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Up for Discussion – The Golden Ratio

Today’s post is from Sarah Vercoe, I saw a post she had written on the Golden Ratio and I asked her if she would be interested in doing a post here to explain it to you.  I first heard about this at art school, though it was a little different, but the idea of the Golden Mean, and how some faces are considered more beautiful than others, and how the Golden Mean can be used to demonstrate it.  What Sarah is talking about is a little different and a lot more relevant to photography.

Composition with impact: Using the Golden Ratio in Photography

By Sarah Vercoe

Barn, Grand Teton NP

Composition is one of the most important aspects of photography, one that can make or break a photograph. A strong composition can give an ordinary subject appeal, just as poor composition can leave an otherwise appealing subject with no impact at all. The variety of composition guidelines available to photographers is seemingly endless, with some argued as being better than others. The Golden Ratio is one of those composition guidelines that is said to be just that little bit better for creating a photograph with impact.

The Golden Ratio, a ratio of 1:1.618, is said to have been ‘discovered’ by a mathematician named Leonardo Fibonacci in the 12th century A.D. when he devised a series of numbers to create a composition that is pleasing to the eye. Also known as the Golden Mean, Phi, and Divine Proportion, among others, the Golden Ratio has been used for centuries as a design principle in everything from graphic design, painting, architecture and photography. Regardless of the name attached, or where the idea of using the ratio originated, the Golden Ratio as a composition tool in photography can help us produce photographs with impact.

It is said that humans are naturally drawn to the ratio due to the perfect division of space that is pleasing to the eye, which is perfect for photography. This may be due to the fact that the ratio can be found throughout nature, in flowers, shells, plants, even the human ear is said to be shaped in a way that the Golden Ratio can be seen. Attracting viewers to a photograph through a composition that is based on nature, and naturally drawn to, seems like perfect logic. Creating a photograph that will attract viewers is something almost all photographers strive for in their work. So, how can we compose a photograph using the Golden Ratio to naturally attract viewers? There are a variety of ways in which the Golden Ratio can be applied to photography. Following are just two of the most commonly favoured compositions among photographers who are in-the-know.

The Fibonacci Spiral

The Fibonacci Spiral is formed from a series of squares based on a complex formula using Fibonacci’s numbers. This is achieved by adding together pairs of numbers to create squares, starting at 1×1, repeating 1×1, then 2×2, 3×3, 5×5, 8×8, 13×13, etc., the series of numbers can go on forever. When a point is placed strategically at the diagonal corners of each square and connected by a line, a spiral shape is formed throughout the frame itself as per the diagram below.

Fibonnaci Spiral

These points are considered points of interest in the frame and key focal points in a scene can be positioned to fall on or near them. As you will notice, the most important points of focus fall around a small rectangular area at one of the corners in the frame. This is what I like to call the ‘sweet spot’ and where I like to place the most important elements of a scene. The remaining points on the spiral can then be used as complementing focal points to incorporate other elements into the overall scene. The sweet spot acts as a starting point to lead the eye around the photograph along the spiral.

This version of the Golden Ratio is perhaps the most favoured composition in photography. I like to think this is due to the way the spiral leads the viewer around multiple complementing points in the frame, causing them to linger on the photograph.

Robson Square, Vancouver

The Phi Grid

The Phi Grid is formed when the Golden Ratio is applied so that the frame is divided into sections that are 1:1.618:1 as per the diagram below. The intersecting lines of the grid are concentrated in the centre of the frame resulting in more weight being given to the four outer corners of the frame. Placing key focal points at the intersecting lines of the Phi Grid, the Golden Ratio’s sweet spots, will allow for maximum impact in the photograph. This is due largely to the fact that the intersecting lines are at that point that is considered the perfect division of space in the frame.

Phi Grid

Another way that composing a photograph using the Phi Grid can be beneficial is to use it as a guide for the placement of a horizon line. By using the Phi Grid as a guide for where to place the horizon line will allow the horizon line to be less apparent and offer a good separation of space. You might notice that the Phi Grid looks quite similar to the Rule of Thirds. Although no one knows for sure, and there are a variety of fables that address the history of the Rule of Thirds, one suggestion is that the Rule of Thirds was devised as a simpler version of Golden Ratio.

Sunrise Kailua, Hawaii

The Golden Ratio in my own work

The Golden Ratio is often my go-to guideline when composing a photograph, particularly the Fibonacci Spiral. When I compose for the Golden Ratio I will envision a rectangle in the corner of the frame that places my main subject near the sweet spot. When I can utilise the Fibonacci Spiral I will also look for complementing points of interest that I can try to incorporate in the scene along the other points of interest. This is the reason I prefer to use the Fibonacci Spiral. I am of the belief that incorporating complementary points of interest to the main focal point where possible will draw the viewer in and lead them around the photograph.

As with everything in photography there are no fixed rules and composition choices are unique to both the scene you are photographing and the photographer. The Golden Ratio is a good technique to keep in your mind as a guideline when considering the composition options for a scene, and you may just end up with a photograph that has that little bit more impact.

Following are a series of photographs where I have applied the Golden Ratio in my own work. See if you can pick out which of the Golden Ratio compositions I have used as a guide.

Eagle, Alaska

Granville Island, Vancouver

Lower Falls, Yellowstone NP

Mountain view, Alaska

Surf Festival, Noosa

Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Science World, Vancouver

A big thank you to Leanne for allowing me to discuss the Golden Ratio in today’s Up for Discussion.

Please feel free to reach out to me at sarahvercoeimages@gmail.com if you have any questions about the Golden Ratio. You can view more of my landscape and travel photography on my blog Sarah Vercoe Images www.sarahvercoeimages.wordpress.com.

I would also like to thank Sarah for taking the time to write this for us.  Please take a look at her blog, she has some amazing work there.  

59 Comments
  1. very kewl post-it……….. 🙂 Q

    July 15, 2014
  2. Ben #

    Great introduction to the Golden Ratio Sarah! This is also my go to guideline for composition. I find it’s generally much more natural than the rule of thirds, which can often look forced in photographs that are simply “following the rules”. Perhaps as a compositional technique it’s become a victim of it’s own success.

    And of course thanks to Leanne for another great discussion point, I always enjoy reading these even if I am not commenting every week! 🙂

    July 15, 2014
    • Thank you, Ben. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and I completely agree that it is much more natural than the rule of thirds. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that a lot of people naturally compose an image in this way without realizing it.

      July 15, 2014
  3. Huummmm, interesting. Lots to think about. Thank you.

    July 15, 2014
  4. Fascinating post. Something to think about when composing shots.

    July 15, 2014
  5. This was great, and well explained. I learned about this in art school as well, and I also use it for added punch to my photos. Thanks so much for sharing.

    July 15, 2014
  6. Very well explained. I use it all the time with the crop tool in photoshop. I try to frame images this way now through the viewfinder but fine-tuning is always helpful in photoshop.

    July 15, 2014
    • Thank you, Laura. Aren’t the crop overlay tools in Photoshop / Lightroom fantastic! I love to perfect the composition in post processing using these as well.

      July 15, 2014
      • You’re welcome! I really LOVE them. I’m not quite sure what I’d do without them. Doing a quick before/after really helps!

        July 15, 2014
  7. Thanks for offering this review of the Golden Ratio.

    July 15, 2014
  8. leecleland #

    Very clear post and wonderful examples thank you Sarah and Leanne.

    July 15, 2014
  9. Actually thinking about these sort of things ‘does my head in’ (so to speak). I am also aperture challenged. I tend to take photos after I have worked out in my head how I want them to look (if that makes sense).
    But I do agree that these things make a photo more pleasing to the eye. It’s just hat my mind can’t comprehend these things.

    July 15, 2014
  10. Thanks so much for this post Leanne and Sarah.
    I have learned about this in painting, but its great to know it can apply to photography too! Thank you.

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Robyn,

      Thank you for your comment, I’m so happy you like the post. The GR is definitely an interchangeable design principle that can be applied across a wide variety of mediums. I hope you do get a chance to apply it to your photography as well as your paining, you won’t regret it!

      July 15, 2014
      • Thanks heaps Sarah… I will certainly be thinking of that whenever I’m photographing 🙂
        Your blog and images are wonderful!
        Thanks for sharing.

        July 15, 2014
  11. Interesting article. This applies in theatrical performance as well (with modifications as there is nothing stronger in the theater than a good performer downstage center speaking Shakespeare!). If you think back to shows that you have really enjoyed, I bet you will realize that many of the scenes started up stage right shaded towards up center and then flowed down around and back again. Once you know them rules are made to be broken but as I used to tell my students…you can’t break a rule unless you know the rule (not intellectually but in your bones)

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Robert,

      That’s really interesting, thank you for sharing. I would never have thought it could apply to that kind of art – facinating!

      July 15, 2014
  12. Terrific post Sarah and Leanne! I first learned about this from my dad, who was a photographer, and as a street pbotographer, I’ve read a lot about how much this played into Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. Very, very valuable tips here.

    July 15, 2014
    • Thank you, Shane. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. You’re so right, these compositions can be very valuable. Applying it to street photography would be quite challenging compared to landscapes I would say.

      July 15, 2014
  13. Hi Sarah, thanks for a well written and wonderfully informative post. I will reblog it at sublimedays.com this week. Lots of useful substance in this article.
    Thanks, Leanne, for bringing Sarah’s talent to your readers.
    Mary

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Mary,

      Thank you and I’m glad you found it informative. I appreciate the re blog and look forward to having a look at your blog!

      July 15, 2014
  14. A fine introduction to the Golden Ration, or golden rule, illustrated with superb photography!

    The golden rule is much promoted and much maligned and often causes very strong responses. I am glad to see that the comments here stick to making better pictures rather than quibbling about technicalities.

    Last November I blogged on the topic of composition and started with the golden rule. You might enjoy some of my other points: http://photo-lc.blogspot.com/2013/11/composition-rules-1.html

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Ludwig,

      Thank you for the kind comments. You’re very right in saying these types of topics create a lot of hype and discussion. I’m of the opinion that photography and the techniques we apply to our work as artists is all relative and personal, so I agree it is always nice to have discussions that are centred around creating better photography. Thank you for sharing your link, I will definitely take a look!

      July 15, 2014
  15. Reblogged this on PhotosbyMIK and commented:
    As discussed a few weeks ago, but a way better explanation than I could ever come up with!

    July 15, 2014
    • Thanks so much for re blogging, I appreciate that! I’m glad you liked the post and found it informative. I will take a look at your site.

      July 15, 2014
  16. Is it possible for the photo focus point at the bottom?

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Tienny,

      Thank you for the question. You can absolutely have your point of focus at one if the bottom corners of the frame with the golden ratio. In fact, I often prefer to have my point of focus at one of the sweet spots in the lower corners of the frame.

      July 15, 2014
  17. While I have definitely heard of these “rules” in composition, I find myself working much more intuitively, capturing what feels right, what I am personally drawn to visually. I think ultimately if you put that kind of emotion and personal connection into work (not only interest in subject matter, but feeling in presentation) it will show in the end result. just because its not “correct” (I find myself dead centring things a bit) does not mean its not right…its right for the feeling the subject is emitting. It is right for expressing the thought or concept through the series of pictures. I work in a style where the whole is greater than sum of the parts, meaning the overall experience and read of the series is more powerful than individual images. Therefor, if some things feel like they need to be captured a certain way, so be it. I generally don’t question gut feelings. In the end, its all about the images working together.

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Amelia,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree, art is art and we all apply our artistic visions in different ways. Kudos to you and keep it up.

      July 15, 2014
  18. Not sure how I’d fair at the quiz at the end. But – I did enjoy the great photos!

    July 15, 2014
  19. Thanks Sarah and Leanne for such a helpful post 🙂

    July 15, 2014
  20. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez #

    Sarah explains it well. I have read that before and it’s true thay the images composed on that theory are more pleasing to the eye. I love this post and the photographs are beautiful. 😉

    July 15, 2014
  21. I didn’t know that these rules were based upon the number Phi. It is amazing how everything around is connected. Great article!

    July 15, 2014
  22. Reblogged this on While I breathe, I photograph. and commented:
    Mie mi-a placut acest articol. In mare, stiam deja de regulile de compozitie, dar e placut sa stii si de unde provin, in ce alte domenii se folosesc.
    Concluzia mea ar fi ca suntem cu totii facuti din aceeasi materie si e normal ca ochiul uman sa fie atras de acelasi tip de compozitie din care e creata si natura.

    July 15, 2014
    • Thanks for the reblog and kind comments. I’m glad you found the post useful too!

      July 15, 2014
  23. Really interesting post and beautifully illustrated – really striking photographs.

    July 15, 2014
  24. Interesting . . . But in our cameras and mobiles the default grid dosen’t seems to be golden ratio grid. Do you have any suggestion how we can have a golden ratio grid…

    July 15, 2014
    • Hi Rajiv,

      Thank you for your question. I am not aware of an in-camera grid you can apply but there is a GR overlay you can use to perfect your composition in most editing programs. I hope this helps, Rajiv!

      July 15, 2014
      • Thanks for the reply 🙂

        July 16, 2014
  25. Beautiful photographs and interesting post. I use these ratios to frame most of my photos that involve people. I think nature requires a more organic approach, however.
    Thanks for the post!

    July 15, 2014
  26. Interesting and explained in a clear manner – I’m curious as to whether you analyze a scene and then apply these “rules” or if you just compose a shot and these rules have just become second nature for you. When I look at my shots these rules usually apply, but I do not think about them as I compose – I just set things up and shoot what “feels” right.

    July 15, 2014
    • Thank you! Typically I will analyze a scene that has caught my eye and then move around to find the best angles, best framing, etc. looking for complementing aspects I can incorporate into the overall scene. Sometimes there’s nothing and I have to change tac but I find my eye naturally seeks out the GR. I am of the opinion that most people favour it without realizing it, just as viewers can unknowingly seek it out. Thanks for the question, I hope this answers it for you…?

      July 16, 2014
  27. Maria #

    Great post…clear, concise and beautiful examples!

    July 15, 2014
  28. Good post and well illustrated. Reminds me of art classes at school. A lot of people talk about how they don’t follow the composition rules in art and photography and that they just go with “what feels right”. Little do they realise that subconsciously/unknowingly they are very often still following these rules of composition!!!

    July 16, 2014
  29. I remember something about how the eye likes to travel in a spiral when I was helping decorate windows in a shop!! It’s true! Photos are way more interesting. Thank you for the post Leanne and Sarah.

    July 16, 2014
  30. very useful fundamental tip to pleasing photography, thank you sarah/leanne for posting this.

    July 17, 2014
  31. Reblogged this on Ryan Photography and commented:
    A great explanation to the Golden Rule… and easily understandable.

    July 17, 2014
    • Hi Bren,

      Many thanks for the reblog – I appreciate it! I’m glad you found the post useful and easy to understand. I will take a look at Ryan Photography now.

      July 17, 2014
  32. Such a wonderful blog post and thank YOU so much for sharing! I’d like to take this moment to share another artist’s project in relation to the Phi topic- my amazing brother is currently working on a documentary film on Phi and its relations. He has travelled throughout the United States and Canada filming and interviewing an array of specialists on this topic. Please, if anyone has time check out the PHI Project! http://phiproject.com/

    I hate to sound like an ad but just thought I’d seize the moment.

    I have been loving reading your blog over the past couple years, thank you so much for the constant inspiration!

    July 17, 2014
  33. This was very interesting to read, I never get tired of reading about it for over 25 years I used the Fibonacci sequence of numbers in all my row counts, pattern changes everything done in basketry following the golden mean,ratio sequence (goes by lots of names) One year I purposely wove a basket that everything was done NOT in accordance with the golden ratio or Fibonacci sequence finally after putting the basket out for sale for nearly 10 years and having customers look at it and comment that some thing did not seem quite right about it, I had a University of Virginia Mathematics professor walk up to me and say “You did this on purpose didn’t you?) YES 10 years ago. I was testing a theory and it proved to be correct, the Fibonaccci Sequence is found in nature and is pleasing to the eye, when not used people did not know what was different about it but did not want to buy it. I eventually got tired of the basket hanging around and got rid of it.
    So no matter what art form you choose, in composition, pattern changes planning the composition of your photography or painting. you should always try to follow the golden ratio, mean or Fibonacci Sequence , it will be more pleasing to your customers and critics alike.

    July 17, 2014
    • Wow, this is amazing – thank you for sharing your ‘test’ on the GR. How interesting it is that people unknowingly prefer the others that did follow the ratio. And what an eye the professor had to pick that out! Thanks again.

      July 19, 2014
  34. Reblogged this on mapsworldwide blog and commented:
    For the photographers out there!

    July 18, 2014
  35. Very interesting read, Sarah and Leanne. Never heard about before … but I will try to keep in in mind. Thanks a million.

    July 19, 2014
  36. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Awesome blog post from Sarah Vercoe about the Golden Ratio and understanding the basics of composition.

    July 31, 2014

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