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How to Use Triangles to Improve Your Portraits Composition

Do you ever look at a picture and absolutely love it, but you don’t know why? There are a lot of elements that can go into a great shot, but the hardest thing to see/ easiest thing to pick up on are triangles, which are leading lines that frame your subject, drawing your eye deeper into their inner lives.

Phoot by bartzz2k

Phoot by bartzz2k

The more triangles in a picture, the more compelling the shot is.

About a month ago , my daughter, Zoe was going through a hard time. She had just spent all of her money to buy her boyfriend floor seats for his favorite band, along with personalized M&M’s in his favorite colors, with the words “Florida”, “Georgia” and “Line” stamped on them to go with the tickets. She planned out how she was going to give them to him and was just so excited and happy about how everything was going with their relationship, and of course, the next day, he broke up with her.

So a couple of her friends, Brooke and Emily came over to cheer her up, and naturally, it turned into a photo session. They weren’t dressed in complementary colors or styles or wearing makeup or doing anything that I talk about here on photodoto.com, but it’s not like I need every single shot I take to be on a magazine cover, so I just shot, and they started laughing and having fun, jumping around and hugging and all of a sudden the heaviness eased and I could tell that in Zoe’s mind, there was a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything was going to be ok Afterwards, I threw the files in my computer and basically forgot about them. Zoe’s not one to wear her feelings on her sleeve, so I was really surprised when I was thumbing through my Instagram feed a few days later and saw the shot below on Zoe’s page, with the caption “Always by my side”.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

I must admit, I was pretty freaked out. My initial thought was “why would she allow that boy to see how much he hurt her after he broke up with her? I asked her why she would put that picture up, and she said, “I just love the shot Mom, I can’t stop looking about it and thinking about it, and I don’t know why.” So I stared at the shot, trying to figure out why she would love that picture so much, as it turns out, there are a ton of triangles in the shot.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

The Green triangles were the ones I saw initially, and then I just saw so many more that I drew more on in purple to show you. Every single aspect of this shot, even Emily, whose normally far too busy plaid shirt would be too much, but is on an angle here, adding to the triangles, drew huge ploopy triangles around the shot, forcing your eyes to come back to their faces, to show the strength of the bond between the girls.

The way they’re leaning, the tilts of their heads, the bends in their arms form the lines that literally lead you back through the picture, around their faces, to their hands holding each others, and back around to their faces. The fact that their eyes aren’t even in the shot is even more interesting. The triangles bring the emotion are the strength in the picture that you come back to time after time.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Hard to see through all those purple and green lines? Try this shot. Ava and Gretchen are leaning into Andrew, and their body and arm position make a triangle around the three of them. Can you see it? These triangles just keep your keeping your eye in the frame and won’t let it out.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Making Triangles

The shot of Tenley, below, was a giant triangle waiting happen. She came out in that big hat, looking all adorable, so I started shooting her. The hat is enormous that it just overpowered her little face, so I had her turn away and look over her shoulder.

Anyone who does this will naturally raise their shoulder, something that you need to prevent in older people, so that it doesn’t make them look short and chunky, but in little girls, they just look adorable, and when I had her tilt her head down, the hat formed a huge top left to bottom right diagonal that points to Tenley’s face. The shot as a whole is so visually appealing to me that I didn’t even notice that her far eye is kind of demonically cut off until just now, and I have had this shot hanging in my office for about five years.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

How to Make Triangles Happen

Triangles come from bent lines, or converging lines, three of the same color in a triangle, even groups of three things coming together. The more triangles you have in one shot, the better. Once you look for them, you can see them in everything. A really good start is to have everyone bend every limb they have, even their necks. Having them physically lean in toward each other is good, too. Making sure that everyone’s head is at a different level works as well. Look for things to go from two areas to one little area when you’re setting up a shot. Turn people so that they’re not square to you. Not sure? Go to a museum and look at the Master’s paintings. If you still can’t see them, check out my epic fail below.

Epic Fail

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

I’ve had people send me notes asking me to show them my fails, and this one is huge, so check this one out. I had the most photogenic harlequin Great Dane puppy. She had one blue eye, one brown, and she had a ton of toys, but she wouldn’t play with them, so the kids were trying to get her to play with the toys by putting them in their own mouths. Can’t miss, right? But the dog didn’t want to move from her pillow on to the set, and I didn’t want to chance missing the moment, so I just shot it…resulting in…ugh.

The lines were all vertical and horizontal …there was no connection to each other. If they would have been looking at each other, or even of the dog had been looking up at her, we would have had a Moment. I even drew in complemantary colors on the toys to make at least one triangle, and yes, if you’re starting on her face, the lines will kind of lead you down to the toys, but the since the toys don’t lead to anything, the shot falls flat. As it is, it’s just a cute kid with a chew toy in her mouth and a super bored dog.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Send me your triangle wins and fails to barb@barbstitzer.com, and while you’re at it, follow me on instagram at @barbstitzerphotography. Let’s get better together!

Barbara Stitzer

Barb Stitzer is an award winning Master Photographer living in Hudson, Ohio with her husband, her teen, Zoe and her tween, Tenley. She creates beauty and memories worldwide. Feel free to find her on Facebook or check out her website.

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