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Golden Ratio vs Rule of Thirds – Which Is Better?

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Related course: Simply Stunning Landscapes

When it comes to compositional rules, it is very much a battle between golden ratio vs rule of thirds. Both are very handy when trying to guide how the viewer’s eyes go around an image.
In this article we’ll give you all the info you need to know when to use one over the other.
A photographer sitting on rocks in low light, with both the golden ratio and rule of thirds grid overlayed

What Is the Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is a compositional tool, also known as the Fibonacci spiral.  It is what you get when you do some complex maths on a rectangle: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.61803398875. In a short form ratio, it is 1:1.618.
The golden ratio is part of every natural object (flora and fauna). It comes across as being a very magical number. This is a balanced composition for those who view your images.
We prefer images that are somehow harmonized, and the golden ratio is one way to balance your image. It keeps your viewer’s travelling around your image evenly.
An aerial photo of a boat at sea - golden ratio vs rule of thirds
An aerial photo of a boat at sea with the golden ratio grid overlayed - golden ratio vs rule of thirds
The great thing about the golden ratio is that you can use it in 8 different ways. Four with a portrait orientation and four 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. The great thing about this is that our cameras and, more often than not, image editing software, can help us out.
If you place two imaginary horizontal lines along your scene, one at 1/3 and the second at 2/3, you’re halfway. Next, place two lines vertically, again at 1/3 and 2/3.
You get something like this.
The rule of thirds grid - photography composition
There are two ways we use the rule of thirds in our photography. We can think of these as object/subject and landscape.
To use the rule of thirds for an object/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. As opposed to placing the object in the middle.
A portrait of a female model walking in a countryside area, using the compositional rule of thirds
A portrait of a female model walking in a countryside area, with the rule of thirds grid overlayed
For Landscapes, don’t place the horizon at the 50% mark, instead opt for the 1/3 and 2/3 marks, respectively.
For example, if you are photographing a water scene, get 1/3rd water and 2/3rds sky. Or vice versa, as this will depend on where the interest lies.
A landscape scene focusing on soft misty flowing river - golden spiral vs rule of thirds
A landscape scene focusing on soft misty flowing river with the rule of thirds grid overlayed
You can, of course, use these two together, making it much more interesting and well thought out.
A minimal photography composition of a person holding a pineapple against a blue sea and sky - golden ratio vs rule of thirds
A minimal photography composition of a person holding a pineapple against a blue sea and sky with the rule of thirds grid overlayed

Which Is Better?

When it comes to Golden Ratio vs Rule of Thirds, these compositions really depend on what you are photographing. As a general rule, the rule of thirds is best used for the most minimal scenarios.
These would include simple portraits or images of one object. This wouldn’t work for product photography, for example. Here, the object is the main focus, and creativity takes a backseat to presentable information.
If there is only one subject or object in your scene, you can heighten the interest by placing it using the rule of thirds concept. If there is more happening in your scene, the viewer’s eyes are going to move around much more.
A black and white street portrait of a young man with the rule of thirds grid overlayed - rule of thirds examples
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. This rule of composition is better used to tell a story. There is more information than just one focal point.
A person on a swing haning from a wooden tree house, with the golden ratio grid overlayed
Deciding which composition is better is difficult. When we enter the world of photography, we all have the rule of thirds rammed down our throats. It is by far the most talked about and common compositional rule, but also the most hated.
It is true – we find images more pleasing when focal points sit on these intersections. But it really depends on the scene. If we have a scenario where nothing much isn’t happening, we would use the rule of thirds. It helps make it into something better.
This is something we can do as we photograph. Our cameras show us this grid in both the viewfinder and live view via the LCD screen. The rule of thirds doesn’t take up too much mental activity to follow.
The golden ratio is more complex. I can guarantee, no photographer is sitting there, camera to the face, looking for the golden ratio. It would take too long, especially if you are capturing street, portrait or sport photography.
The golden ratio is a great tool to crop images. It serves as a great tool when editing your images. The rule of thirds is also great for this. Most of us use it without thinking.
Looking for more great photography tips? Check out our posts on taking zoom burst photos or camera angles next!

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