How to Master Photography Composition Using the Golden Ratio

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The twelfth century was a golden age for photography. Let’s step back from that statement a little, because obviously photography didn't exist way back then. What did exist though was mathematics and in particular an Italian gentleman by the name of Leonardo Bonacci, also known as Fibonacci. So what does this chap have to do with modern photography. Well, it's all about composition. Some of the fundamental rules of photographic composition come directly from Fibonacci’s studies of mathematics. He discovered what is known as the Golden Ratio or Divine Proportion. Oddly, the source of his discovery was the breeding habits of rabbits, but that is perhaps for another time. What he noticed overall is that the ratio he had discovered with the rabbits seem to apply to many aspects in nature. That ratio is 1.61803 to 1.

Fibonacci
Leonardo Bonacci (c. 1170 – c. 1250), Fibonacci to his friends. Source: Public Domain

What Does the Golden Ratio Mean to Us Photographers?

Well, as we said above, the Golden Ratio is also known as the Divine Proportion. This is because it occurs virtually everywhere in nature. When we are shooting, our eyes are naturally accustomed to seeing this proportion wherever we look. If in our compositions we break this natural ratio, the image will look uncomfortable, jarring our eyes. Although not strictly a Fibonacci rule, the rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental composition techniques in photography. It works because it is very close to the Divine Proportion and our eyes accept it as natural. However, if you want to take your compositions to the next level you can apply Mr. Fibonacci’s rules to two more advanced techniques, the Golden Rectangle and the Golden Spiral.

Aloe polyphylla Schönland ex Pillans
Fibonacci's Divine Proportion is found all over nature. Photo by J Brew

The Golden Rectangle

Think of this as almost a center weighted rule of thirds. Whereas in the rule of thirds, each third is equidistant from the other, in the Golden Rectangle we use the Fibonacci Ratio to determine the distance between them. To explain a bit better if we split our image into three vertical lines, the distance of the first line from the left compared to the second line will be at a ratio of 1.618 to 1. In other words as you can see in the example, the outer boxes of the thirds are larger than the inner boxes. When we compose our shots, by placing our subject matter on the lines of these thirds we are using the Golden Rectangle. An even better composition would be to use the intersection of the thirds and moving beyond that you can use a counterpoint composition where you position subjects on diametrically opposite thirds.

Although this might sound a little complicated, next time you are our shooting, visualize the image on the regular thirds, then just move those thirds a little more to the center of the image.

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An image cropped to the Golden Rectangle. Photo by Jason Row Photography

The Golden Spiral

This is a little more complicated compositional rule but an extremely powerful one. It uses a series of boxes increasing in size by the Golden Ratio. The centre-point of the composition starts on the corner of the smallest rectangle. Then a spiral is imagined, moving out from the smallest box and intersecting through each of the larger boxes until it finishes on the corner of the largest box. This image demonstrates the route of the spiral.

Golden Mean
The Golden Spiral in Action. Photo by John Lemieux

By placing subjects along the route of the spiral and where the spiral intersects one of the Golden Rectangles we can create a visually pleasing image that allows our eye to follow a natural route through the image. This is quite tricky to visualise through the viewfinder but if you try to find a primary subject, then imaging a spiral emanating from it. By placing compositional elements on that imaginary spiral, you will start to understand the power of the Golden Spiral.

It might seem odd at first that a twelfth century mathematician should be so important to photographic composition, but remember, most photographic composition has been around for centuries, practiced by artists long before the discovery of silver halide. We have just adapted their techniques to a more contemporary medium.

So the next time your are visualising a great shot in front of you, take your mind back 800 or so years and remember, Fibonacci Rules, OK?

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here

There is a nice feature in Lightroom where various compositional aids overlay the image, including the above golden ratios.

My inclination is not to be rule based. It seems that among visual artists only photographers are over the moon with this “Golden Rule” and the “Rule of Thirds” as a compositional technique. When these rules are paraphrased they reduce to “a visual composition is better if the object of interest is not dead center”. There are a great many other compositions that do not rely on “thirds” or ratios of space, which rely rather on shapes (form), line, tone, contrast, colour, etc. The possibilities and combinations are limitless. For beginning photographers the Thirds Rule is a good approach to thinking about visual two dimensional composition but it is by no means the last word or the only word on the subject.

I’m not a rule based person in any way, though the Fibonacci’s geometric guides are an excellent tool that works for many different subjects.
But, photography is an art and no level of science can be absolute.
I consider the Rules of Thirds, golden rectangle, golden mean and spiral somewhere in depths of my mind and adopt, adapt or discard as needed.
I’ve even shot with golden spiral perfectly implemented only to remove it in post process for an especially wonderful shot.
Science and art in balance = photography
Lesson 1 is science. As much as you care or dare to grasp.
Lesson 2 is art. Play, practice, learn…
Lesson 3 – hone skills and learn the balance…
Enjoy!

No one likes to be or thought to be rule based … often enough their product is awful and it is only the promotion of such gives it any value in an emperors new clothes kind of way… to get round that someone devised the phrase that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and other such trite nonsense. Nature however, dictates otherwise. One only has to look at the offerings submitted to the Tate Prize … with its bricks and unmade beds etc … for the London Olympics we were treated to the inane scratches that adorned the Tube. Heaven knows at what cost. A cost that Londoners are still meeting I understand.
I await the brickbats with interest.

I’ve come upon this article six years after it was published, but I’ve given the Golden Rectangle and Fibonacci Spiral a try while shooting portraits (well, to be honest, while cropping in post), and found the results are striking! I’ve created an album on my Flickr, if you’d like to view them. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

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