Using a Triangle-based Composition Approach

This is the sixth post of a series of publications in which — from different angles and perspectives — I’m addressing the topic of composition.

This series includes posts and videos that can be easily located by using the tag “learning-composition” either in the search box above or by directly clicking on the tag name at the bottom of this post.  Also, here is a link to the entire series so far.

In the previous post of this series — Composition guidelines to position your subject — I talked about composition rules in order to help you placing your main subject such as the rule of thirds, the golden rule, and others. Also, I mentioned that one way to create dynamic compositions is to use a triangle-based composition approach, where variations of the classic “subject placing rules” mentioned above can also be applied.  So, let’s talk about triangle-based composition.

If we agree that simplicity is a key element of elegance in arts, triangles are the simplest polygons, so probably because of that triangles are one of the most powerful composition shapes used in arts. Moreover, a triangle will create a sense of visual unity avoiding the eye to go outside either of the area of interest or even the frame itself. Triangular compositions can be seen in a lot of classic works of art being Leonardo da Vince’s Mona Lisa probably the most famous one — see “Mona Lisa – Why so Famous” here.

Take a look around you, triangles are everywhere  — well, certainly rectangles are too, however in terms of composition they are not as versatile as triangles  — they are in buildings, in cars, in constructions, etc. Now, very frequently, and however not so obvious, triangles are in the relationship among the different subjects we observe in a scene — actually this is what many photographers call “implied triangles”.  

Figure 1. “The Museum”  ©Enrique Peláez

As a photographer the first aspect you have to train your eye is on discover those relationships I mentioned above and get them in the frame of your camera. Take a look to to the image in figure 1, the relationship between the three paintings on the wall is a triangle whose horizontal based is clearly aligned to the horizontal lines on the wall, usually horizontal lines convey stability, so if the image didn’t include part of the woman body seated on the left,  it would probably be boring, but the “imbalance” brought by including just part of the woman body is clearly balanced by the stability came to place with the implied triangle suggested by the way the three paintings are hanged up on the wall.

Now, as you can probably infer from the example above, either physical or implied triangles can be used to balance or imbalance image composition. Equilateral triangles (three equal sides) usually convey a sense of stability and balance, both isosceles and scalene triangles help to make compositions more dynamic or even imbalanced. Moreover, by rotating triangles you can play with the elements of the image in order to make your composition help to convey the mood you want to.

Once you’ve trained your eye on discovering “triangle” relationship among the different elements of the image, the second important aspect to consider is how to best align elements in the image in a way that they come across in a more dynamic way, so here’s where the “Golden Triangles” is a case in point.

Figure 2. “Time is an Illusion” © Enrique Peláez

The golden triangle composition is actually very similar to the golden rule, with the subtle difference that the golden triangle is intended to align elements within the frame and NOT to place elements as the rule of thirds.  So, to get a golden triangles overlay, we can divide the frame diagonally going from one corner to the opposite one, then we add two more lines from the two remaining corners to the diagonal respectively.

Take a look to the image in figure 2, the line formed by the lower part of the succession of arcs, it’s  pretty much aligned with the main diagonal line of the suggested golden triangles overlay, the three individuals seated on the right side appear pretty much aligned to one of the complementary lines, and finally the light coming from above on the top left side is aligned to the second complementary line.  So, as you can evidently see the alignment doesn’t have to be “perfect”, so it’s a matter of having an idea of how to play with the different elements within the frame and try to arrange them the best way possible in order to get an interesting composition.

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