The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
6. The Diagonal
Embracing the Slant
The diagonal has a long and honored place in photos. Using the longest length of an image – stretching from one corner across to the opposite one – is a compositional technique that allows photographers to add drive and tension to their pictures and create a marked sense of depth. Roads, paths, and fences are common examples of subjects that lead into a picture. On this double-page spread, it’s a stream in the Wadden Sea. The viewer’s gaze follows the stream, traveling up from the foreground into the background, which almost automatically gives the image a sense of spatial depth.
Not every diagonal line is the same. We associate lines that rise from the lower left to the upper right with energy, movement, ascent, speed, and excitement, even if these connections are mostly subconscious. In general, this type of diagonal introduces a dynamic element to a photo. A falling diagonal that goes from the upper left of an image to the lower right has a less dynamic effect. Within our culture area, this diagonal has connotations of descent, perhaps even deterioration. Keep these connotations in mind when taking photographs, even if you can’t always influence the direction of a diagonal line that you want to include in an image.
So diagonal lines build tension and add depth, but what about slanted lines that don’t span the entire cross-section of the photo? They too can bring additional vibrancy to photos. It’s for good reason that photographers are often keen to include such lines even when, at first glance, there is no obvious need to do so. Consider a subject from the realm of nature photography, the anatomy of leaves. The most attractive of these types of images often show that the photographer made the deliberate choice to set a leaf’s natural structures as slanted lines rather than as lines parallel to the image border. In architectural photography, too, a slanted line can create a more dynamic feeling. As mentioned, it doesn’t need to be a complete diagonal, but when a straight line is available, as is often the case in pictures of streets or canals (think of a consistent frontage, for example), the image composition can be improved if a diagonal or straight line runs directly to the corner.
Wadden Sea at sunset, Germany: The diagonal flow of water, which stands out brightly against the dark sand, connects the foreground with the background and guides the viewer’s attention to the person standing on the shore. | Nikon D200 • 25 mm • 1/160 s • f/6.3 • ISO 200
Above: A story told by the sea. I found this still life at ebb tide of the Wadden Sea in the North Frisian Islands, Germany. | Nikon D200 • 72 mm • 1/160 s • f/6.3 • ISO 100
Bent or curved lines often have an even stronger dynamic effect than straight lines. And they are usually easier to find, especially in nature; you just have to keep an eye out for them. As is the case with many other elements of image design and composition, once you become conscious of diagonals, you start to spot them in the most diverse subjects and in the most unusual circumstances. Eventually you might even start to search for them actively.
Above right: Near St. Peter-Ording, Germany. The surface of the water reflects the sky and guides the viewer’s attention through the picture. | Nikon D70 • 105 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200
Right: A passing moment in Venice, Italy. Every alley, canal, and open square is rich with subjects in this city. Nikon D700 • 35 mm • 1/1000 s • f/8 • ISO 800
The picture below of resting elephant seals in South Georgia came about unexpectedly. Originally, I had a completely different photo in mind – a portrait format image showing one animal peeping out from behind the back of another (opposite page). But the almost parallel lines of the snuggling animals’ backs sparked the idea to include the rising diagonal as a means of composition. In the end, it was the landscape format photo I liked better than the portrait variety, first and foremost because of the diagonal line and the dynamic element it brings into the picture.
Below: Having pleasant dreams – a moment in the life of an elephant seal, South Georgia. Nikon D700 • 400 mm • 1/1000 s • f/4 • ISO 1000
An elephant seal peaks out over the back of another before returning to rest. | Nikon D700 • 400 mm • 1/1000 s • f/4 • ISO 1000