Apex Triangles in Composition: Pictures and Words

Another interesting concept from my directing class is the idea that when you compose a shot, you can usually find within it a triangle.  And the point of the triangle that draws your focus is the APEX of the triangle.

When the idea was introduced in class, I was intrigued–but wondered, beyond aesthetic benefits, what is the point of recognizing triangles in my shots?  How should the presence of triangles affect the choices I make?

My internet sleuthing on the subject revealed this little article called, “How to use Triangles to Improve Your Composition.”  It had many examples of principles that I had never thought about but that totally make sense:

An image containing a fairly symmetrical triangle where the apex is at the top and the base at the bottom will feel stable –think of a an architectural photo.

But playing with the angles and/or inverting the triangle will make things seem less stable. Think of a low angle picture of a street where skyscrapers rise up on either side–you kind of feel the buildings might fall on top of you. A triangle on its point seems off-balance, destined to move or change its position, so it also seems less static-feeling.

Now I’m going to jump tracks for a minute and turn to writing.

In literature,  the way an author describes the setting helps set up expectations, both narratively and emotionally. I took a class with the inimitable Janet Fitch and can thank her for this example–the first line from Scott F. Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”

“After dark on Saturday, one could stand on the first tee of a golf course and see the country club windows as a yellow expanse over a very black and wavy ocean.”

In class we talked about the kind of expectations this line might set up:

  • First, the idea of a country club has connotations of wealth and membership.
  • Then positioning “one” on the first golf tee, separated from the windows by a ” very black and wavy ocean” implies an outsider status.
  • However, not a complete outsider–because the speaker knows she is standing at the first tee. This is someone familiar with the golf course,  aware of her position relative to the club.
  •  Is there a yearning quality to the view of the “yellow expanse?”

So this could be a story about a person trying to get to a place that’s light and bright; and a place of belonging–and needs to make the difficult journey across a wavy black ocean in order to do it.

All this from the very first sentence. Pretty cool right?

Now I’m jumping back to the first track–which was triangles.

Do you have an image in your head when you read Fitzgerald’s sentence? I do.   The  widest part of the triangle is the  line of windows in the distance, while the point of the triangle is person in the foreground–at the bottom of the frame.

According to “triangle theory,*” this is an unstable image.  In a two-dimensional environment–which, despite three-dimensional cues, is what pictures and films are–the black ocean and bank of lights are precariously positioned over the head of the person. If she tries to move, is there safety to be reached, or will it all just collapse on top of  her? Either way there is the expectation of imminent change.

So the opening line of this story works to set up expectation and mood. The right opening image could do very similar (though not exactly the same) work.

The two tracks converge!

railroad-tracks-23521292901749uK0 See the triangle in this picture?

BONUS RANDOM THOUGHT: Thinking of an “opening” image reminds me that John August recently posted “The First and Last Thing You See,”  a montage that explores relationships between first and last images.   If  you watch it, try thinking in the back of your mind–can you find triangles? And how would you describe the images  in words?

*”triangle theory” in this context is a made up term. I think.

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