Primary Diagonals Suit Us All to a T
I am going to really mix up the ideas in this blog. It will give you an idea of what it is like to be in my brain a fair amount of the time. The starter is some musings on the compositional tool of primary diagonals. The big switch is a move onto the T model for learning and experience in photography. The resounding finish is some beautiful pictures that I have discovered, which were actually the starting point for my thinking.
When I was writing the blog, Flip It, I was exploring an idea and words that were new to me. The idea was that a photographic composition is stronger when the viewer’s eye moves through it from left to right. The new-to-me words that I bumped into as I wrote the blog were primary and secondary diagonal. A primary diagonal in photography is a real or implied line that goes from the upper left-hand corner of a picture to the lower right-hand corner. A secondary diagonal is a real or implied line in a picture that goes from the lower left-hand corner to the upper right hand corner. I was not particularly surprised that I did not know that a compositional goal is to move the viewer’s eye from left to right. I was real surprised, however, that I was not familiar with the terms primary and secondary diagonal. Both of them started as mathematical terms and specifically terms used in a branch of mathematics called matrix theory. Oh, my goodness, I studied matrix theory a long, long time. But what is the most surprising of all to me is my new understanding how much I am drawn to photographic compositions that have primary or secondary diagonals in them. Now that I have a term for the concept, for the first time, I can recognize this preference when I see it in pictures across different photographic genres.
I am going to jump to the play on words in the title of this blog, “Suits to a T”. Jim Harmer is a well known photographer and entrepreneur who started the website Improve Photography. Because of his advice, I moved from a Canon camera to an Olympus 4/3rds camera in order to carry smaller, lighter equipment. I was listening to a podcast interview with Jim this week. One topic that he addressed was why his website was a general photography website even though he was a landscape photographer. He believes photographers should have knowledge and experience in photography that can be described by the letter “T”. The top horizontal line represents the photographer’s experience and knowledge across multiple genres of photography. The vertical line in the T represents the photographer’s area of special interest.
Now that I understand the concept of primary diagonals, I am seeing them and liking them in pictures from all sorts of photographic genres. It makes me feel connected to other photographers. I guess you could say that a primary diagonal is a compositional tool that suits us all to a T.
This portrait was taken by Clare Wise de Wet in a township in South Africa. She is a documentary, humanitarian and conservation photographer. If you place a piece of paper corner to corner you will see the implied primary diagonal formed by the father and son’s noses. Clare told me this was cropped from a landscape and while she was not thinking about a diagonal, perhaps she sensed it subconsciously. You can see Clare’s gallery on Instagram at @wisephotographics and on her website www.wisephotographics.com.
Bird photography was my first love. I follow photographer, Tony Davis, on Instagram at @ptdphotos, to get my “bird fix”. He has one of the most impressive photo gallery of birds that I have ever encountered. You can see it at www.ptdavis.photography .
My go-to architectural photographer is Kathryn Bourque. I am always pleased when one of her pictures of Toronto buildings appears on my Instagram feed. You can see her Instagram gallery at @katusha666.
Beanie, who is a family member of Instagram photographer Carl Lum, graciously consented to having his picture in this blog. When I asked Carl about using this picture, I had to point out to him that is actually includes a primary diagonal. Once again, if you put a piece of paper corner to corner you will see the implied diagonal formed by the inside of Beanie’s paw and a edge of his nose. The strength of a primary diagonal is that is does not have to be consciously identified. As Carl says, “But all viewers, skilled in photography or not, will be able to sense it innately.”
This beautiful picture of cactus flowers was taken by Lin Zabojnik, a Texas photographer. She entered it into the 2018 Texas State Fair and won first place in the category, Floral Close Up. You can see Lin’s gallery on Instagram at @justlinz and on her website www.justlinz.com. If you go to her website, you will see many examples of her use of a primary diagonal, including the lead picture titled, Redbuds blooming in Arkansas.
Look for primary and secondary diagonals in your work. Go out with the intention to shoot a picture with one of those compositional elements.