Unlike the technical side of food photography, the creative aspects can be a lot harder to define. Composition can make or break your images, yet not every compositional tool works for every image, every time.
Good photography results from a series of the right decisions around lighting and composition.
In a previous article, I talked about the various compositional tools that can help you improve your food photography, such as line, negative space, and repetition.
In this article I will focus on a real game-changer that can quickly help you take your food photography to the next level. It’s called the Golden Ratio. Artists and architects have intuitively been using this principle for hundreds–if not thousands–of years.
The interesting thing about this principle is that it has no basis in art but in mathematics. It’s a mathematical expression that can describe a wide variety of phenomena, including art, as well as science and nature.
Rule-of-Thirds vs Phi Grid
When you start learning about photography composition, you will undoubtedly come upon what is called the rule-of-thirds.
This is a compositional guideline that divides an image into nine equal sections using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. The important elements in the scene fall along these lines, or at the points where they intersect.
The rule-of-thirds is intended to help the artist place the main elements and focal point within the composition.
Think of an imaginary grid that divides the image into nine equal parts, like a tic-tac-toe grid. The ratio is 1:1 per rectangle.
The rule-of-thirds is a great place to start. It helps add harmony to your images. It aids new photographers in their first steps in composition. In fact, it can work for many images, particularly landscapes.
When it comes to food and still-life photography, however, this rule can be limiting. You can end up making images that are unbalanced and awkward.
The phi-grid is a similar concept that is more powerful than the Rule-of-Thirds. Both grids look almost the same, but the centre lines of the Phi Grid are closer together.
The phi-grid is an expression of the Golden Ratio. Using the golden ratio creates a perfectly balanced and naturally pleasing image.
The phi grid follows the ratio of 1:1.618. The reason it’s so powerful is that this ratio is a constant in nature. We automatically gravitate toward it.
It appears throughout the natural world, from a nautilus shell to the number of petals in a flower. It even appears in the human face and body, as well as DNA molecules!
You can find the golden ratio everywhere in the world around us, though no one can explain exactly why it exists this way.
Nature aside, we can use this knowledge in our photography. Thinking about how our eye moves through an image and incorporating some expression of the golden ratio will help us create images that our brains will recognise as aesthetically attractive and harmonious.
In the images of doughnuts below, the one on the left has been cropped using the rule-of-thirds grid. The image on the right has been cropped using the phi-grid.
It’s not a big difference but the image on the right allows for better movement and flow. In the image where the rule-of-thirds is used, the edges of the donuts are cut off on both sides. This makes the picture feel claustrophobic.
There is certainly nothing wrong with using the rule-of-thirds when appropriate. But having both of these grids as tools in your toolbox gives you more choices in how to approach your photography.
There are several interpretations of the golden ratio. The phi grid is one. The Fibonacci Spiral and Golden Triangle are others.
The Fibonacci Spiral is a sequence that exhibits a certain numerical pattern that makes up the golden ratio. This numerical pattern can be used to draw a series of squares, as pictured below.
If you draw an arc from one corner to the opposite corner in each square, starting from the smallest square, you will draw the Fibonacci spiral. Mind blowing, isn’t it?
So how can the Fibonacci Spiral help you with your food photography? Putting your subjects along a curved line rather than a straight line creates flow and movement, gently guiding your viewer’s eye around the image.
This works particularly well for overhead shots when there are several elements that make up the image.
In the picture of the lentil stew below, the curved placement of the cilantro leads the eye to the bowl on the bottom, then to the top bowl and, finally, to the focal point. This is the piece of carrot resting in the smallest part of the spiral.
You can flip or turn the spiral. The direction of the flow is not important.
What’s important is that your focal point falls in the smallest part of the spiral. You should place other important elements along the curve.
You can use this principle to help you create stronger minimalistic compositions. Or to keep flatlays or tablescapes from looking too cluttered or disjointed.
Another powerful approach for food photography compositions is to use triangles. Triangles retain the attention of the eye within the frame. The eye moves from one point to another in a continuous loop.
To use triangles in your photography, draw an imaginary diagonal line across your frame. Now draw imaginary lines from the other two corners, which each meet the long line at right angles. It should look something like this:
Your points-of-interest are where the lines meet. Use them to place your focal point, and use the lines to divide your frame and draw the eye to the focal point to help create dynamic images.
Why is this such a powerful tool? Because horizontal and vertical lines suggest stability. This works great for some compositions. But for others, adding a sense of flow and movement has more impact.
The golden triangle is a useful tool because like the rule of thirds, it’s easy to visualize, but is more dynamic.
Another way to use this concept is to imply triangles within your composition.
In the image below, I placed the corn cakes and dip in triangles. This gives that sense of movement and pattern.
When you repeat several elements through a frame, grouping them in triangles will lead the eye through the image in a natural way.
Even though the plate is centred in the frame and there is not a lot going on otherwise, the image still carries tension due to the use of triangles.
It also helps that triangles are composed of three objects. Odd numbers provide a sense of harmony and balance.
The great thing about the era of digital photography is that we have crop guides in our post-processing software than can help you fine tune the composition of your images.
You can find crop guides in Lightroom, Photoshop, and Capture One that will help you use these compositional tools to great effect.
You may be able to easily envision your focal point on a phi-grid, but visualising a golden spiral ahead of time can be much more difficult
It can take years for a photographer to learn to intuit compositional rules from shooting. These crop guides and even the grid on the back of our LCD screen can be invaluable in helping us create pleasing compositions.
It can even speed up the process of learning to compose intuitively, which is the ultimate goal.
The more you shoot, the more you will rely on your instincts. After a while, relying on crop guides might feel a bit stifling to your creativity.
If you have been shooting for any length of time, you may have already found that you’re naturally using the golden ratio to some extent in many of your images.
If you are shooting with natural light and tethering your camera to a computer, you can use the Live View function to help estimate where certain elements like your subject and focal point in your image should fall.
Once you’ve taken the image, check how it looks with the crop guide of your choice and make the adjustments accordingly.
However, if you shoot with strobes or other artificial light units, you will not be able to use the Live View function on most digital camera models.
This will necessitate a process of shooting and adjusting to nail your composition. My best tip for this process is to shoot your scene wider than you intend for it to look and crop in post-processing.
Thinking about these compositional tools will help you improve your photos. Becoming a better photographer means shooting a lot of images, but also studying your own work.
Apply the crop guides to some images you have taken and analyse them. Have you placed your subject where the eye will naturally gravitate? Have you used triangles to place your elements in your scene, or placed your focal points on the intersecting lines of the Phi Grid?
The more you study your work and the work of others, the more you will internalize the tools of composition and use them when you shoot.
Ultimately the point of composition is to create more balanced, dynamic, and interesting images. The stronger your composition, the more you can create an emotional experience for the viewer with your food photography.
Now check out our articles on food styling tips or tools and keep improving those food photography shots!