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Golden Spiral in Photography vs Rule of Thirds (Composition)

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The golden ratio composition is a mathematical rule that can be used to create aesthetically pleasing images. Rule of thirds is a simpler guideline that can also produce good results. In this article, we will compare and contrast these two methods.

A DSLR camera taking a landscape image
© Karol D (Pexels.com)

What is the Golden Spiral in Photography?

The golden spiral is a compositional tool. It is also known as the Fibonacci spiral or golden ratio. The golden spiral is part of every natural object. It can be written as a mathematical equation of A ÷ B = (A + B) ÷ A = 1.61803398875. In a short form ratio, it is 1:1.618.

Like many other compositional methods, classic painters were the first to utilize this technique. We prefer images with a sense of harmony, and the golden ratio is one way to balance your image. It keeps leading the viewer’s eyes around your image in a balanced way.

An aerial photo of a boat at sea with the golden ratio grid overlayed

The great thing about the golden spiral is that you can use it in eight different ways. You can apply it in four ways in portrait orientation.

the golden ratio grid used in different way in a portrait orientation

And you can apply it in four ways in landscape orientation.

the golden ratio grid used in different way in a landscape orientation

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is another compositional rule. Our cameras and often our image editing software can help us to use the rule of thirds.

Imagine dividing your scene into thirds. First, divide it horizontally, then vertically.

Then place two imaginary horizontal lines on your scene. One is at one-third and the second at two-thirds. Next, place two lines vertically, again at one-third and two-thirds. You get a grid that divides your scene into nine rectangular areas.

A red grid showing the rule of thirds grid (two horizontal lines and two vertical lines)

Place the object at one of the intersecting points to use the rule of thirds for an object or subject. This could be top left or right, or bottom left or right.

By placing the objects here, we find the image more aesthetically pleasing. It is a better visual effect than placing the object in the middle.

For landscapes, don’t place the horizon at the halfway mark. Instead, reach for the one-third and two-thirds distribution, respectively. The rule of thirds is about breaking the flat and conventional angles.

For example, if you photograph a water scene, compose one-third water and two-thirds sky or vice versa. This depends on where the interest lies.

Of course, you can use these two rules together. This makes the photo composition much more interesting and well thought out.

Which Composition Rule is Better?

When it comes to the golden ratio vs the rule of thirds, the decision depends on what you photograph.

Use the Rule of Thirds to Add Interest to a Minimal Scene

As a general rule, the rule of thirds is best used for the most minimal scenes. These scenarios don’t have much distraction in terms of depth and alignment. You won’t find many different subjects in the middle ground or background.

What if your focal point clearly emphasizes one specific subject? Then it’s worth placing it at an intersecting point of a nine grid. These would include simple portraits or images of one object.

But it wouldn’t work for product photography. Here, the object is the main focus, and creativity is less important. The viewer’s eyes will move around if more is happening in your scene.

Majestic photo of a Golden retriever dog standing on the edge of a cliff with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed

Use the Golden Ratio to Emphasize Movement

Using the golden ratio concept, you move the viewer’s eyes along the line. Then their eyes rest on the end of the spiral. This is best used for travel images where many things happen in the scene. They could be people, buildings, and other subjects or objects.

The golden ratio is also often used to add or emphasize movement in a picture. You can use it to evoke a dynamic feeling in your image.

A photo of a girl on a swing overlayed with golden ratio composition grid

Choose the Best Compositional Rule for the Scene

When we enter the world of photography, we all learn the rule of thirds. It is by far the most common compositional rule. We find images more pleasing when focal points sit on the intersections determined by the rule of thirds.

But which compositional rule we use always depends on the scene. What if we have a scenario where not much is happening? Then we can use the rule of thirds. It helps make the picture look more exciting.

The golden ratio is more complex. We can use it in scenes that show movement. As a general rule, always look for a motion that mimics a certain radial bend throughout the frame to guide the eye.

An ocean wave overlayed with golden ratio composition grid

Conclusion

When it comes to these two common compositional rules, the final decision depends very much on the scene you are capturing. The rule of thirds might be easier to use at the beginning. The golden ratio adds dynamism and emphasizes movement.

Remember, compositional rules are only guidelines. As you train your creative eye, you start to compose photos in your own way. They might not even fit any rule. Often, these are the most unique and exciting photographs.

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