Rocky Fork

Using diagonals to compose your photos

Composition can be a tough aspect of photography to master. Most of us never really do… but we keep at it. Photography is a journey, after all. What can be considered a great composition can vary from person to person based on their own way of seeing the world. Personally, I’m a huge fan of diagonals.

I often tell my students in the field that, when they’re framing a shot, do it with the camera off the tripod. One of the biggest restraints to good composition is actually the tripod! We’ve all seen it and we’ve all done it at some point. We walk up to a scene, plop the tripod down, put the camera on it at eye level, and then start to compose a photo. This leaves you stuck.

Instead, take the camera off, walk back and forth, move up and down, and the world changes before your eyes. The relationships of foreground and background objects suddenly takes form. Moving from left to right can take objects that are lined up and create a diagonal between them. But don’t forget to put the camera back on the tripod once you’ve found your shot. Diagonals are no good if they’re blurry from camera shake. 😉

Diagonal Examples

Let’s look at some examples. This first one is fairly obvious. The diagonal is created by the sharp angle of the water flowing over the rock at Elk Falls, TN.

Elk Falls Diagonal

Sunrise At Elk Falls

Here is an image of some rhododendron petals on a fern in western North Carolina. I framed it and turned my camera to create a diagonal running through the photo. It would not have been as impactful if it was positioned straight from left to right.

Rhododendron diagonal

Rhododendron on Fern, Roan Mountain TN.

By placing my camera close to the wall and turning it toward the river with a wide angle lens, I’ve created a diagonal of the walls through the image that draws your eye from the lower left to the upper right.

Narrows diagonal

The Narrows of Zion National Park

With the following scene, I wanted to include the movement of the water. I placed the main portion of the waterfall in the traditional “rule of thirds” position. By staying on the bank (as opposed to jumping in), I created the diagonal that you see on the right side. Diagonals do not always have to be a straight line. In cases like these, they’re made up of smaller elements in the photo that together, draw the viewer into the image and toward your main subject.

Rocky Fork diagonal

Rocky Fork, TN

Spend some time looking at the images of photographers you admire and see how often you stop and look at a photo that includes a diagonal in it. Probably more than you’ve noticed before.

Have fun finding diagonals in nature!

About Author Kate Silvia

Kate is a professional landscape photographer and educator based in Charleston, SC. Her intense passion for the natural world is matched only with her desire to share that passion with her students. "Being a great photographer is not about what kind of camera you own. It's about studying the light, crafting a great composition, and expressing your vision through practice and education"