There is often talk amoung photographers about the golden ratio. It is said that many famous painters in the past used the golden ratio to make their pieces truly brilliant and to draw the gaze of the viewer in to the painting, creating depth and harmony inside the painting. All this is attributed to the mathematical aesthetics of the golden ratio and many photographers teach us to use the golden ratio in photography in order to create pleasing compositions and framing of the subjects.
Similarly you hear people speak of the ”rule of thirds” as being gospel about how to compose your pictures. The rule of thirds is similar to, but not exactly the same, as the golden ratio and I will attempt to explain what they are here.
The special letter to the left is the greek letter ”phi” used to denote the golden ratio in mathematics. The way this works is more clear if we take a look at this picture here:
If this is the long side of a photograph we can see that a+b is the whole length of the photograph and the fraction of the whole length divided by a is the same as a divided by b. This produces a ratio which is roughly 62%.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds are similar, it means you divide your photo into sections that are 1/3 and 2/3 and try to put the objects of interest in where these lines intersect or just on the lines. The rule of thirds and golden ratio are similar although mathematically not the same thing. They do however give you a similar feeling when looking at a photograph and which one you prefer is up to you. The rule of thirds produce the longer distance to be 67% which is not terribly different from the golden ratio.
Many cameras also have built in guides in the view finder for the rule-of-thirds and some even with the golden ratio. You can say that the golden ratio intersection happens a little closer to the middle than the rule of thirds does.
How can this be applied in photography?
There is a number of ways to do this actually and the trick is to place objects of special interest in the golden ratio section, or where the lines meet. This is done by offsetting the interesting parts in a photograph from the middle and creating horizons which are not centered in the middle of the photograph, effectively turning the shot into two shots, one skyshot and one land or water shot. By moving the horizon off the middle, from the 50% mark to the 60% mark or thereabout we can create a much more pleasing image.
Here are some examples discussed individually on how to do this
The dead center
When doing technical shots the subject is usually placed in the center of the photograph. This is also referred to as the ”dead center” some times because sometimes when objects are placed in the middle of the image it does not give the same life to the picture.
The human eye is also suffers from a construction problem in where our eye sight is actually not very good in the middle of the eye. We see better if we focus the eye slightly to the side, above or under the subject we are looking at. This is apparently more obvious in the dark when you try to make out shapes in the dark looking slightly besides the place you want to look will make it easier to see.
I have no idea if this is part of the explanation for why putthing things in the middle of the frame is aesthetically less pleasing than moving them slightly to the side, top or bottom of the framing.
Break the rules
All these rules have but one purpose, it means you should try to frame your subject in a fashion that you avoid placing objects of interest in the ”dead center” and if you believe in the magic of the golden ratio or the rule of thirds does not matter, but it is however usually a pretty nice move to not center in on your horizons and subjects. Move them around. See what happens.
The same goes if your horizon is exactly ont he 1/3 or not, it does not matter, and as all rules when it comes to photography this is a rule that you can – and should break – whenever you feel like it. There are no such rules of thumb that will create good photos, only you will do that and although rules like these can help remind you to think of your composition there are absolutely times when a smack down the middle horizon is really cool also.