Introducing the Creative Triangle

Introducing the Creative Triangle

This is the first in a series of articles by Andrew S Gibson, the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras.

Creative triangle 01

The ‘creative triangle’ is my term for the idea that great photos are made from a combination of good composition, an understanding of beautiful lighting and the technical ability to control your camera.

You could even think of this as another version of the rule-of-thirds. A good photo is comprised of one-third the composition, one-third the lighting and one-third the technical ability of the photographer.

Creative triangle 02

It’s not enough to learn what the various buttons, modes and functions on your camera do, important though that is. You also need to cultivate your eye for a good photo and an appreciation of the beauty of great lighting.

How can you do this? One way is to look at the work of your favourite photographers with a critical eye. It’s not enough just to say that you like particular photo. Go deeper. Why do you like it? What are the elements of composition and light that help make the photo? Why has the photographer chosen to use the camera settings that he has? What lens did he use? How can you apply these ideas to your own photos?

To help you out I’m going to take a deeper look at three of my own images:

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Image #1: New Plymouth Sunset

Camera: EOS 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon EF 85mm f1.8
Exposure: 219 seconds @ f11, ISO 200

Focal length. I was drawn to this scene by the silhouettes of the rock stacks and the chimney. I needed to use an 85mm lens to ensure that they were large enough to have impact. A wider focal length would have made the rocks and chimney too small.

Shutter speed. I used a shutter speed of 219 seconds. Mainly due to necessity – it was taken some time after sunset so light levels were low. I stopped down to f11 to ensure good depth-of-field and used a relatively low ISO for good image quality. The sea has recorded as a misty blur. This adds mood.

Light. I took the photo after the sun had set. If you try to take the photo with the sun above the horizon, the contrast is too high. It’s much easier to take photos after the sun has disappeared. The colours are often better and as the sky gets darker you may see some stars.

Colour contrast. The light from the sunset has split the image into three bands of colour. Blue and orange are contrasting colours and they give the photo impact. Colour temperature comes into play here. Blue light is cool, orange light is warm and the contrast between the two creates atmosphere.

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Image #2: Evening Portrait

Camera: EOS 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon EF 40mm f2.8
Exposure: 1/180 second @ f2.8, ISO 800

Focal length. I took this photo with my 40mm pancake lens. This lens is a moderate wide-angle on a full-frame camera. I like to use it for portraits, as the perspective is wide enough to include the background without too much distortion.

Aperture. I set the aperture to f2.8 (the widest on this lens) to throw the background out of focus. This helps concentrate attention on the model. A sharp background competes with the model, which may be useful if you are trying to tell a story in the way that photojournalists do, but can be a distraction with photos like this.

Light. This photo was taken late in the evening. The shoot was delayed so were were out later than I had intended, but I was rewarded with beautiful light. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon, but the light still had a red glow and a beautiful, soft quality ideal for portraits.

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Image #3: Fire Spinning

Camera: EOS 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon EF 17-40mm f4L lens @ 17mm
Exposure: 6 seconds @ f5.6, ISO 400

Focal length. This photo is different from the other two because it is taken with an ultra wide-angle focal length of 17mm (equivalent to around 11mm on an APS-C camera). There is a real sense of distance between the metal bars set into the concrete in the foreground and the performers standing on the wall.

Unusual subject: The two women in the photo are fire performers. They are spinning kevlar whips dipped in flammable fuel and set alight.

By the way, don’t try this at home. These women are trained fire performers and know how to handle these whips safely. If you want to try something similar, find someone who knows what they are doing to spin the whips.

Shutter speed: I used a slow shutter speed of six seconds so that the spinning whips created circles of fire.

Composition: I opted for a symmetrical composition. I like the way there are two circles of fire, one on either side of the frame. I could have moved closer to take the photo, but I preferred to stay back and include more of the setting.

Light. I shot this photo at dusk. Partly from necessity – it’s easier to see the flames when it’s dark. I also wanted some colour in the sky. I didn’t want it to be completely black.

Colour contrast. The cool colour of the blue sky contrasts with the orange flames and the red glow in the foreground. This is colour temperature in action again. The sky is lit by the fading daylight, which has a deep blue colour. The light from the flames is orange, like the light from a tungsten bulb.


When it comes to evaluating photos, camera settings (aperture, shutter speed, Picture Style, white balance etc) are only part of the story. A camera is just a lightproof box that records light. It has no heart or soul. That comes from the photographer and their understanding of light and composition. Hopefully the way that I’ve analysed my own images in this article will help you understand how deconstructing photos taken by other photographers can help you take better photos.

This article is the first in a series. The next one will take a close-up look at your camera’s Mode Dial. Why are there so many exposure modes and do we need them all? I don’t think so – and I’ll tell you why.

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Understanding EOS

Andrew S Gibson is the author of Understanding EOS: A Beginner’s Guide to Canon EOS cameras. The creative triangle is one of many concepts discussed in the ebook.

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Some Older Comments

  • Tom February 10, 2013 05:59 am

    I think the great strength of this excellent article is that the writing is clear, and the photos support the lesson beautifully, even though I didn't like the photos themselves overly. But I learnt something about settings, particularly from the first example. Thanks a lot for your lesson. Looking forward to the next one!

  • robert c anderson February 9, 2013 03:26 pm

    I can't imagine the camera metering gave you a calculation of 219 seconds exposure requirement. What do you use for a meter ?

  • Larry February 9, 2013 07:00 am

    I like the comments on what settings and twhy she used the composition she did. This type of review on photos is what I was looking for when I signed up a few days ago. I want to know why others did to get the image they photographed so I maybe can better determine what setting, composition, and framing I want to use. My favorite subjects is landscapes. I want to get them to have more pop and wow.

  • t-fiz February 9, 2013 04:00 am

    Great article, but I would have to think that "Editing" would be another leg of that rectrilangle(?). Many photographers (myself included) will also consider what they're desiring the final image to look like which will also help them to determine what settings and composition to use such as with black & white, and silhouette shots. Also, with editing, gloriously strange things can happen as your working with an otherwise average picture and end up with an image that pops, just by pulling colors, contrasts, etc.

  • jkar February 8, 2013 12:54 pm

    Good point...looking at other's photo and have a critique will help you exercise your brain. lol. and in real life, you will use it in your advantage.

  • Andrew S Gibson February 8, 2013 09:51 am

    Hi Jamil,

    Two excellent questions:

    1. I use bulb mode and a cable release to obtain shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. The first click of the cable release button opens the shutter, the second closes it. You can have the shutter open for as long as you like.

    The shutter speed was 219 seconds at ISO 100. At ISO 100 I would need a shutter speed of 438 seconds to obtain the correct exposure. Or I could open up the aperture one stop to f8. I chose to keep the aperture at f11 (for depth-of-field and sharpness) and increase ISO instead. I knew from experience that there would be no noise at ISO 200.

    2. At 1/80 second there is a risk of camera shake. I prefer to set faster shutter speeds to ensure sharpness. There is not much difference between ISO 800 and ISO 400 on the 5D Mark II, so noise wasn't an issue. If I remember rightly I had difficulty balancing when I took this photo as I had to stand on a rock to take it so a fast shutter speed helps prevent camera shake.

  • Jamil February 8, 2013 08:04 am

    Nice article. I have a couple of questions:

    1. In 'New Plymouth Sunset', you have mentioned the shutter speed as 219 seconds. How did you manage that? I have a 5D Mk II and the slowest speed I get is 30 seconds. Secondly, for an exposure this slow, why keep your ISO at 200 instead of 100?

    2. In 'Evening Portrait', the shutter speed is 1/180 sec and the ISO is 800. What would be the result of a slower shutter speed, say 1/80 sec, and a lower ISO like maybe 400?

  • Naz February 8, 2013 04:22 am

    [[You also need to cultivate your eye for a good photo]]

    Precisely, and htis takes training- most peopel are not goign to just 'get it' even after years of shooting, and thinking' well some peopel just have a knack for composition and for seeing good photographic opportunities' just isn't correct- for msot people- good composition CAN be taught, and the mind can cultivate an eye for photographic composition- and just like anyhting, the best way to learn is from beign taught- not from goign out and hoping that all of a sudden someday somethign will 'click' and a sudden 'aha' moment will solve years of frustration

    Many famous photographers over the years have said "Sometimes all it takes is a millimeter of movement in the right direction to either make or break a photo" and it's true that small movement in direction makes a world of difference and hwne peopel nail the composition, it shows-

    IF I wanted to learn somethign liek astronomy, I'm NOT goign to learn it by simply going out each evening and looking at the stars and juts hoping someday that if I look long enough, the names of the stars will come to me in an awe inspiring 'aha' moment- IF I truly want ot learn astronomy, then I would need to learn the names, positions etc of the stars from those who have made it theirl ife's work to study those things-

    Picasso the painter- known for his wild abstracts and distorted faces, to the untrained eye, it woudl seem his paintings are just drawn any old which way he liked- however, on careful examination of all his works, and by knowing composition, one can clearly see that he truly was a master of composition- and nothign he did was done in a haphazzard manner- every placement such as an off kilter eye, nose or whatever, all had a purpose and reason for why it was placed where it was- It was said of picasso that by age 13 he had already mastered his art classes and his instructors begaN LEarnign from him because he was able to manipulate the rules to take his photos beyond 'technically correct'- but let's not forget that we msut first learn how to make our photos 'technically correct' before we can experiment in a cohesive and creative manner- otherwise, we'll be off just a millimeter or two, the photo won't work, and we won't know why it doesn't work

    If you study Henri Cartier Bresson's photos carefully, you will discover soemthign quite shocking- His 'spontanious' photos were ifnact spontainius, however, the spontanaity came fro mthe subject beign at just hte right position along a carefulyl cosntructed geometric rectangles and diagonals- it is said that ghe woudl scout a location, study it for hours if necessary, get the camera into position and wait for a person to be in just the right position, and he would 'bang the shutter' at hte precise moment- He cosntructed his photos along geometric equations such as root 4 diagonals, baroque and sinister diagonals etc-

    Of course he went to extremes, and he DID have a good eye for geometry within a scene- but he was a gifted person in this regard, the rest of us would have to study liek hte dickens to acheive what he did seemingly naturally- it was either he or Ansel Adams that said "12 Significant photos i n a year? (Maybe it was 'in a month' - can't remember now) I'd say that wa pretty good'

    You said [[Go deeper. Why do you like it? What are the elements of composition and light that help make the photo?]]

    If we don';t know composition, then we can't know why we like it or why the composition is good- at best all we can say is 'it's got a certain soemthing- hard to describe, can't put my figner on it' For instance, and eye level shot of a scene, followign hte rule of thirds, might be an ok shot, even a pretty good one, but getting the same scene at almsot ground level and still abidign by the rule of thirds, but incorporating subjects i nthe scene at key geometrical positions might really set the photo off to beign a great photo- especially if the subjects are all related to another within the scene which will move the eye around the photo in an interesting manner- for isntance, like placing a buck saw and saw horse in lower right corner, with a log o nthe ground pointed towards a log pile in upper left aread with perhaps a pile of sawdust in the middle of scene from previous work or in some other key spot-

    I forget who said it, but a photographer said somethign along hte lines of 'the job of the photographer is to eliminate chaos- to compose in such a way as to draw attention to what you want hte viewer to see' There are scenes everywhere- Our job is to root them out- find htem, exploit htem- compose htem in such a way that hte viewer says' Yup- I see exactly why the photographer wanted me to see what he/she saw'

    Sorry for goign on like htis- You brought up a great point about cultivating an eye- I beleive that cultivating an eye for composition is oen of the major keys to great photography (there are others of course, but if the composition is wrong, the rest won't matter much)

  • marius2die4 February 8, 2013 03:29 am

    Good article.Tkx for sharing!

  • Scottc February 6, 2013 10:07 am

    Beautiful photos and informative write-ups on your intent and the details surrounding each one.

  • Brian February 6, 2013 04:24 am

    I often do a much better job of critiquing the photos of others. For my own, I see all the flaws much more than the good - unless I look back far enough that I forget how I processed it.
    I need to look for the good first and then think of how to improve the bad - whether in camera or in Photoshop.


  • Yoan February 6, 2013 03:15 am

    By the way, 40mm on a full-frame camera is a normal length, not wide angle ;)

  • Tran February 6, 2013 02:09 am

    Great article!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Mridula February 6, 2013 02:04 am

    Sounds like a lovely exercise to sit own for sometime and see why do I like a picture.