The ‘Vanity Fair’ Rule Is the Secret to Amazing Group Pictures

lights, camera, action!

triangle composition: the haim sisters pose on the vanity fair red carpet
Amy Sussman/Staff/Getty Images

You know this scenario well: You’re at a gathering with friends, family, colleagues or some odd mixture of all three. “Let’s take a group picture!”, someone shouts. Everyone squishes together around the kitchen counter or the bar and says, “cheese.” The result is a chaotic photo with flash that makes the sea of eyes look demonic. It’s OK, but not great. Maybe you’ll save it for the mems. But what if I, a photographer, told you there was one secret to group photos that would make your picture look a bit more like the ones on magazine covers? Meet what I call the “Vanity Fair Rule,” also known as triangle composition. Here’s how it works.

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What Is the Triangle Theory of Composition?

If you’ve ever looked at a Vanity Fair cover (notably, any Hollywood Issue), you’ll notice that despite there being multiple subjects, everything somehow works. Instead of looking chaotic or cluttered, the picture feels orderly, sophisticated, thoughtful. I’d even dare to say, it’s a pleasure to view. But why is this?

The answer is triangle composition. Scroll through the magazine’s latest cover above and you’ll see it. Start with Bradley Cooper on the left. Our eyes are naturally drawn to faces, so we begin here. We continue to the next face and land on Natalie Portman. Because she’s shorter than Cooper, our gaze has been directed downwards. But she stands next to Pedro Pascal, who is, again, taller, and so our eyes are directed back up. If you drew a line from Cooper’s eyes to Portman’s and then to Pascal’s, you would have an inverted pyramid. The shape is exacerbated if you scroll to do the same exercise with Jodie Comer, Lily Gladstone and Greta Lee on slide two, and between Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Jenna Ortega and Berry Keoghan in slide three.   

However, you don’t need a whole crew for triangle composition to work. See the example of Only Murders in the Building co-stars Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short below. Here, we have an example of a pyramid, with Gomez forming the pinnacle.

How to Use Triangle Composition

You may be thinking, great. I recognize triangles in photos now, but those people were posed by a professional photographer. How do we plebeians recreate the technique? The good news is that you probably have everything you need, whether you’re posing family members or friends.

The key to executing this technique is using levels. In all these Vanity Fair images, note how some subjects are sitting while others are standing. And many are doing so on surfaces with different heights. For example, Gladstone and Ortega are both sitting, but the former’s chair puts her at a taller height than the latter. In the image above, Ana de Armas and Florence Pugh are both standing, but de Armas does so on the banquette, allowing her to become the pinnacle of the pyramid with Austin Butler and Pugh.

Should you be in a place where there’s no surfaces of varying heights, you can still make triangle composition work for you. Simply stagger short and tall people. (Refer to Cooper, Portman and Pascal.)

And there you have it. The Vanity Fair secret to great group photos that anyone can pull off. Lights, camera, action!

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I’ve covered the lifestyle space for the last three years after majoring in journalism (and minoring in French) at Boston University. Talk to me about all things sustainable &...