Photography starts with composition. How you frame a scene is the basic building block of taking a good picture, and one compositional technique that’s always been crucial is the Golden Ratio.
Here’s what it means and how you can use it to improve your photos immediately.
What Is the Golden Ratio?
Let’s say you have a line. There is a mathematical rule which says any line can be divided in such a way that the longer segment divided by the shorter segment is the same ratio as the full line divided by the longer segment.
To put it visually:
The length of the line is x+y, the first segment is x, the second segment is y. So the equation is: x/y = (x+y)/x = 1.6180339887498948420
That magical ratio happens to be 1.618 and is known as “the golden ratio”, or “the divine proportion”. In mathematical circles, this special number is known as Phi. But what does this have to do with photography?
In terms of image composition, you can use this ratio to decide how to split your frame. Don’t put your subject right in the middle; instead, using the horizon as a guide and put the subject at the 1.618 point. It’s a little difficult to grasp at first, but we’re going to explore this in more detail so don’t despair if you feel lost right now.
Note: You could just crop your photograph later to achieve a similar effect, but know that good original composition will always trump cropping, not to mention it’ll train your eye better to frame photos.
What Is the Phi Grid?
A number of photographers prefer using a grid based on Phi when composing their shots. Naturally, this technique is called the Phi Grid. It’s a variation on the Rule of Thirds, one of the basic principles of photography.
The Rule of Thirds divides a frame into three rows and three columns of equal size, resulting in 1:1:1 vertically and 1:1:1 horizontally. The Phi Grid divides the frame in a similar way, but makes the middle row and middle column smaller according to the golden ratio, resulting in 1:1.618:1 vertically and 1:1.618:1 horizontally.
Here’s a quick comparison:
The intersection of the grid lines is where the eye is naturally drawn to, so use those to align your image. Digital Photography School offers an example of how to use the Phi Grid, in a detailed article worth reading in full:
I lined up the horizon with the top line of the Phi grid. In my opinion, when you line up the horizon with a rule of thirds grid, the separation is too…obvious. I think it would leave a bit too much of what isn’t the subject in the image. In this photo, the sky and clouds are the perfect compliment to what I’m trying to convey in the photo: The church on the bottom right, and the famous Duval street on the left. But with any more sky than is already present in the photo, the viewer might think the sky is actually the subject.
The Fibonacci Spiral
In geometry, the golden ratio can also be expressed as a particular type of rectangle. Suppose you take the x+y line above, and turn it a rectangle, where the width is x and the length is x+y.
If you divide the area of that rectangle into a series of squares, it forms a spiral of the Fibonacci sequence, as LiveScience demonstrates:
If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, you know the Fibonacci sequence: you start with the number 1, add the previous whole number, and make an endless series of numbers with that pattern. So the series looks like this:
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…
Fibonacci discovered that this “golden spiral” appears in several places throughout nature, from DNA molecules to flower petals, from hurricanes to the Milky Way. More importantly, the Fibonacci spiral is pleasing to the human eye.
Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, says the golden ratio is aesthetically pleasing because of the evolution of human vision.
Long story short, our brain has to process everything our eyes see. The quicker it can process something, the more pleasing it is. Any image with the golden ratio is processed faster by the brain, so it sends a signal that such an image is aesthetically pleasing.
How to Use the Fibonacci Spiral
In terms of actual photography, you don’t need to worry about the technical explanation. Fibonacci Spirals are useful for nearly every kind of photography, but they’re especially good for landscapes and wide shots.
Apogee Photo has a great example of how to use it:
It was a foggy, late afternoon during fall and I wanted to capture the colours of the sunset that were filtering through the fog as well as the beautiful crimson colour of the fall foliage. I aimed to incorporate one person who stood out walking along the path, the fall foliage in the foreground, and the tree line as the central point of focus in my frame. To do this I positioned these aspects in the center of my imagined rectangle, knowing that it contained several of the key focus points associated with the ratio, and incorporated the fog into the scene along the wide arc of the spiral.
As you can see, the spiral basically has a way of leading your eye naturally from the focal point outwards. You can see several more examples of the Fibonacci spiral by following these amazing nature photographers on Instagram.
The Best Apps for the Golden Ratio
The right camera app can make you a better photographer, but not every camera app supports the Phi Grid or the Fibonacci Spiral.
If you are on an Android phone, then get Camera Zoom FX ($3). It is one of the 10 apps everyone should install first on Android, and for good reason. It supports both the Phi Grid and the Fibonacci Spiral as overlays. Just choose the grid you want, compose your image, and shoot.
Golden Ratio vs. Rule of Thirds
There is a lot of debate on the Internet about which is better, the Golden Ratio or the Rule of Thirds. The video above gives some perspective on the two styles, but we want to hear from you: Which composition technique is better and why?