The golden ratio in photography is a standard for good composition. Photographers who use the golden ratio effectively produce shots that are pleasing on the eye; the viewer knows where to look and then where to look next. Other terms for the golden ratio include the Fibonacci spiral or divine proportion.
If you want to master the art of photography, it’s worth getting to grips with the golden ratio as quickly as possible. The sooner you understand how it works and how to use it, the better your photography will become.
What is the Golden Ratio in Photography?
The mathematician Fibonacci is responsible for the inception of the golden ratio. He saw a repeating spiral pattern recurring in much of nature. This spiral, which is composed of the same predictable ratio, can be found everywhere around us – even in the spirals of our DNA!
While it may seem daunting that using the golden ratio in photography means using the work of a genius mathematician, it’s more straightforward than you might think. You won’t need to do any calculations to use the golden ratio yourself.
The thing to remember is that the ratio is 1.618 to 1 and that this ratio can be found everywhere you look for it.
What is the Fibonacci Sequence?
In mathematics, the Fibonacci sequence describes a series of numbers where each number is the sum of the two preceding ones. How is this relevant to photography or the golden ratio? Well, this sequence also describes the outward development of the Fibonacci spiral.
What is The Fibonacci Spiral Exactly?
The Fibonacci spiral, or golden spiral, is a spiral with a growth factor of Ï†. All this means is that this spiral expands outwards following the ratio and sequence that Fibonacci identified in his work.
What’s remarkable about the golden spiral and the Fibonacci sequence, is that it really can be found in all parts of the natural world.
Look at this diagram of the golden spiral below:
Now take a look at some of these real-world instances of the golden ratio:
Looks familiar, right? The relevance of the golden spiral to photography is that balance and precision can produce images that all humans are naturally familiar with. Using the golden ratio means composing images with mathematical science to back you up.
When it comes to the golden ratio in photography, understanding this growth factor, and how it relates to proportion, can significantly improve the composition of your images. You may have noticed that the images above were composed quite effectively.
They’re not using the rule of thirds, but using the phi grid instead.
The Phi Grid
The phi grid is like the rule of thirds on steroids; it can produce images that are more balanced and well composed. Using it effectively can dramatically improve your ability to create pleasing images. The Greek symbol phi, Î¦, is often used as the symbol for the golden ratio.
The culmination of Fibonacci’s spiral is a grid structure, hence – the phi grid. So how to you actually use the phi grid and golden ratio in photography? The idea is that the spaces in the phi grid where the lines intersect are naturally pleasing to the eye and should be prioritized when shooting.
The Rule of Thirds
The rules of thirds can be an excellent composition guide if you’re in a rush. The advantage of the rule of thirds is that the grid overlay is simpler and therefore easier to access. The main drawback is that this approach lacks the precision and elegance of the Fibonacci spiral.
This isn’t to suggest that the rule of thirds isn’t a good compositional tool, it’s just that it isn’t the only, or indeed the best, option out there.
Using the Golden Ratio and the Phi Grid in Photography
While photography is a vast discipline with an endless list of possible subjects, there’s a general approach you can use to make good composition choices.
Assess Your Subject
The first thing to consider is the nature of your subject and how this is likely to influence your shoot. Using the golden ratio effectively means understanding the person or thing you’re shooting. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the primary element that I want to draw focus to?
- Are there any secondary elements that I would like my viewer to see next?
- Are there any shapes, lines or curves that catch the eye in my subject?
- Are the elements of my scene that could be distracting and draw focus?
These questions are designed to get you thinking about how best to compose your image. At this stage, you should decide whether the rule of thirds or phi grid will be more useful. If your image is very simple, with only the most basic demands, the rule of thirds will probably do fine.
If you’re capturing something more complex and want to take things to the next level, it’s time to use the golden ratio. This approach is especially useful for images that feature long curves or interesting lines. The golden ratio makes it much easier to capture these elements effectively.
Line Things up and Shoot
We appreciate that not everyone has a perfect image of Fibonacci’s golden spiral ready and waiting. With a little patience, however, it’s relatively simple to get started. Your first step should be checking the overlay settings on your camera.
Virtually all digital cameras made in the past few years come with a rule-of-thirds overlay and many also include an option for the phi grid. Failing this, you may want to consider finding a good reference image when you’re starting out.
Over time, you’ll become familiar enough with the grid that it becomes second nature to line things up. Once you’ve assessed your subject and determined which elements you want to draw focus to, use the grid to position these elements in the eye-catching areas where the lines intersect.
The key to this approach is trial and error. It’s about experimenting with different positions and tweaks until you’re happy with the end result. Practice makes perfect; once you’ve been using this technique for a while, you’ll soon become much quicker at using the golden ratio.
Golden Ratio and Phi Grid Applications
There are endless photography scenarios where the golden ratio, Fibonacci spiral and their phi grid can come in handy.
Say you’re shooting landscape image and want to focus on a mountain on the horizon. The golden ratio in photography dictates that the mountain should be placed in one of the areas where the lines intersect. For example, centering the mountain might be the best approach here.
In general, landscape photographs can benefit from the golden ratio and its grid. If your subject spans the width of your image, try to contain it within the central three squares of the grid.
Portrait photography is a broad discipline. As a general rule, the golden ratio can help you draw focus toe the features of your model that you want to highlight. It’s a good idea to experiment and get creative with how you frame the people you’re shooting.
A good portrait photographer understands that every model is different. Become familiar with which facial features are flattered by which elements of the grid.
The natural world is packed full of examples of the Fibonacci spiral. Everything from huge crashing waves, to the intricate details of a flower can demonstrate the Fibonacci sequence. This means that when taking photos of nature, you can use your knowledge of the golden ratio to your advantage.
Say you’ve found a golden spiral occurring naturally in a nautilus shell on the beach. Using what you’ve learned on this page, you’ll be able to line up your shot and capture the shell effectively.
Modern architecture is full of fantastic curves, lines and spirals. Many of these intentionally recreate Fibonacci’s golden spiral. The complexity that can be found in architecture presents a welcome challenge for many photographers.
Identify the elements of a building you’d like to capture most prominently. Be sure to frame these in the “sweet spots” of the grid when working.
Some Great Examples of the Golden Ratio
Artists and mathematicians alike understood the importance of balance and proportion in imagery long before the modern camera existed. Below are some good examples of artworks that use the golden ratio. Some of these uses were intentional, others used the principles without realising it at the time.
In both cases, seeing the golden ratio in practice will make it easier to apply it to you own work.
The Last Supper
It’s argued that da Vinci used principles of the golden ratio when composing his painting of the last supper. Jesus and his disciples can be seen situated across the central strip of the phi grid. Jesus is positioned in the lower centre of the image with the dinner table just below him.
The eye is immediately drawn to God’s son and the people around him. Study the painting for yourself and see how many areas you can spot that use the principles of the golden ratio. Use what you notice in your own practice to improve your photography skills.
Sacrament of the Last Supper
Another depiction of the last supper that benefits greatly from the golden ratio comes from Salvador Dali. Virtually everywhere you look in this painting, the principles of balance and proportion are waiting to be found.
The dodecahedron in the background, the positioning of Jesus and his disciples and the landscape in the background are all positioned and proportioned according to the ratio laid out by Leonardo Fibonacci. Dali loved to use symbolism like this in his work and it’s effectiveness is self-evident.
The Mona Lisa
Art experts and mathematicians maintain that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was painted according to the rules of the golden ratio. The positioning and composition of the image are in line with Fibonacci’s principles. Multiple areas of The Mona Lisa use the golden rectangle, or grid.
The mysterious woman’s face, eyes, body and position in the painting itself are all consistent with the golden ratio. It is argued that this is one of the reasons that the painting has gained such prominence in modern times.
Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder is more biased than you might think. Principles of beauty and aesthetics are fascinating as they tell us more about how human beings perceive the world and the subjects in it.
When it comes to photography, our advice is to use the right approach for the right scenario. If you’re shooting something simple, it might be overkill to whip out intricate works of art as a reference point. The rule of thirds is often enough to get the job done.
However, using a more nuanced, complex approach can be hugely beneficial to your photography if you have the patience for it. Taking the time to experiment can teach you more than you might expect.
As a personal photography challenge, why not find a more complicated subject with intricate lines and curves? Try applying what we’ve outlined in this article to capture the best possible image you can. The more you experiment with challenges like this, the better your photography will become – trust us.