TRIANGLES

Triangles are often talked about as one of the mainstays of image composition. They create a type of balance – a dynamic that is not just about two points. Now, when it comes to seeing triangles, things can get rather subjective: we will each mark different dominant lines within the structure of an image, thereby disagreeing on what is or is not triangular. So, you have been warned…

And, just in case anyone is thinking I am missing an obvious trick here, I do not consider a photo of a single triangular object to be triangular composition. There needs to be something more, something almost implied.

The basics

The triangle is a three-sides shape, usually taken to mean that the sides are straight. When it comes to composing an image, this is not particularly the case. The compositional triangle is simple and more subtle. It consists not necessarily of three lines, but of two segments (incomplete lines) that intersect, where the non-intersecting ends are clearly defined.

Save the last dance for me by Art Rock (Hennie)

Save the last dance for me
While this image includes only two subjects, the way they are interacting, with their bodies providing finite divergent segments makes it an immediately obvious triangle. Of course, for those who feel that only two sides doesn’t quite make a triangle, there is the hint of a shadow connecting the end points.

Locked Blue Door by Jeff Presnail

Locked Blue Door
The elements within this image are simple, to the point of minimalistic. And while there is fascinating texture to be discovered, it is the simple two-piece linear composition of the latch that makes it stand out in the first place. In this case, the triangle is open to interpretation: is it the longer side of the bolt, and the lock, or is the vertical line of the lock a height, with two edges of the overall triangle being virtual? It could even be said that the third corner of the triangle has nothing to do with the padlock line, but is the separate keyhole…

Faces

One common place that triangles can be found, or created, is within faces, be they human or otherwise. Now, we are used to considering the face to be generally oval (or, depending on how we were taught to draw as children, circular). The use of triangles within faces relies upon the use of light, and secondary elements to emphasise or mask various areas of the subject.

You call it aftab by aftab.

You call it aftab
The dominant portion of this image, despite being little more than a sliver, is the brow and far cheek of the subject. The simple triangle of that area provides space for the eye to roam. It also – through brightness – is an anchored area to return to after drifting to the secondary detail of the mouth.

As an aside here, one popular lighting technique in portraiture is the use of what is referred to as Rembrandt lighting. This uses light from one side, the shadow of the nose and curvature of the cheek to create a high-lit triangle beneath the eye on the darker side of the face. This adds a sense of the third dimension to the subject.

People

Just as the face is an obvious source of triangles, so can the human body be, The simple fact of two arms, or two legs, at divergent angles from the trunk of the body, can provide compelling triangular elements that allow an image to balance nicely. And there are obviously many other ways that a body can be posed, or lit, to highlight triangles, either on the large scale, or within the details. (Maybe I will do an article in future on that alone.)

I’m a slow motion accident by elise*marie

I'm a slow motion accident
While this image may at first appear complex when it comes to triangles, it is a good example of what the body can do. On the one hand, we have the lines of the subject’s legs – especially the hint from the heel of the extended foot and the other end of the closing line in the hint of thigh – that form one triangle. On the other, there is a second triangle formed by the three points of hands and face, connected by the subtle lines distinguishing arms from the dark background. The interaction between these two triangles, combined with the tilt of the image, creates a great sense of dynamism/motion in a clearly static scene.

The power of threes

A key part of the triangle is the fact that it refers to three. Three angles. Three sides. As such, a triplet of subjects can – and often will – form a triangular composition, especially when those elements either imply lines, or they otherwise provide clear interaction that implies those lines (such as the direction a person is looking).

HOT irons -2 by ben.pearson.007

HOT irons -2
With this image, while the subjects themselves are approximately triangular, it is the greater shape formed by their interactions that really stands out. Whether you see this as the irons being the summits of the triangle or the centre lines of each combining to form an elongated shape that reaches outside the frame of the image, it is a clear example of how the multiples of three balance: the third point of interaction adds dynamism to the flatness of just two elements. (Remove the front iron, and this image loses all its appeal.)

Containment

For the most part so far, I have dealt with how the interaction of subject elements can create triangle, and how this will balance pleasantly. But there is another, very powerful use of triangles in composition: as bounding elements (whether borders or frames). Containment of this sort is a simple mechanism to focus the eye onto the portions of the image that matter.

wake up – and smell the coffee! by jenny downing

wake up - and smell the coffee!
A cup of coffee, even casting a shadow. is not going to capture the viewer on its own (unless they so need a caffeine fix they can get it by visual osmosis). But as here, bound by three areas of darkness – three shadows – it comes alive. (It is critical here that the top corner of that triangle is just visible over the top of the handle, to provide completeness to the containing form.) Within that inner frame, the shadow now becomes a dominant balanced feature, and the cup itself is an out-of-bounds element.

Abstraction

Abstract imagery is in itself an interesting subject. It is one that conceptually must use compositional principles to hold the viewer’s interest; abstraction is, after all, the implication of something bigger, without a clear defined (or identifiable) subject. As one of the simpler composition principles, triangles are a good candidate for use within abstracts.

Alternative Christmas Lights by sannesu

Alternative Christmas Lights
That the skeins of light here number three is not what makes it triangular in composition: the triangle here is one of containment, bending the two side lines down to fit within the limited space. (Yes, I know, it’s the bending that actually creates the triangle, but let’s not be pedantic about this.) The simplicity of the overall space within which the shapes writhe allows the eye to flow gracefully between the elements.

Patterned

As the most basic polygonal primitive, triangles have an added benefit of being repeatable. They can be stacked endlessly, creating subtle patterns across a plane. Or they can be arranged in limited, non-repetitive structures, growing off each other in more subtle ways.

Sunset at the Conservatory by cormend

Sunset at the Conservatory
A rectangular grid, intersected – thanks to perspective – by lines running in an alternate direction, provides us with a variety of triangles. In this case, I would not want to even begin to count them; there are so many to be found. Some large ones stand out in the intersections between the main beams and the second surface: the orthogonal pattern brought alive by the insertion of lines along another plane.

SplitInfinitive by Auribins

SplitInfinitive
Simple lines, implying between them the presence of a source point, create a very basic (but not too compelling) triangular structure. But interrupt one of those lines in such a way that it diverges at an angle, and suddenly the triangles become more dominant, more real. It is that one line branching off sideways, at odds with the general spread, that makes this image balance.

Perspective

In our view of our every day surroundings, whether natural or man-made, apparent triangles can be seen just about everywhere. However, due to binocular vision, we often miss them. It is only when they are transposed to the flat surface that the convergent lines of perspective show off that they are indeed triangles (the eyes in the “real” world seeing that shape for what it is – depth into a third dimension.

Sticks by cgmorg

Sticks
The stretch of this scene to an apparent infinity, combined with the start truncation on the right edge, while anchoring the two lines formed by the subject firmly into the corners provides a simple by still compelling triangle. We are drawn, with the lost focus, into the distant depths. And yet, despite the clear triangular nature of the image, the subject itself is not: it is rectangular. What is, and how it is seen, are not the same.

Fog over Cathedral Blufs Park by Pavel M

Fog
Size, distance, and the right outer edge form can be enough to convey from – only two elements – a sense of the receding of form that defined perspective. Here, combined with the upwards slope of the ground, the triangular form of the trees provides a sense of direction through and into the scene, towards the mysterious fogs on the left side.

It’s about light and shadow

As mentioned above, in the sections on faces and containment, the simple fact of darkening a portion of the scene with shadow can very easily add triangular composition to a scene. This is a method that has been used – in painting – for centuries. The interaction of light and shadow provides a custom shape – most often a triangle because it is so naturally and easily formed and balanced – within which the real action of a scene is free to unfold.

Separation by aftab.

Separation
The triangle in this scene is not created by the tree and boat, but by lines of luminescence. In the foreground, we have a strong diagonal where the day’s shadow is gradually growing. Combined with the horizon, this zone of illumination naturally catches the eye’s attention. Not your most obvious triangle, but one that makes the image balance well, as it is offset from the subject (tree and boat) nestled up against the other edge.

Gallery

Once more, I will fill out the eighteen images within this article with a gallery of pictures that use various aspects of triangular composition to make them work:

Hope by guerriere

Hope
An unusual example of how the body can be used to form triangles, in this case it is not the angle between the arm and torso that creates the shape, but the spread of the dress to one side, and the face filling in the inner space. Dark, moody and cryptic, but using illumination of the subject, who fills a triangular shape, to compel.

two by Mauritius100

two
I said that I would not consider subjects that were triangles as triangular composition. But in this case, it is not the individual butterflies that make up the shape, but the combination of the two into a large whole. The edges of the wings – the splay of red and the pattern at the tip – provide interest, and a greater path for the eye to follow around this image. I just hope the two of them had a good time.

Little Blue Flower by missnoma … 2006

Little Blue Flower
An interesting subject here; one that on any surface other than a mirrored one like this would not have been a triangular composition. While to many the twin lines of the purple flowers – original and reflection – might be the dominant triangle, I have included this for the other shape, as formed by the three flowers, and the leaves with their reflections. A contained shape within the darkness of the setting. The second line of flowers is just an added bonus.

UBC Sunset by maclobster

UBC Sunset
The way the ground is shaped in this image, and the lit triangle that results, might make one think that I am going to say this is Landscape Rembrandt lighting. but it is in fact the trio of trees on the right, each a little taller than the previous, that forms the dominant triangle here for me. That progression is an expansion, which subtly opens the scene up. That said, of course, the foreground lighting…

Contemplationby neelgolapi

Contemplation
Bodies and body parts are, as I mentioned, quite obvious candidates for triangular composition. But feet alone may not be your first choice of extremities to create the three sides with. In this case, whether it is considered truncated by clothing or the lower edge of the image frame, there is no denying that the combination of perspective and the natural form of those limbs create a drawing composition. Ticklish, do you think?

Tock by Steve Marvell

Tock
A combination here of the simple twin line triangle (only just, but that the line on the right ends just within the frame, we know it is the top of the metronome) and the shadow (the repetition of pattern) make for a unique and make for a good example of triangular composition in action. And while I do not consider the shadow of the body alone to count as a compositional shape, I can’t overlook the thin, elongated shape formed by the moving arm…

A special twist

Once more, I will wrap up this article with an unusual take on the subject. It was, as you might imagine, difficult to find something within the subject of triangle that could be considered a twist; they are, after all, such basic shapes.

Untitled by elise*marie


A subtle shot that is so indistinct as to almost be abstract, it uses several triangular compositional techniques in unusual ways. Firstly, there is the inversion of the usual containment, where it is brightness that subtly contains the darker shape (face to elbow, with the other hand providing the third point). but also, there is a second triangle, as formed by the subject’s left arm… the one that is almost entirely out of the frame, hinted at only at shoulder and wrist.

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