Composition is how we place objects and elements in the photograph to create visual interest, impact, and tell a story. Several techniques will help you frame your photo and determine where to place your content.
Cameras often show the “rule of thirds” grid overlay. The Golden Ratio – also known as the Golden Ratio, Golden Spiral, Golden Ratio, Divine Ratios, Divine Proportions, Fibonacci Spiral, or Phi Lattice – is a similar, more effective compositional guideline based on ancient mathematics and pioneered by masters like Michelangelo in art used Leonardo DiVinci and Salvador Dalí.
What is the golden section?
The golden ratio is a guide to where to place a subject (a tree, a person, a building, etc.) or an element in a photograph (like the horizon) where it’s most pleasing to the eye. This divine ratio is 1.618:1.
The first recorded definition of the golden ratio comes from Euclid in the 3rd century BC. The Greek mathematician Euclid was best known for his work on geometry, now known as “Euclidean geometry”. He calculated the golden section using rectangles, which can also be explained with a line.
The golden ratio is a mathematical rule that states that any line can be divided in such a way that the longer segment divided by the shorter segment has the same ratio as the full line divided by the longer segment.
To put it figuratively:
The first segment is a. The second segment is b. The length of the line is a+b.
So the equation is: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420.
The golden ratio is an irrational number that goes on forever, shortening to 1.618. In mathematical circles, this unique number is represented by the Greek letter phi.
This equation is useful for photographers with some knowledge of math and geometry. But even if you’re looking at numbers and equations with blurry eyes, you can still use the golden ratio as it’s used to create the golden spiral and phi grid. These overlays help visualize where to place elements in a photo.
What is the Phi Grid?
The phi grid is similar to the rule of thirds grid, which is commonly used to decide how to compose a photograph. The rule of thirds is one of the basic principles of photography. Both grids use two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to divide the frame.
The rule of thirds divides a frame into three rows and three equal columns, or 1:1:1 vertically and 1:1:1 horizontally. The phi grid divides the frame in a similar way, but shrinks the middle row and middle column according to the golden ratio. This results in 1,618:1:1,618 vertically and 1,618:1:1,618 horizontally.
Here’s a quick comparison:
The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the areas where the grid lines intersect. So, that’s where you need to position the focal point of the photo. In this example, the Milky Way is placed on a vertical Phi grid with its focal point at the intersection.
The Fibonacci spiral
The golden ratio is the basis for the Fibonacci sequence that forms the Fibonacci spiral. The sequence and spiral are named after the Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, later known as Fibonacci (son of Bonacci). In 1202 Fibonacci introduced the sequence in his book Liber Abaci. Like the grid overlays, the Fibonacci spiral is a guide to where to place the most important subject in a photo.
Mathematically, the Fibonacci sequence starts with the number 1, adds the previous whole number, and forms an endless series of numbers with this pattern. So the row looks like this:
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…
Or add 1+1=2 and 2+3=5 and so on. After the first two numbers, the ratio of consecutive numbers is very close to the golden ratio.
In geometry, the golden ratio can also be expressed as a specific type of rectangle. Suppose you take the example of line a+b (or x+y) and turn it into a rectangle whose width is x and length is x+y. If you divide the area of this rectangle into a series of squares, it forms a spiral based on the Fibonacci sequence.
Fibonacci discovered that this “golden spiral” appears in multiple places in nature, from DNA molecules to flower petals, hurricanes and the Milky Way. Just as the golden ratio in nature is pleasing to the human eye, so is a photograph that puts the content at the center of the golden spiral.
Adrian Bejan, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, says that the golden ratio is aesthetically pleasing because of the evolution of human vision.
In short, our brains have to process everything our eyes see. The faster it can process something, the more enjoyable it is. Any golden ratio image guides the viewer through the entire photo and is processed quickly by the brain, signaling that such an image is aesthetically pleasing.
How to use the Fibonacci spiral
Whether you’re doing a simple genre of photography or something more complex, the Fibonacci spiral can work for you. The golden spiral can be used when framing a photo or cropping an image. Unfortunately, cameras often provide a grid overlay of the rule of thirds, but not the Fibonacci spiral.
The idea is to place the object or where you want the viewer’s eye to be drawn into the smallest turn of the spiral. Of course the eye wants to go there. The spiral can curl left or right vertically or horizontally. The important concept is the proportions that draw the eye to the focal point of the photo.
If you don’t have an overlay, you can estimate placement by imagining a number 9.
Basically, as you can see, the spiral has a way of naturally guiding your eye through the photo into focus or out of focus out of the picture.
Both Lightroom and Photoshop offer a Fibonacci spiral overlay when cropping a photo. Press in the crop tool O to circulate through the overlays. Once you reach the spiral you can change its orientation by pressing change + O. Then move the crop tool or resize the photo to place the main subject in the center of the spiral.
The best apps for the golden ratio
Phi grid and gold spiral overlays are available in some smartphone camera apps. Lightroom Mobile has a camera for taking photos in the app that includes the phi grid overlay.
Golden Ratio Camera App is a smartphone camera overlay that allows you to use the guide while taking photos on your phone.
Wise Camera includes a variety of composition guide overlays with instructions on how to use them. Users can switch between the iPhone’s ultra-wide, telephoto, and plain lenses.
Downloads: way camera for iOS (Free, offers in-app purchases)
Golden Ratio vs. Rule of Thirds
Both the golden ratio and the rule of thirds grids will help you move the main subject away from the center of the photo. Aside from an intentionally symmetrical image, the subject brings excitement and visual interest to one side or the other; the viewer spends more time looking at the photo and seeing everything that is in it. It creates flow and a sense of movement.
The main subject will be positioned further to the right or left if placed at one of the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines. On the other hand, placing the subject at the intersection of the Phi grid or in the center of the golden spiral will bring it closer to the center of the photo. Knowing this can help when taking photos, as you can guess placement based on the rule of thirds grid overlay on your camera.
This photo example shows the difference between cropping with the Phi grid and the rule of thirds grid. Notice that the horizon is placed on one of the phi grid lines. In order to preserve the mountain (the focal point) at the intersection, the photo had to be cropped more, resulting in a more elegant composition.
Try placing the horizon on one of the horizontal Phi grid lines. Many aspiring photographers place the horizon in the middle of the photo. The golden ratio helps you position a visible horizon higher or lower in the photo for better aesthetics.
When to use the Golden Spiral and the Rule of Thirds
Here’s when to use the golden spiral and rule of thirds:
- Overall, the golden spiral creates a more balanced image in landscape photography.
- For portraits, use the rule of thirds.
- Activate the rule of thirds grid on your camera to help you take photos.
- Use the gold spiral for precise placement when cropping photos.
Read our in-depth guide to using the rule of thirds.
Use the golden ratio for better composition
The golden ratio is simply a guide, a tool to create a better composition that will make your photo more appealing. Whether you use the phi grid or the golden spiral, it can naturally enhance your photos. While a valuable tool, there are many other compositional techniques to create a visually interesting, impactful photo that tells a story.
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