Have you ever looked at a photograph and felt something was off, but you couldn't quite put your finger on what it was? One of the most common reasons for a photograph to feel that way is because the composition wasn't quite right. So what makes a good composition and what has the golden ratio to do with it?
It can be an especially useful tool and it is a tool used by many great photographers, but it can seem rather daunting at first. So let's dive in and explain how to use it and why it works.
Image above by Andreas Ortner
What is the golden ratio?
The Golden Ratio is a mathematical concept, it also goes by the names; the golden number or the divine proportion. As you might've guessed, the Golden Ratio is a ratio, which defines the relation between two quantities or lengths, it describes a relation between to things. In the case of the golden ratio, the ratio is approximately 1:1.618, or approximately 0.618:1 and it is often represented by the Greek letter phi (φ).
The Golden Ratio has been studied for centuries and has been found to occur in a variety of natural and artificial objects. Researchers believe that the Golden Ratio may be related to the way our brains process visual information, which in turn is why (subconsciously) we find objects that display the golden ratio to be aesthetically pleasing.
The Golden Ratio in Nature
Have you ever looked at a seashell or flower and wondered about it's beauty? Or wondered why so many people are so captivated by the beauty of these objects? The golden ratio has been found to occur in wide variety of natural objects and phenomena, including the shape of seashells, the arrangement of leaves on a stem, the structure of DNA, and even in the distribution of galaxies in the universe. It's can also be found in the proportions of living organisms, like the shape of a human face or the branching patterns of trees, as well as in the patterns of waves and currents in the ocean and the shape of certain crystals.
There are people who believe that the golden ratio represents a balance between stability and growth. For example, the golden ratio might help a tree support itself while still allowing for new growth.
So, how does the golden ratio tie in with photography then? In order to explain this we first have to take a look at a few different composition techniques in photography.
Composition techniques in photography
Composition is an important aspect of photography, as it determines how the elements within a scene are arranged and how they relate to each other. There are several techniques that photographers can use to create effective compositions, and the golden ratio is one of them.
Other common composition techniques in photography include leading lines, frame within a frame, symmetry and the rule of thirds.
A photograph's composition can be enhanced by the use of leading lines to draw the viewer's eye towards a particular point or subject. Roads, walls, and fences are all excellent examples of leading lines in photographs. Triangles and circles are also effective when used to create dynamic compositions.
Leading lines can be used to create a sense of movement and direction within the photograph, and can help to guide the viewer's gaze towards the main subject of the image.
Images above by Thomas van Schaik. First one is the art work as intended and latter is with leading lines overlay.
Frame within a frameWhen creating a frame within a frame’ composition you use existing elements in the scene to create an additional frame inside a photo. Think of objects like windows, doorways, arches, or other openings, or through the use of natural elements such as trees or branches. Frame within a frame compositions draw the viewers eye towards the center of the inner frame and create depth and perspective.
Images above by Nina Papiorek. First images as available for purchase and latter with the indication of the frame within the frame.
SymmetryUsing symmetry is another common composition technique in photography, which involves creating balance and visual harmony within the photograph by arranging elements in a symmetrical manner. This can be achieved through the use of reflections, as well as through the use of repeating patterns or shapes. Symmetry can create a sense of order and calm within the photograph, and can be particularly effective in architectural or still life photography.
Artwork created by Marco Maljaars
Rule of thirdsThe rule of thirds is a technique in which the frame is divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The theory is that by placing important elements of the scene along these lines or at the intersections of them, the resulting image will be more balanced and visually appealing.
Images above created by Andreas Ortner First one shows art piece as intended and second shows the art piece with rule of thirds overlay
Now that we have explored some of the common composition techniques in photography, it's time to see how the golden ratio fits into this list.
The golden ratioThe golden ratio and the rule of thirds are both popular composition techniques used to create visually appealing images. Both techniques involve dividing the frame into sections in order to position the main subject or other important elements within the scene. However, the golden ratio and the rule of thirds are based on different principles and will result in slightly different compositions. While the rule of thirds equally divides the frame into nine parts, the golden ratio divides the frame into parts of different ratios.
Images above are both made by Tom Kluyver. The first shows the Rules of thirds composition and the second the phi grid.
Both techniques can be used to create balanced and harmonious compositions in photography, and there is no hard and fast rule about which one is better. Some photographers may prefer the golden ratio because they feel that it creates more aesthetically pleasing compositions, while others may prefer the rule of thirds because it is easier to understand and apply. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and what works best for the individual photographer and the specific scene being photographed.
Using the golden ratio in photography
So how can you use the golden ratio in photography? To apply the golden ratio in photography one could opt to use either a Phi Grid or a Fibonacci Spiral. Some digital cameras even come with built in overlays to display on your viewfinder while shooting.
The Phi GridOne way to incorporate the golden ratio into photography is to use a phi grid. A phi grid is a grid that is divided into squares or rectangles in such a way that the ratio of the shorter side to the longer side is the golden ratio. This can be done by dividing a rectangle into a series of smaller rectangles, with the longer side of each rectangle being approximately 1.618 times the length of the shorter side.
The phi grid can be used as a compositional tool in photography to help create balanced and harmonious images. The grid can be overlaid on the viewfinder or LCD screen of a camera to help guide the placement of elements within the frame. By aligning the edges of the grid with the edges of the frame and placing important elements of the scene along the lines of the grid, the photographer can create an image that is visually pleasing and balanced.
Images above show Erica Ferraroni's work. First is the artwork as available for purchase, second shows image with Phi grid overlay
The Fibonacci Spiral
Another way to use the golden ratio in photography is to use the Fibonacci spiral. The Fibonacci spiral is a series of connected quarter-circles that are arranged in such a way that the ratio of the radius of each quarter-circle to the total radius is the golden ratio.
By aligning the spiral with the edges of the frame and placing important elements of the scene along the spiral, the photographer can create an image that is both balanced and harmonious.
Artworks made by Tom Kluyver. First shows pure artwork, second shows artwork with Fibonacci overlay
Of course you can also use the golden ratio to determine the placement of elements within the frame without using a grid or spiral. To do this simply divide the frame into two segments using a 1:1.618 ratio, and place important elements of the scene along the dividing line or at the intersection of the line and the edges of the frame.
Images above show Andreas Ortner's work. First is artwork as created by him, second shows golden ratio overlay