How to Use Diagonal Lines in Photography
Do you know how to use diagonal lines in photography to improve your images?
You’ve probably heard that a diagonal line can give a sense of action or lead the viewer to different points in the image – while this is true, it’s not always easy to implement this rule.
In this article I’ll explain what a diagonal actually is, as well as the different types of applications it can have in a photograph.
I’ll also give lots of examples to get you inspired to get out there and incorporate diagonal lines in your own photography.
So, if you’re not sure where to find diagonal lines around you, which angles work better or how to use them to your advantage, then this is the article for you.
What is a Diagonal Line in Photography?
A diagonal line is a straight line segment that runs at an angle between a vertical and a horizontal axis. In geometry, it’s a line that goes through the middle of the shape, joining two edges.
In photography, a diagonal line needs to create an angle with one of the edges of the frame – as long as it’s not a 90-degree angle. So, a diagonal line can’t be parallel or perpendicular to any of the edges.
In other words, a diagonal is any line segment that’s not a vertical line nor a horizontal line.
Diagonals are powerful composition elements that help you draw the viewer’s eye towards the focal point, or you can use them to create different moods.
In the next section, I’ll give you some examples to show you how to use them.
11 Diagonal Photography Tips + Examples
If you’re wondering how to create a diagonal photo, these 11 tips should help you get started.
1. Find naturally occuring diagonal lines
In real life, you can find many naturally-occurring diagonal lines that you can photograph without having to create them – for example, the structure of a leaf or a mountain.
Also, human-made objects offer several diagonal lines ready to be photographed. Stairs, for example, and pavement tiles and many other architectural elements.
2. Avoid connecting opposite corners
To make a better composition using diagonal lines, avoid placing them precisely in the two corners of the frame of your photograph – unless you purposely want to make a strong cut in half, but that’s rarely as effective as keeping it off-centre.
3. Use diagonals as leading lines
Diagonal lines are very effective to lead the viewer’s attention towards the focal point. Keep in mind that you can create diagonal lines without a physical line.
For example, suppose you have a subject pointing somewhere in the distance or even just looking in that direction – the viewer will instinctively follow that imaginary line connecting the subject to what the subject is looking at.
4. Creating depth with diagonal lines
Diagonal lines give the impression of depth in a two-dimensional image. This is because two parallel lines look like diagonals that converge in a far away vanishing point thanks to perspective.
Two diagonal lines give a three-dimensional look to your images. Think about a photograph of a road that disappears into the woods or a building when you’re looking up at it.
5. Use rectilinear forms
Rectilinear forms are made from straight line segments – a pentagon, for example, has five diagonals. You can also use a shape that doesn’t have diagonals, but you can create them by changing the point of view.
Think about a square or a rectangle. Perpendicular horizontal and vertical lines form these shapes – however, a horizontal line viewed at an angle becomes a diagonal – the same happens to a vertical line.
6. Follow photography composition rules
Using diagonal lines is already a powerful composition technique – if you combine it with others, you’ll have even better results.
The photo above is the perfect example. The diagonal lines lead towards the upper right part of the frame, and the person running is on the opposite corner. The subject’s position – which coincides with the rule of thirds, also follows the rule of space.
7. Create visual tension
Squared compositions give the viewer the feeling of stability – stability suggests permanence. If you want to break this to make your image more dynamic, you can use diagonal lines.
Look at the example above. The composition and the different shapes on the wall would make a static image. However, the subject standing on his toes leaning forward makes a diagonal line – this gives a sense of instability because you feel like he could fall.
8. Make images more dynamic
As you’ve seen, when you use diagonal lines, you communicate movement and make your image more dynamic – but it can also make the viewer feel uneasy.
Fortunately, diagonal lines can have different meanings depending on how you use them. For example, think about a landscape photograph with a mountain in it. Even if it has two diagonals – fewer things are as structurally stable as a mountain.
In the same way, you can use multiple elements to balance the composition. If you have a diagonal line, you can add a square or a circle – shapes in combination communicate stability.
9. Use the Dutch angle
Surely you know by heart the rule that says the horizon needs to be a horizontal line. Most cameras have a grid overlay to ensure you don’t have slanted lines, and even tripods have a bubble level.
Well, the Dutch angle breaks that rule. The idea is that you frame your composition, holding the camera off its axis. This way, horizontal and vertical lines found on the subject become diagonal lines.
This camera angle is also known as Dutch tilt because it simply means that you’re creating diagonal lines by tilting your camera.
Of course, you need to use this wisely, so it doesn’t look like the horizon isn’t straight by mistake.
10. Arrange objects in diagonal lines
You can create diagonal lines by arranging objects on a still life or the subjects on a group portrait photo. This way, you can fill more of the frame and create points to guide the viewers throughout the entire image.
If there are other lines, you can add a diagonal line to introduce different directions and make the viewer’s eye wander through the image.
11. Create diagonal lines using shadows
Another way to create diagonal lines is by using shadows – you can do this by changing the direction of the light. Look at the scene in the example above that has vertical subjects.
If you have light coming from the top, the shadow will fall directly underneath the subject. If the light were hitting from the side, the shadow would create horizontal lines.
Instead, the photographer used an angled light direction so that lights and shadows would make diagonal lines. This is a very effective way to do it because lighting subjects at 45-degree angles creates very flattering lighting that you can use for portrait or still life.
I hope this article helped you make sense of the multiple uses of diagonal lines in photography. Whether you’re looking for actual diagonal lines or imagined ones, incorporating them in your images can be a powerful technique.
If you have any other ideas, tips or examples, do share them with us in the comments.