What is the golden ratio, and how to use it in photography?
The Golden Ratio is a compositional tool. Composition is the process of arranging your frame to make an image that draws in the viewer and keeps them interested in your photo. Along with exposure and lighting, composition is key to good photography. So, in this article, we’re going to look at the Golden Ratio, learn what it is, how to spot it, and how to use it when composting photos.
There are lots of different tools and rules that you can use to produce strong compositions, and all of them have the time and place when to use them. Triangles, Leading lines, and Symmetry are some of those compositional rules. One more compositional technique that you can add to your toolbox is the golden ratio. It’s similar to the rule of thirds, but not quite. Let’s dive in.
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A golden ratio by any other name
Before we go any further, we need to clarify the name. The golden ratio isn’t just known as the golden ratio. You might also hear it referred to as the golden spiral, golden section, or golden mean. It’s also called by the Greek letter Phi, and it’s known as the divine proportion, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Fibonacci spiral. Yes, that’s quite a few aliases. Use whichever you prefer!
What is the golden ratio?
The golden ratio is a mathematical calculation. The result is an irrational number, so it’s a decimal that never ends, and you can’t express it as a fraction. To three decimal places, it’s 1.618. A bit like Pi, it is known by the Greek letter, Phi. If you are interested in the math of it, I’ll put a section below, but for now, let’s just say that if you divide your photo in this ratio, it would be very pleasing to the human eye.
Om, the fact that the Golden Ratio has math behind it, doesn’t stop it from being a useful compositional guideline, though. But how do you use it?
The easiest way to use the golden ratio as a compositional tool is as a Phi grid. It’s very similar to the rule of thirds grid, but not quite the same. Where the rule of thirds grid is divided into rectangles of equal size, the rectangles in a Phi grid are arranged 1.618:1:1.618 along both the horizontal lines and vertical lines. This makes the rectangles that form a cross through the center of the frame a bit smaller than those on the outside. It also puts the points of interest closer to the middle of the image.
We know the series of numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and so on, as Fibonacci numbers or the Fibonacci sequence. They follow an endless pattern that starts with 1 + 1 = 2, and 1 + 2 = 3, next 2 + 3 = 5. Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa (later Leonardo Fibonacci) gave the sequence the name we know in 1205, but humans knew about it long before then. But how do you get from the Fibonacci numbers to a spiral? You can arrange squares in the sizes of the Fibonacci numbers into a spiral.
Follow the curve of the spiral from the edge of the frame into the image. The point where the spiral ends is where to position your subject. If you place other important elements of your photo along the curve, it will help to draw the viewer’s eye through the frame.
Of course, you can rotate or flip the spiral to have the interest point top or bottom, left to right. However, it is quite common to use either of the top options. Here are some optional rotations and flips. They are alls still considered to be Golden Ratio
Shooting for the golden ratio
Lots of cameras will have a rule of thirds overlay that you can display on your viewfinder to help with composition. I don’t know of any that have a spiral overlay or a Phi grid overlay, though. This means that shooting according to these rules can be quite tricky unless you can visualize them. But, there are things you can do.
First, use the rule of thirds grids to guide you. You know that the intersection points of the golden ratio are a little closer to the center of the frame than with the rule of thirds. Adjust your focal point a little to account for it.
Second, you can always shoot to edit your images according to the golden ratio. This doesn’t appeal to a lot of photographers, I get that. But if you want to use the golden ratio or spiral for composition, it’s definitely a good way to get a feel for how it works. As you investigate them more in post-processing, you’ll train your brain to “see” those overlays as you compose your shots.
In the editing suite
Editing programs such as Lightroom have a variety of overlays to use with the cropping tool, not just the rule of thirds grid. This means that you can crop your shots according to the golden ratio or the golden spiral more accurately after you’ve had a rough go with your camera.
The golden ratio in Lightroom
As mentioned, lightroom has a feature where you can overlay different grids on an image. You can then use this overlay and the crop tool to recompose an image.
First, go to the Develop Module, and hit the Crop button (or use CTRL+R as a shortcut). Then, you can rotate through the different grids by going to Tools -> Crop Guide Overlay -> Golden Ratio or Golden Spiral (you can also do this with the “O” hotkey). Lastly, you can change the orientation of the overlay by going to Tools -> Crop Guide Overlay ->Cycle Grid Overlay Orientation (or the SHIFT+O Shorkey)
The Golden ratio in Photoshop
In Photoshop, go to Image -> Crop (or hit CTRL+C) for the crop tool. From the top tool menu select the Golden Spiral.
When to use different composition methods
The rules of composition are there to help you create better photos. It’s not about shoe-horning in a particular rule because you know how it works. Consider your scene. Is it a landscape? A portrait? Are you shooting still life, wildlife, or action? Think about the story you are trying to tell and apply the right tools accordingly. You might want to include leading lines or you might need some negative space to help the scene breathe a bit.
If there are natural curves in your shot, try using the golden spiral. A landscape might suit the golden ratio with the horizon line sitting on one its horizontal grid lines. Go with what works!
The golden ratio might feel overwhelmingly complex, but if you just think of it as being a variation on the rule of thirds, it’s not so bad. You don’t have to use it every time you pick up your camera; just remember it’s an option every time you do.
The golden ratio is a composition tool that helps photographers to organize their frames.
They are similar but different. Both use grids to divide the frame. The rectangles in the rule of thirds are all equally sized, unlike the golden ratio.
The Greek letter that denotes the golden ratio is Phi.
The golden ratio, or Phi, is 1.618.
The math behind the Golden Ratio
Boring math alert:
Yes, sadly, there is quite a lot of math involved, but you can scroll downward, to get a graphical representation of the golden ratio and just skip all the boring math parts.
The calculation that gets to 1.618 says that if you divide a line into two, and then divide the longer section by the shorter, it will be in the same ratio as the whole line divided by the longer segment. Got it?
a+b/a = a/b = 1.618
Phi was first described by Greek mathematician Euclid around 300BCE, which means there’s a lot of mythology around it. For example, people have said that the Pyramids of Giza were built using its principles. And the Parthenon in Athens, too. Sorry to be disappointing, but that’s highly unlikely. The link between Phi and nature is quite tenuous, too. Yes, lots of plants grow their petals in Fibonacci sequences, or are like pine cones and arranged in the Fibonacci spiral. But many don’t, either. As for the nautilus shell, it does grow in a logarithmic spiral, but it’s not Phi. You can read more about that here.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.