Photographic Composition: Understanding the Golden Mean

Improving your photographic composition skills can be a long and arduous task, yet there is one technique, developed thousands of years ago that can be put into effect in a matter of minutes, that can give you a dramatic improvement in the artistic value of your work almost instantly.

 

What is the Golden Mean?

 

The ancient Greeks were clever people who were extremely adept at seeing the relationships between different things.

The golden ratio (phi) represented as a line d...

For instance, they are the ones who discovered the relationship between different sides of a triangle and thus developed the Pythagorean Theorem. They also found the relationship between a circle’s radius and its circumference (π.) In the arts they noticed a similar relationship between great works of art and a particular mathematical formula: (a+b::a≈a::b) This formula actually derives at number, or more accurately, an approximation: 1.61803… or phi (φ)

 

Over the thousands of years since the Greeks developed this theory, there has been a great deal of evidence to support it. What does this mean to you as a photographer? It means that there are certain areas within the frame where your subject is likely to draw the most attention. Photographers commonly call this the “Rule of Thirds” but it has its roots in ancient Greek mathematics.

 

 How do I use the Golden Ratio?

 

Take a blank piece of paper and imagine it is one of your photographs. Draw two vertical lines dividing the page into three equal parts. The draw two more lines horizontally dividing the page into that direction. When you take pictures, the objects that fall along these lines tend to be the most interesting. Objects that are placed along the intersection of two lines tend to be even more interesting. Therefore, if you want to draw attention to an object in your frame, you would be wise to try to place interesting features in your images along these lines and intersections.

 

Rule of 3*3 composition : Art photography

Rule of 3*3 composition : Art photography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can confirm this for yourself but looking at some of your favorite images. Do you see how the best images nearly always take advantage of this strategy? Research has shown that a vast majority of the world’s great works of art employ this tool. However, that doesn’t mean you should become a slave to this system and never place important items elsewhere. There are times to avoid these lines, but that will take time and experience to master.

 

Why does the golden ratio work so well for photographers?

 

One of the important things about using the golden ratio, or rule of thirds, is that it forces you to move things out of the center of the frame. Every beginner places things in the middle of the frame, it is our natural tendency. Also, in most cases, an item in the middle creates no dynamic tension or visual movement. Moving, say a person, to one of the thirds means you have to find ways to relate them to other things in their surroundings, thereby creating interest.

 

Animated image demonstrating the rule of thirds

Animated image demonstrating the rule of thirds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, before you buy another piece of expensive equipment, try mastering this simple and very effective technique. You will be surprised at how simple it is to do and how effective it is in improving your images. It won’t get you into the Louvre, but it will get you on your way to some stunning images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Lee Reed

Those of you who know me and my wife Karen, will know that she was recently granted a Fulbright Scholarship to teach nursing in Kampot, Cambodia later this year. We are looking forward to serving the Lord there in whatever capacity He has in store for us. View all posts by Lee Reed

3 responses to “Photographic Composition: Understanding the Golden Mean

  • Gary Meisner

    Good article. The “rule of thirds” and the “golden ratio” are certainly close, but aren’t the same. Here’s an interesting quote from photographer Tom Ang: “Phi is demonstrable in music as well as other behaviours such as market behaviour. This is a far cry from the the simplistic Rule of Thirds. I always say that if you want your pictures to look the same as everyone else’s, follow the same rules as they do. ”

    Tom uses PhiMatrix (www.phimatrix.com), which makes it as simple to apply the golden ratio as the rule of thirds, and with much more variation, as illustrated by this video on the golden ratio in award-winning photos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oL0wpOXX5-k.

    In addition to using the golden ratio for composition and cropping (http://www.phimatrix.com/cropping.htm), the PhiMatrix site shows how it can also be used framing and matting.

    • Lee Reed

      Thank you for your clarification. I understand that Phi and the rule of thirds are not identical but close enough for most. In my opinion, either is a good place to start. I also believe that there are other factors and, indeed, even better rules of thumb for artists and photographers to use. But those will need to be a subject for subsequent posts.

  • Use Rule of Third to Improve Photo Quality | Photography Tips

    […] Photographic Composition: Understanding the Golden Mean (lucentdesign.wordpress.com) […]

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