We often read about the creative uses of lines in photography. The horizon line is one such oft used line in compositions that separates the point where the earth and the sky meets. As a beginner photographer you may have been told never to place the horizon line bang in the middle of a composition. The reason is this results in a composition that is anything but interesting. Raising the horizon line and placing it roundabout 2/3rds the way down or 2/3rds the way up results in a much better composition. E.g., the image below.
There are three different types of lines in photography – horizontal, vertical and diagonal. Example of a horizontal line is the horizon line we discussed in the first example. Example of a vertical line is a telegraph post, a road sign etc. In this discussion we shall only be deliberating on diagonal lines. These are lines that are not parallel to any of the bottom or sides of the frame but can run either left to right or top to bottom.
Diagonal lines are often associated with tension in compositions. They can also be used to signify something important, such as the main subject matter of the composition. Diagonal lines are not a recent development. Like many other aspects of photography the use of diagonal lines has also come filtered down from painting.
Creative uses of diagonal lines in photography: Point towards the subject of the image
One of the most compelling images that comes to my mind when I think of creative uses of diagonal lines is the famous fresco by Michelangelo of ‘The Creation of Adam’. Think you don’t see the diagonal lines? Look at the how the left hand of Adam and the right hand of God extending to the tip of their fingers and touching creates a diagonal line. Again, look at how the right leg of both Adam and God points diagonally. Look at how the rock on which Adam rests has a sharp diagonal incline. If you draw an imaginary line joining the eyes of the two characters that would also create a diagonal line. At this point you must be thinking whether I am suffering from an acute case of scotoma. No I don’t!
In one of his most famous images famous photographer and father of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson used a similar technique. In this image titled ‘Romania’ shot in 1975 inside a train, Cartier-Bresson used the diagonal lines naturally existing in the frame. In fact if you notice carefully, you can draw a diagonal line across the frame by following the figure of the girl. Another line can be drawn along the left leg of the young man extending all the way up to his head. If you draw the lines so that they intersect, the point where the lines does overlaps with the point where the heads of the girl and the boy meets, the point of interest in the image.
Another of his images titled ‘France’, shot in Marseille in 1932 also bears the use of the same technique. These are just a few of the examples of the use of diagonal lines in Cartier-Bresson’s work. There are many more.
Introduce tension in the composition
A level horizon is synonymous to a calm and serene moment. But if you were to even slightly skew the horizon, it introduces tension in a composition. Diagonal lines have been used by photographers very cleverly to create this sense of tension. It does not even have to do anything with the horizon line. In the below image although the horizon line is pretty straight, the angled bow of the ship, rocked by the surf immediately disturbs the sense of balance and therefore introduces tension in the image.
There are many different ways you can introduce tension by using diagonal lines. They can run from left to right or top to bottom of the image. Even something as innocuous such as a staircase or a fence that is photographed at an angle can look ominous in the final result, introducing tension in the image.
Directional use of diagonal lines
Diagonal lines can also be used to give a sense of direction in the final image. In the below composition, the photographer may or may not have intended the street to be diagonal. But the fact that it is, it serves the purpose of being a directional line rather well.
Working as leading lines
Diagonal lines can also be used as leading lines in a composition. In the below image the photographer uses the overbearing presence of the escalators and the handrails to use them as diagonal lines in the composition. The fact that all of the people are in silhouettes and everything seems to point towards the light at the end of the tunnel (sort of) adds to the composition.
Another interesting use of the diagonal lines is the create depth. In the image below the angle from which the camera as setup created a diagonal line. The resulting image shows depth, which would have been impossible had the camera angle been straight-on. In this case the photographer has also used the shallow depth of field to good use.
Lack of balance
The image below is a classic example of how a diagonal line can give the sense of lack of balance. The Burj Khalifa is no way an unsafe building, but yet the pronounced diagonal lines does give an eerie feeling that somehow the structure is unstable. Scared of heights? This might be a little too obvious for you.