This here is next level stuff.
Rule of thirds. leading lines. All important, but they don’t capture the eye like the golden ratio.
If you’re ready to move past just placing your subject on a thirds line and calling it composition, read on. If not, don’t even think about reading more.
I say this in jest, as I hope you know, but the fact of the matter is that this compositional rule can be difficult to grasp and even harder to add into your images. However, if you can, the quality and appeal of your images will grow exponentially.
To start, understand that the golden ratio is applied to your images in many different ways and is known by many different names. Some of the names you might be familiar with are: the golden mean, phi, Fibonacci spiral, or the divine proportion. You may be familiar with one or more of these terms, but don’t be confused.
Each of these uses the golden ratio in a different way to create art, images and architecture that is pleasing to the human eye.
What is the Golden Ratio in Photography?
The golden ratio is a ratio of approximately 1.618 to 1. Artists have used this ratio for centuries to create works of art from paintings to architecture. Beethoven uses it in his famous fifth Symphony. It truly is all around us, including in our own bodies.
To see and understand the golden ratio, let’s take a line and divide it into two sections. If we follow the golden ratio, it would look like the image below, where A is the long side (1.618) and B is the shorter side (1).
The easiest place to see this on the human body is with the arm, although there are many other parts of the human body that follow the golden ratio.
For artists, the power of the golden ratio begins as this ratio is applied to other shapes. Let’s first construct what is called a golden rectangle. We do this, by taking the long side of the line that we labeled A, and matching that length to form the shorter sides of the rectangle.
This shape is used often in both modern and ancient architecture, the most famous being the Parthenon.
Read more about the golden ratio in architecture here.
Some have called the rule of thirds an oversimplified version of the golden ratio, and if you think about it, you can see why. By adding another vertical line to the golden rectangle, you will have a very close facsimile of the rule of thirds.
In 1200AD, a mathematician named, Leonardo Fibonacci, discovered what is now known as the Fibonacci sequence which helped take the golden ratio even further. He took the numbers 0 and 1 and added them together to get 1.
He then continued taking the two previous answers and added them together to form this chain of numbers you see below.
The beauty of this chain of numbers is found when you take any two of the sums next to each other and divide the larger by the smaller. When you do this, you get a number very close to the golden ratio. Look below.
5+18=13 and 8+13=21 are right next to each other in the Fibonacci sequence. Take both of their sums, 13 and 21 and divide the largest by the smallest and you get an number very close to 1.618.
Do this with any of the sums in the Fibonacci sequence and you find the same thing.
Stay with me now, because we are not going to delve any more into math, so don’t quit reading on me!
Looking back to the golden rectangle, as I begin to add smaller golden rectangles inside the larger ones, something surprising happens.
The area of each of the newly formed squares is a sum of an equation in the Fibonacci sequence, and from this, we get the Fibonacci spiral which is what many artists use today as their main compositional technique.
The spiral is created by drawing circular arcs from opposite corners of each square. Look at figure below to see the spiral inside the golden rectangle. This spiral is prolific in nature, most notably in the shell of the Nautilus.
Check out this video, it is a wonderful illustration of the golden ratio occurring in nature.
Take notice, and you will see the golden ratio and Fibonacci spiral everywhere from the products you buy, to companies logos, to architecture.
It is well known by marketers who understand by following the golden ratio, people are more likely to view their products as favorable. We can use this to our advantage in our images as well.
Using The Golden Ratio in Photography
Below is the diagram that details the Fibonacci spiral with the main 1:1.618 lines. The Fibonacci spiral is one of the main ways photographers can use the golden ratio in photography.
Many famous photographers are known for their use of the golden ratio in photography. Ansel Adams used it often in his the landscape portraits that he captured.
© Ansel Adams
Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of my favorite photographers, used it as he capture life as it happened. Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens his entire career, focusing less on gear and more on composition. Below is a self-portrait he took using the Fibonacci spiral as the compositional technique.
Henri Cartier- Bresson
Look at these images and try to see the beauty in them. These are images of everyday life, but captured in a way that is interesting and though-provoking. He had a powerful way of using the golden ratio in photography to bring the mundane to life.
Images above, © Henri Cartier-Bresson
In my mind, this is what photography is all about. Not about how much equipment we can buy or which lens is the largest. It’s about telling a story that is happening right before our eyes.
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”
Create using the Fibonacci spiral in Photography
The Fibonacci spiral is harder to grasp than say, balance or the rule of thirds. Those compositional rules are just easier to understand and put into use.
This is the reason many photographers have never heard of the Fibonacci spiral or the golden ratio in photography. It take more practice and focus to incorporate into your photographs. Let me share some ways you can begin incorporating the Fibonacci spiral into your image to help the composition of your images.
An easy way to begin to use the Fibonacci spiral is to shoot scenes of nonmoving objects and place them so they form a flowing number nine, with your subject at the circle of the nine. The image to the right is a good example of this.
Another way to create with the Fibonacci spiral is to use open space, or space that is of a different brightness than your subject.
On this image below, the eye is led to the subject by the shadowed person in the bottom left corner and the shadowed person on the right side. The light tones of the sky help bring the viewer into the image and then push the eye towards the subject.
This image of the surfers is another example.
Using the surfer at the bottom to lead the eye through the image, the viewer ends up at the surfer on the wave. You may be saying to yourself, “that’s just the rule of thirds.” You’re correct, the rule of thirds is a part of this image.
However, the surfer in the bottom left corner doesn’t follow the rule of thirds, yet adds balance, depth, and helps to lead the eye to the subject. That surfer in the bottom left brings all of this because he is placed in a location to use the Fibonacci spiral. Take a look at the images below.
Which do you prefer?
These subtle differences can take your images from good to great.
Create using the Golden Ratio in Photography
Creating images by thinking of a ratio can be can be incredibly difficult. To make things worse, each rectangle can be made into smaller golden rectangles as well. Take a look at the images below. This is a mess of lines!
To complicate things further, golden ratio lines can also be diagonal. The image below shows how diagonal lines can make up the golden ratio, and again inside each set of lines, additional lines that follow the golden ratio can be added. Into infinity.
To help solve some of this confusion, let me give some simple tips as you begin to use the golden ratio in photography.
TIP ONE: PLACE YOUR SUBJECT AT THE INTERSECTION OF LINES
As with the rule of thirds, placing your subject on an intersection of lines will help create a more pleasing image for the viewer. By doing this, it will cause you to leave in, or cut out something from the image you many not have done otherwise. The very act of doing this, will help shake up how you shoot images.
TIP TWO: PLACE STRONG LINES ON THE GOLDEN RATIO LINES
This tip is useful especially when photographing architecture with strong lines. Place those strong lines on the golden ratio lines to help create more interest in the image.
On the image of the building, the line between the dark and light portions of the building is placed on a golden ratio line, as well as the top corners.
In the bridge photo, the lines of the railing match golden ratio lines to help create an image that leads the viewers eye, and adds interest.
Have you ever seen group photo’s from Annie Liebovitz? She is far from the rule of thirds. Most of group photo’s use the golden ratio.
© Annie Liebovitz
It can be confusing as you begin to incorporate the golden ratio into your images, because there are just so dang many ways! I would suggest taking one or two methods and work on those before introducing others.
By doing this, you will become accustomed to using this technique, and as you get used to one or two methods, begin adding others.
Moving past the rule of thirds and using more advanced compositional techniques will truly help you to become a photographer with images that stand out.