the placement on a diagonal, creates a sense of balanced context… even if that balance comes only from the appropriate balance of the use of negative space. This approach to diagonals can as effectively used a different diagonal to the one we have seen in all the previous examples: it can use the bisector out of the corner of the image – the 45° line.

you can wish on me by neelgolapi

you can wish on me
Surrounded as it is entirely by darkness, this image could so easily have been presented in many alternative ways. The space around it could be rotated in just about any direction. But where it is, with the two lights aligned (almost) on the corner-bisecting diagonal, it sits comfortably. Like this, the negative space on the left as purpose: something to balance. And the lights themselves, despite being in a sea of blackness, are anchored.

Gallery

Wrapping the count of examples up to 18, we now have some additional examples; the gallery:

Ground One by aftab.

Ground One
The diagonal in this image serves two purposes. On the one hand, it provides a flow through the image (not a straight line, but a curve down behind the front wheel that then extends forward along the path of the wheels. On the other hand, it allows more of the subjecty to be shown without expanding the frame.

: ) by tonmoySaha

:)
While the subject here is the bird, it is the angle of the hand – the support – which keeps the image balanced. This angle provides anchoring by extension, being as it is a line from corner to corner. There is stability despite the hand floating unsupported in the middle of the image (yes, I know the arm is visible, but the contrast is such that it fades largely into the background, leaving only the diagonal as support).

LineOgraphy by Auribins

LineOgraphy
Abstract diptych: two versions of the same reality, reflected. The use of the diagonal makes this image of silhouetted geometry balance. We can feel the perspective of distance, particularly through the combination of angles.

Creatures share my house… by missnoma

Creatures share my house...
The diagonal in this image may be subtle, but it is an important supporting element. The moth’s vertical alignment is strong. However, that strength would be its own weakness without the combination of the background beam and the aligned fold in the lace providing a diagonal across the negative space, holding it in place. While, in this case, that it is a diagonal is not the most important, the added strength to the image because it is diagonal should not be overlooked.

Dragon by Art Rock (Hennie)

Dragon
An excellent piece of abstract art, this wavy beast has power particularly because of his position along the diagonal, and the anchoring of his perch in the lower left corner.

Lake Lovely Water – Rising Clouds by maclobster

Lake Lovely Water - Rising Clouds
A very strong lead-through diagonal, the different parts of the scene align wonderfully to keep one’s interest as the distance increases, through the negative space of cold whiteness. The touch of detail off the diagonal, above the horizon, is a bonus. There is a real sense of being drawn into the expanse of this scene.

A special twist

To finish things in the standard style, an example of a diagonal that takes a very different approach to what is actually on the diagonal…

Will you take me along? by aftab.

Will you take me along?
Yes, the (double) line of footsteps in this image leads pretty much straight up. It is only the alignment of the first two steps that appears to any extent to work as a diagonal. But in this instance, it is not the subject which is providing us with the diagonal: it is the line of focus. While not entirely limited in its implementation to this particular technical approach, diagonal focus as here (i.e. with depth) is most easily achieved, through the use of a tilt and shift lens; an trick that can give a different sense of depth to the one we are accustomed to…

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  1. Another eye opener and food for thought with these amazing pictures demonstrating diagonals….Fantastic Rick.

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