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Golden Ratio vs Rule of Thirds – Which Is Better?

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When it comes to compositional rules, we often hear about the golden ratio and the rule of thirds. Both are effective in guiding the viewer’s eyes around an image.

We’ll give you all the information you need to decide when to use one over the other.

A DSLR camera taking a landscape image
Photo by Karol D from Pexels

What Is the Golden Ratio?

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

Similarly to many other compositional methods, classic painters were the first to utilise this technique.

We prefer images that have 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 ratio is that you can use it in eight different ways. You can apply it in four ways with a portrait orientation and four ways with a landscape orientation.

the golden ratio grid used in different way in a portrait 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, horizontally, then vertically.

Place two imaginary horizontal lines on your scene, one at 1/3 and the second at 2/3. Next, place two lines vertically, again at 1/3 and 2/3. 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)

To use the rule of thirds for an object or subject, place the object at one of the intersecting points. 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 50% mark, instead reach for the 1/3 and 2/3 distribution, respectively. The rule of thirds is about breaking the flat and conventional angles.

For example, if you are photographing a water scene, get 1/3 water and 2/3 sky. Or vice versa, as this will depend on where the interest lies.

Of course, you can use these two together, making it much more interesting and well thought out.

Which Compositional Rule Is Better?

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

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 middleground or background.

When your focal point clearly emphasises one specific subject, it is worth placing it at an intersecting point of a nine grid. These would include simple portraits or images of one object.

However, it wouldn’t work for product photography. Here, the object is the main focus, and creativity is less important. If there is more happening in your scene, the viewer’s eyes are going to move around.

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 Emphasise Movement

By using the golden ratio concept, the viewer’s eyes will move along the line, resting on the end of the spiral.

This is best used for travel images where there are many things happening in the scene. They could be people, buildings, and other subjects or objects.

The golden ratio is often used to add or emphasise 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.

However, which compositional rule we use always depends on the scene. If we have a scenario where not much is happening, 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 which 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 dynamic and emphasises movement.

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

Looking for more great photography tips? Check out our posts on taking zoom burst photos or camera angles next!

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