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Have you ever said that photography is in your DNA? You’re not far off. There’s a composition rule called the golden ratio. In nature, the golden ratio is found everywhere from a nautilus shell to the waves of the ocean to yes, even DNA.

In photography, the idea is that by using the golden ratio, you are creating an image that is naturally more pleasing to the eye.

The Rule of Thirds is one of the first compositional rules most new photographers learn—and for good reason. The grid is a simple way to instantly bring harmony into your photos.

Stepping up from the Rule of Thirds to the golden ratio is like stepping up from programmed auto to full manual mode. It’ll offer your images a big boost by paying attention to all the details.

What Is the Golden Ratio and How Do I Use It

The golden ratio, sometimes called the Fibonacci spiral, golden spiral, phi grid, or golden mean, is a composition guide. It helps lead the viewer’s eye through the entire photo, leading to more captivating images. Here’s how.

Using the Golden Ratio in photography: Example of the rule of thirds applied

Image credit: Hillary K. Grigonis

The golden ratio existed well before the modern camera was invented. It pops up in famous art pieces like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Michelangelo’s work on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.

But it does not stem from painting techniques. The golden ration comes from math. Don’t let that scare you off though! Using the technique doesn’t require any numerical calculations.

The golden ratio, based on the spirals seen in nature from DNA to waves, is 1.618 to 1. With two pieces, if you make one 1.618 times the size of the other object, the pair of them will be pleasing to the eye.

Painters have a bit more freedom to use the idea with perfect precision, but the same concept can help a photographer create a composition as well. Even those among us who hate math!

The Golden Spiral

If you were to place rectangles at that ratio, increasing in size, across an image, you would end up with a curve resembling the shape of a nautilus shell.

Sometimes called the Fibonacci spiral (after the guy that discovered the pattern), the golden spiral looks something like this:

Using the Golden Ratio in photography: Fibonacci spiral overlaid onto Nautilus shell

Image credit:  The Marmot

The golden spiral, as applied to photography, suggests placing the subject on the smallest box in that spiral. Placing other prominent areas of the image on the remaining curve, wherever possible, will lead the eye of the viewer through the image.

Since the Rule of Thirds intersection is close to the smallest box in the Fibonacci Spiral, the two are similar. But the golden ratio encourages photographers to consider not just where the subject is. Where everything else is matters too.

The Phi Grid

To apply the golden ratio in photography, you can imagine that spiral over the top of your image. Or you can create a grid from the 1.618:1 ratio. This is the phi grid, which is another way of considering proportion in photography. It looks like the Rule of Thirds, but with the center lines closer together, like this:

Using the Golden Ratio in photography: the phi grid

Image credit: Helen Stevens

The golden ratio or phi grid, golden spiral and the Rule of Thirds are all three separate composition techniques. The ‘right’ answer as to which one to use depends on the subject and the look you are going for.

For example, in a portrait, I always try to make the eyes the center of attention.

Cropped using all three methods, I prefer the golden ratio over the golden spiral. It focuses on the eye without cropping off too much of the hairline.

How To Use The Golden Ratio in Photography

Both the golden spiral and the phi grid can drastically improve composition. But how do you get from a spiral or grid pattern to a better photograph?

Now that you know what it is, you can learn how to use the golden ratio in photography.

Step 1: Evaluate the scene

Exactly how you use the golden ratio depends on the scene in front of you. Composition techniques are there to help you think about the scene instead of just pointing and shooting.

Now that you know three different composition techniques, you need to determine which one is the right fit. To do that, start asking yourself questions about the potential image in front of you:

  • What is the subject of the photo? That’s where you’ll want to lead the eye.
  • What other elements can you include in the scene? Look at everything else in the scene and determine if it distracts from the subject or enhances it.
  • Are there any leading lines or natural curves in the image? Leading lines work well for the phi grid, while natural curves are just asking for a golden ratio spiral.

Step 2: Determine whether to use the golden ratio or the golden spiral (or even the Rule of Thirds)

Next, choose between the golden spiral and the phi grid. You can’t contort a straight object to fit inside a spiral, so if your scene has great leading lines, try the phi grid.

If your scene has more natural curves from the shape of a tree to the curve of a cheekbone, the golden spiral is likely a better fit.

The golden ratio is considered a more advanced version of the Rule of Thirds, but it’s still okay to call on the Rule of Thirds again. If the scene works best with that composition technique, use it!

Step 3: Imagine the overlay and shoot

Imagining a complex spiral aligned over your photo can be tricky at first. If you simplify the concept, it’s a bit easier to manage.

First, check and see which grid overlays your camera has built-in by viewing the options in settings. If your camera has a phi grid or spiral option, turn that feature on. Most will have the Rule of Thirds. Even when that isn’t the composition guide you are using, it’s helpful to enable that feature.

If you have an optical viewfinder (as opposed to an electronic one), you’ll have to imagine the grid as you shoot and check with Live View.

Next, choose which corner of the image to use. You’ll want to place the subject on the intersection of the lines with the phi grid, or in the smallest part of the spiral. Using the Rule of Thirds grid overlay on your camera, approximate where the subject should be with the golden ratio technique.

If you opted for the Phi Grid, place the subject closer to the centre of the image compared to that Rule of Thirds intersection. If you’re working with that golden spiral, place the subject slightly farther out than that Rule of Thirds intersection.

Unlike the Rule of Thirds, placing the subject at the intersection isn’t the end.

Adjust your composition aligning any leading lines or curves that you identified in the scene on the remaining grid lines or along the spiral. Remember, composition is more than just cropping with the viewfinder.

Lines and angles can be exaggerated by adjusting your position. You can cling to a higher vantage point, kneel or lay down on the ground, move closer, move farther away or move to one side.

Explore the composition possibilities! Your goal is to place other elements of the scene either on that spiral out from the subject or on one of the unused lines in the phi grid.

Then, you shoot.

If you’re unsure (and you’re not working with a fast subject) take a few variations with slight composition adjustments between each one.

Step 4: Edit

Picturing the phi grid or golden ratio spiral as you shoot is one thing, but what if you want that exact 1.618 magic number? Thankfully Photoshop (and several other photo editors) have tools for that.

Photoshop Golden Ratio Overlays

Using the Golden Ratio in photography: example of photo editor context menu showing golden ratio guide options

With the image open in Photoshop, select the crop tool and draw a crop box over the image.

Next, click the overlay options and select the composition tool you want: the golden ratio (phi grid) or the golden spiral (Fibonacci spiral).

Adjust the crop box to fine-tune your composition. If the golden spiral isn’t in the right corner of the image, you can select the cycle orientation option from the same drop-down menu you selected the composition tool form, or you can press Shift + O.

Golden Ratio Examples

Need some inspiration? Here are some golden ratio examples from a variety of different photography genres.

Using the Golden Ratio in photography: golden ratio applied to black and white photography

Image credit: Studio Incendo

Golden Ratio in an interior stairwell

Image credit: Petras Gagilas

Using the Golden Ratio in photography: golden ratio applied in macro nature photography

Image credit: Dominik Barsch

Whether you use the golden ratio or the golden spiral, this composition technique offers a boost. It replicates patterns and ratios already found in nature. And who can argue with a technique that’s literally in our DNA?

Ratios aren’t the only gold in photography! The Golden Hour is the magical time of day where the lighting is soft, warm, and directional. Learn more here.

Credited images licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photojournalist turned lifestyle photographer. When she's not taking pictures, she's writing photography tips and gear reviews. She lives in the Great Lakes state with her husband and two young children.