What is the golden triangle in photography? And how can you use the triangle to create gorgeous compositions?
While there are dozens of compositional guidelines for photographers, the golden triangle is one of the most useful you’ll ever encounter. If you know about this special triangle and how to apply it, you can capture dynamic, interesting compositions that go beyond the basic “rule of thirds” mold. And because you can use the golden triangle with many different types of subjects and genres of photography, it’s great for pretty much everyone!
So if you’re ready to level up your compositions, then let’s dive right in, starting with a basic definition:
What is the golden triangle in photography?
The golden triangle is formed by a line stretching from one corner of the frame to the other. Two more lines come from the other corners to meet the dissecting line at a 90-degree angle, which creates a set of four triangles:
These lines and triangles can then act as guides, suggesting where to position important elements in the frame. In other words, when you shoot with the golden triangle rule in mind, you’ll end up with strong compositions. Dividing the image and positioning elements according to the golden triangle will give each image a sense of flow and clarity.
As you compose your photos, imagine three lines creating the four triangles. Note that the longer line can run from the top left to the bottom right or it can run the other way around; what matters is how the elements in your composition are arranged within the triangles.
When can you use the golden triangle?
You can make use of the golden triangle whenever it suits the subject you’re trying to capture.
As with any rule of composition, the golden triangle won’t always work, and you shouldn’t force it to fit the subject you’re photographing. It has to feel right. Just like you can’t always use the rule of thirds, leading lines, or symmetry, you will not always be able to fit your subject into the golden triangle, and that’s okay.
When you’re lining up to take a photo, think about the shapes and lines you can see. Imagine a line running through the frame from corner to corner. Then form the remaining lines in your mind. Does your subject naturally fit into the triangular shapes? If not, then consider trying other compositional approaches. But if the subject does work with the golden triangle, then spend time making sure everything is perfectly positioned before you press that shutter button.
Note: At times it will be obvious that the subject you’re photographing doesn’t fit the golden triangle. But if you’re not sure, try moving a little to your right or left. Get a little higher or crouch for a lower angle. Even slight movement can dramatically alter the composition, and you may be surprised to realize that the golden triangle works for your scene.
Working with golden triangle compositions: the basics
To use the golden triangle approach, start by finding subjects that include strong diagonal lines. Then compose your photos so that the line runs on the golden triangle diagonal (from one corner to the other). For that type of image, the creative challenge is to find other elements that fit within the rule.
As with any composition guideline, it’s best to approach the golden triangle with a flexible mindset. As I emphasized above, if the scene doesn’t fit the golden triangle, don’t force it – but if the subject matter does seem to fit the rule, then try it and see what you can create.
In my experience, a strong diagonal line is a good start. But if there’s nothing happening at the intersections of the other two lines, then the approach may not work, and you may want to experiment with compositional alternatives.
Your point of view is key. Often, if you move just slightly, you can reframe your composition so the rule falls into place. I prefer to recompose with my eye to the camera’s viewfinder; that way, I know exactly how changes in the camera position affect the composition. And as I move, I can clearly see how the relationships between the elements in my frame change. It allows me to ensure that everything falls into place and fits the golden triangle rule.
If your composition doesn’t quite fit the golden triangle, you can also try changing the lens focal length. As you zoom (or as you change lenses), your composition will be dramatically altered. And as you’re probably aware, wide-angle and telephoto lenses produce very different compositions that portray very different relationships between image elements.
Sometimes, you’ll have the option to manipulate the elements in your scenes. With product photography, still lifes, and other adjustable subjects, you can deliberately arrange your compositions so they adhere to the golden triangle guidelines. Take your time moving the objects around so they fit the triangle lines. (This is the easiest way to get your subject to align with this – and other – compositional rules!)
How to improve your golden triangle photography
The best way to use any composition rule is to apply it naturally. But when you’re taking photos, it can be challenging to know which composition rule best fits your subject. Regularly identifying the perfect rule for a given subject takes real skill.
The best way to learn how to incorporate any composition rule, including the golden triangle rule, is to get out and practice. Practice using the rule so much that you’ll be able to apply it without conscious thought.
We photographers aren’t often inclined to practice a technique until we get it right. (I think this might be related to the levels of automation present in modern cameras.) Rather than practice something we want to do well, we tend to rely on our cameras to do it for us. But when it comes to mastering composition techniques, a passive approach just won’t work!
Practice taking photos using the golden triangle rule every time you pick up your camera. Then, once you’ve mastered the rule, you won’t need to practice so much. It’ll come naturally to you as soon as you begin to frame a scene. You’ll see the lines, shapes, and intersections that form the golden triangle, and you can use your awareness to create a well-composed photo.
It’s a lot like music, where musicians play the same notes over and over again until they can nail the basic melody. Then they can begin to play with variations. The tune will still sound the same, but each time it will be subtly different. You can do the same if you practice capturing golden triangle compositions!
Golden triangle photography: final words
Composition rules are incredibly helpful, but remember: They’re guidelines, not laws. You should make use of them when they feel right – and ignore them when they don’t.
That said, if you don’t practice using different rules, you’ll never be quite sure which to use in any given situation. So make sure you spend plenty of time experimenting with your various options. And become familiar with the golden triangle overlay. Think about how the lines fit together. Embed this in your mind, then make use of it whenever the opportunity arises!
What do you think of the golden triangle approach? Will you try it in your photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!