Are you struggling to understand how the golden ratio works in photography? Do you want to use the golden ratio to produce beautifully composed images?
Then you’ve come to the right place.
Because this article will give you everything you need to know about the golden ratio.
First, I’ll explain what the golden ratio is.
Then I’ll give you practical guidelines for using the golden ratio in your photography–so that your compositions come out looking amazing.
Let’s dive right in.
What Is the Golden Ratio?
The golden ratio is a number that appears all over the place, in both art and nature.
Technically speaking, the golden ratio is the number 1.618.
And you often get this number by taking the ratio of two quantities in nature–by dividing one quantity by the other.
For instance, if you look at flower petals, they’re often positioned 0.618 around the flower head.
And if you look at animal bodies, joints and limbs will often exist in an approximate golden ratio to one another.
The golden ratio can also be expressed in a more complex way:
As a spiral.
Basically, the spiral starts with small rectangles in the center, and then increases the size until you get something that looks like this:
And if you measure carefully, then you’ll find that the rectangle sizes approximately fit the golden ratio in relation to one another.
You can find golden ratio spirals in nature, too.
Just look at the shell of a nautilus:
But why does the golden ratio matter to photography?
The Golden Ratio in Photography: A Compositional Tool
The golden ratio is important in photography for one basic reason:
It creates balanced, harmonious compositions.
Because the golden ratio isn’t just something that’s found in nature. It’s also something that’s perceived as very attractive–and photographers can take advantage of this!
There are two basic methods of using the golden ratio in photography:
And the grid.
I’m going to talk about each method in turn, starting with…
The Golden Ratio Spiral
In the preceding section, I talked about how you can find golden ratio spirals in nature.
(From now on, I’ll refer to these as golden spirals.)
These spirals are formed by rectangles that are 1.618 times the size of the preceding rectangle (roughly speaking).
But if you take this spiral and imagine it while taking photos…
…you can end up with some very cool compositions.
First, you should try to superimpose a mental image of the golden spiral on the scene you’re photographing.
Note that you can imagine the spiral in any orientation.
Then, you should look around the scene–and try to find a composition where the most interesting part of the scene sits at the center of the spiral.
The rest of the elements should spiral outward, so that they balance out the main point of interest, while also drawing the eye from the edges to the spiral center.
That said, you don’t need the whole scene to conform perfectly to the spiral. It’s okay if you have some elements that are slightly out of line.
Just try to keep the main elements aligned with the golden spiral, and you’ll be good to go.
Also note that it’s often possible to crop your images into the golden spiral, even if you haven’t managed to nail the spiral while in the field.
In fact, Lightroom offers a golden spiral overlay option–so you can see how your compositions line up with the spiral, and identify any areas you can improve.
All you have to do is tap on the Crop tool:
Then hit “O” to cycle through various overlay options.
Eventually, you’ll come upon the golden spiral:
Even cooler, you can hit Shift+O, and Lightroom will change the orientation of the spiral. So you can have a spiral starting at the top left:
Or the bottom right:
Or wherever else you please!
Now let’s take a look at the other way you can use the golden ratio in photography:
The Golden Ratio Grid
You may be familiar with the rule of thirds.
It states that the best compositions have their main elements positioned a third of the way into the frame.
And it comes with some handy gridlines.
Note that each gridline is exactly one-third of the way into the photo. Because the rule of thirds literally just divides the scene up into thirds, then recommends that you place elements at the points of division.
But the golden ratio grid is slightly different.
Instead of dividing a scene into thirds, it divides the scene so it fits the golden ratio, like this:
In fact, the divisions have a ratio of 1:0.618:1.
Look at the golden ratio grid (also known as the phi grid) and the rule of thirds grid side by side, and you’ll notice that they’re quite similar.
Except that the golden ratio grid is compressed so that the intersections appear closer to the center of the photo.
This will give your photos a different look compared to the rule of thirds. In fact, some photographers argue that the rule of thirds is just a way to simplify the golden ratio, and that the golden ratio grid actually looks a lot better than the rule of thirds.
So I recommend you test it out and see what you think.
Try placing your main compositional elements along the golden ratio grid.
(To imagine the golden ratio grid, just divide the scene into thirds and then compress the lines a bit.)
As with the golden spiral, you can sometimes crop to achieve the golden ratio grid after the fact.
Lightroom even includes the golden ratio grid as one of its crop overlays, which is perfect for creating a careful golden ratio crop.
And with Lightroom’s grids on hand, you can do a golden ratio crop and a rule of thirds crop side by side–and see which you prefer.
Also, one thing to note is that you can always start with the golden ratio grid, then crop to a rule of thirds grid by taking off the edges of the frame.
But it’s harder to start with the rule of thirds and crop to a golden ratio grid.
So just bear this in mind when you’re out shooting, especially if you want to test out different possible crops.
The Golden Ratio Versus the Rule of Thirds
As I discussed above, the golden ratio has two forms:
The golden ratio grid.
And the golden ratio spiral.
Now, the golden ratio spiral is obviously very different from the rule of thirds grid.
But the golden ratio grid is similar to the rule of thirds, which leads to a key question:
Should you be using the golden ratio grid?
Or the rule of thirds grid?
Personally, I use the rule of thirds, for one key reason:
It’s easier to envision.
When I’m out in the field, I can instantly call up a rule of thirds grid in my mind, while the golden ratio is more difficult to imagine.
Now, as I mentioned above, some photographers do argue that the golden ratio is the more “correct” compositional guideline, while the rule of thirds is just a simplified version of that.
But I don’t agree.
And here’s why:
If you use the golden ratio to compose your images, you’ll often end up with shots that look good. But they can sometimes be tight toward the middle, because the golden ratio intersection points are clustered around the center of the frame.
Whereas the rule of thirds gridlines result in images that have a bit more breathing space.
In other words:
There are times when the rule of thirds makes for a more pleasing composition than the golden ratio, which means that you definitely don’t want to discard the rule of thirds in favor of the golden ratio. Both have their place, and both are tools you can use to guide your compositions.
The Golden Ratio Versus the Golden Triangle
The golden triangle is a less-common compositional guideline, but still one that photographers (and other visual artists) need to be familiar with.
It uses an overlay like this:
Which creates four separate triangles.
Now, the golden triangle works by guiding you in the placement of key compositional elements. You can position lines along the triangle edges (i.e., the diagonals). And you can position your main subject at the intersection points on the grid, or within the triangles themselves.
So should you use the golden triangle in your work?
Or should you use the golden ratio grid?
It really all depends on the scene.
Sometimes, you’ll be confronted by triangular items, and the golden triangle will just make sense.
Other times, you’ll want to stick with the golden ratio grid, because it nicely overlays your compositional elements.
And there will also be times when you can use both the golden triangle and the golden ratio grid. For instance, the golden triangle grid can help you position different leading lines, while the golden ratio can help you position your horizon line.
When Should You Use the Golden Ratio in Your Photography?
You can use the golden ratio in pretty much any genre of photography–especially because it offers two useful compositional overlays (i.e., the grid and the spiral).
For instance, if you’re a landscape photographer, you can use the golden spiral to position your main subject, with clouds spiraling outward.
Or you can use the golden ratio grid to position your horizon line, as well as any vertical items (such as trees).
If you’re a portrait photographer, you can position the subject’s eyes along a golden ratio gridline. Or you can position the subject at the center of the spiral, while other compositional elements (e.g., an archway) follow the golden spiral.
If you’re a street photographer, you’ll often be able to position your subject within the golden spiral, while using other curved elements to move throughout the rest of the frame. And you’ll often have the opportunity to position buildings and horizon lines along golden ratio gridlines (for impactful results!).
The Golden Ratio in Photography: Conclusion
The golden ratio is a great way to enhance your images–especially if you’re interested in really taking your compositions to the next level.
So I recommend you spend a bit of time looking at the golden ratio grid and the golden spiral. Commit them to memory.
And then, when you’re out shooting, make sure you use them!
The golden ratio is, technically speaking, just a number: 1.618. This is the ratio of two quantities that appears over and over again in nature.
However, in photography, you can use the golden ratio to create compelling compositions. The number, 1.618, can generate gridlines, as well as a popular compositional tool, the golden spiral. And by positioning different key elements of your compositions along the golden ratio gridlines or the golden spiral, you can end up with stunning images.
That’s up for debate! Some photographers prefer the golden ratio over the rule of thirds, claiming that the rule of thirds is essentially the golden ratio simplified. But I’m a fan of the rule of thirds, because it’s a) easier to remember in the field, and b) able to produce more spacious compositions, whereas the golden ratio tends to cluster key elements more tightly toward the middle of the frame. It’s really a matter of personal taste, though, so I recommend you keep both options in mind and use whichever one suits the scene you’re photographing.
The golden spiral is a way to visualize the golden ratio. It’s a spiral that has golden ratio dimensions. By positioning important compositional elements along the golden spiral, you’ll end up with images that are beautiful and flowing–they’ll take the viewer on a journey out and around the image.
The golden ratio grid, like the golden spiral, is a way of visualizing the golden ratio. It is simply a set of gridlines that are positioned using the golden ratio.
The golden ratio grid is like the rule of thirds grid, but slightly more concentrated toward the center of the image.
By positioning key compositional elements along the golden ratio grid, you can create pleasing compositions!
The golden ratio is used to create balanced, dynamic compositions. When you’re working with the golden ratio, you have two options: You can use the golden ratio grid, or you can use the golden spiral. Either one of these will guide you as you position key compositional elements in your photos, but they’ll give different results. The golden ratio gridlines will produce balanced images, but often with slightly less visual flow, whereas the golden spiral can produce tremendous visual flow that really captures the viewer.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.