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How to Use the Golden Ratio in Photography Composition

Last updated: April 15, 2024 - 8 min read
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The golden ratio in photography is everywhere, from a nautilus shell to the waves of the ocean. Even parts of the human body and our DNA are built based on it.

By using the golden ratio, you can create a photo that is more pleasing to the eye in a natural way.

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What Is the Golden Ratio in Photography?

The golden ratio is a composition guide. Some people call it the Fibonacci spiral, golden spiral, phi grid, divine proportion, or the golden mean.

It helps lead the viewer through the entire photo. And your viewers will find the composition more pleasing and balanced.
A black and white image using the golden ratio
The golden ratio existed well before the modern camera. When the Egyptians built the pyramids, they used the golden ratio. Famous art pieces such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper also use the golden ratio.

But it does not stem from painting techniques. The golden ratio comes from mathematics. The Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci came up with the idea when he arranged a series of numbers. Following this sequence of numbers can create an aesthetically pleasing composition.

Don’t let mathematics scare you off, though! You don’t need to apply any numerical calculations to use this technique. The golden ratio is 1.618:1, and it is based on the spirals seen in nature.
A wave at sea
Even if you dislike math, this concept can change your composition from good to excellent. 
There are several ways to use the golden ratio. The Phi Grid and the Fibonacci Spiral are commonly used in photography.

What Is the Phi Grid?

The phi grid is another way of considering proportion in photography. It looks like the rule of thirds, but you are not dividing the frame into equal thirds. The grid consists of a 1:0.618:1 ratio instead of the usual 1:1:1. The center lines are closer together than when you use the rule of thirds.
Illustration of the Phi Grid
Using this method means that your subject is located a bit more centrally. 
This can make your composition more unique and draw the viewer’s attention to your subject.

What Is the Fibonacci Spiral?

The Fibonacci or golden spiral is built from a series of squares that are based on the Fibonacci numbers. The length of every square is a Fibonacci number.

Imagine placing the squares within a frame. If you draw arcs from opposite corners of each square, you will end up with a curve resembling the shape of a spiral. This is a pattern that appears everywhere in nature and resembles the shell of a nautilus.

The curve flows through the frame and leads your eye around the picture. It looks something like this:
The Fibonacci or golden spiral drawn on a chalk board
So how do you use the golden ratio in photography? 
You should place the area with the most detail in the smallest box of the coil. This does not have to be in one of the corners. It can be anywhere in the frame. Some say that the face of the Mona Lisa is also placed within that crucial area.

Try to position the rest of the subject within the curve too. This will lead the eye of the viewer through the image in a natural way.

Even if you use different composition guidelines, the subject’s position is very similar. The golden ratio encourages photographers to consider not where just the subject is. Your composition depends on where you place everything else in the picture, as well.
Two little boys running on a beach in low light
Experiment with different composition methods and see which technique works for you. There is no right answer when it comes to creative composition. It all depends on your subject and its surroundings.

How to Apply the Golden Ratio to Your Photos

Both golden ratio techniques can greatly improve your composition. But how do you know which method to use?

Step 1. Check the Scene

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. Before taking the shot, take a minute and decide which composition is best for this scene.

To do that, ask yourself questions about the potential image in front of you.

What is the main subject of the photo? That’s where you’ll want to lead the viewer’s 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 with the grid, while natural curves are perfect for a golden ratio spiral composition.

Step 2. Determine Which Composition Method You Want to Use

Now you can 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 grid.

If your scene has more natural curves, the golden spiral is a better fit. Anything can work in your favor, from the shape of a tree to the curve of a cheekbone.

The golden ratio is a more advanced version of the rule of thirds. But if the scene works best with that composition technique, use it!

Overhead shot of an ornate spiral staircase

Step 3. Imagine the Overlay and Shoot

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

Check which built-in grid overlays your camera has. You can find the options if you go to the settings. Most cameras will at least have the rule of thirds grid. Even if that isn’t the composition guide you are using, it’s helpful to enable the feature.

If you don’t have an electronic viewfinder, you have to imagine the grid as you shoot and check the Live View.

Next, choose which corner of the image to use. You’ll want to place the subject at the intersection of the lines with the grid or in the smallest part of the spiral.

Use the rule of thirds grid to estimate where the subject should be with the golden ratio. If you chose the phi grid, place the subject closer to the center of the image than you would when you use the rule of thirds.

If you’re working with the golden spiral, place the subject closer to the edges of the frame than the rule of thirds intersection. Of course, you can still place the subject at the intersection if you use the golden ratio.
Stone columns
Adjust your composition for any leading lines or curves in the scene. Position the elements on the remaining grid lines or along the spiral.

Remember, the composition is more than just cropping with the viewfinder. You can exaggerate lines and angles by adjusting your position. Climb, kneel, or lie down on the ground to get a new and exciting viewpoint. You can also move closer, farther, or to the side to adjust the lines.

The goal is to place the scene’s other elements on the line that spirals out from the subject. If you use the grid, try to place the elements on one of the unused lines in the phi grid.

Now that you’ve looked at your composition options, it’s time to shoot. Take a few variations if you’re unsure. Change the composition a bit between the shots and see which fits the best golden ratio rules.
A staircase shot from below

Step 4. Edit Your Image to Get the Perfect Golden Ratio

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

Photoshop Golden Ratio Overlays

Open the image in Photoshop and select the Crop tool. Draw a crop box over the image.

Next, click on 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 correct corner, you can select the cycle orientation option. Go to the same drop-down menu you selected the composition tool from, or press Shift + O.
A green curved leaf

Conclusion—How to Use the Golden Ratio

The golden ratio composition technique will give a boost to your photos. Whether you use the grid or the spiral, it replicates patterns and ratios already found in nature. And who can argue with a technique that’s literally in our DNA?

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