How to Use Golden Ratio in Photography

VD November 11 2021

The central positioning of the main subject often seems too static and boring.  The "golden ratio" offers an opportunity to make the image structure interesting and harmonious. For many photographers, this design grid is one of the essential rules of image design.

An old photographer's rule says: The main subject should not be in the center of the picture. Regardless of whether you are photographing architecture or people: arrange the main motif a little laterally or vertically, then the photo will look particularly harmonious and radiate more beauty. 

The golden ratio – a design concept from classical antiquity – is known as the harmonic division of a line. It can be used to create aesthetically appealing images and supports the image composition. In photography, the golden ratio is not applied as strictly as in other areas such as architecture or product design, but it still offers interesting possibilities for implementation. Therefore, we have photographed several models with this rule in mind and presented them to you here before any retouching or computer interference. The models show you what can be done with the golden ratio in photography.

You must know that the golden ratio is not a fixed rule, but rather a helpful tool to enhance your creativity. Use it alone or in combination with other rules of design such as the rule of thirds. It is up to you how exactly to implement it and how far you want to go while practicing your individual style. We will give some tips on this below.

Several rules help with precise image design: golden ratio, rule of thirds, and Fibonacci spiral (golden spiral).

Rule of thirds or golden ratio?

Rule of thirds such as the golden ratio reliably ensures that the main subject does not appear in the center and that a horizon does not lie in the vertical center of the image. The rule of thirds and the golden ratio apply equally to portrait and landscape formats and to any aspect ratio. However, the golden ratio has one big advantage over the rule of thirds: it is mathematically derived and can be used in all kinds of situations.

The Fibonacci spiral (or golden spiral) always works reliably for images with a central motif – whether portrait or landscape format. The Fibonacci Spiral consists of a series of squares that converge at an imaginary point to form a spiral. It starts from a square and then leaves a rectangle next to it, which harmonizes well with its surrounding elements. This spiral forms an important element of many plant structures and is thus also used by photographers as well as graphic or product designers who want to give their work organic elegance.

Dual combination: Rule of thirds x Golden ratio

In this case, the golden ratio is applied in addition to the rule of thirds. It enhances the composition by creating additional triangles that lead into the image content or frame it. Once again, you can use this effect in portrait and landscape formats alike.

Golden ratio formula

For the golden ratio, you first need a vertical line. It divides the photo into two unequal sections that take up about 61.8 and 38.2 percent of the image length. Then create a horizontal line that divides the image vertically, also at a ratio of 61.8 to 38.2.

It does not matter whether the orientation line is more to the left or more to the right, more at the top, or more at the bottom. The main thing is that the main motif is based on one of these lines, preferably exactly at the intersection of both lines. 

The golden ratio is either represented with the Greek letter phi (φ), or alternatively as a Latin fraction with the value of 0.618 for both line divisions.

Using golden ratio in photography 

The golden ratio is relatively easy to use for photography. For this, you should memorize the position of the lines - use the rule of thirds as a starting point - the lines are placed in such a way that the sections are divided into thirds and nine rectangles of the same size are created.

For the golden ratio, move these lines a little more into the center of the image. The main motif should be placed at the intersection points or along the imaginary lines. The image composition of the following shot appears very harmonious because of its reduction and the strict application of the "golden ratio".

The mathematical derivation of the golden section as an aesthetic principle has been known since ancient Greece and has since been taken up in art and architecture.

Golden ratio use in cameras

Some cameras offer the option of showing the lines for the golden ratio or the rule of thirds in the viewfinder or display. This makes getting started a lot easier, but you should also deactivate this display so that you don't get too "stuck" on this screen structure. 

Consciously solving design grids and following your own intuition is just as important for successful photos as orientation on design grids. As soon as you let go of the orientation system and use it creatively, free from its traditional rules, you can produce unique masterpieces.

The golden ratio is one design grid that has been known for a long time and which photographers can consciously apply without having to learn any formulas or read books about mathematics: through their love of forms and proportions they will immediately sense how harmonious this method of composition is – without knowing why. It's also worth mentioning here that these rules never do justice to real life. They only give you a framework that may help you create great photos. These simple rules support your individual way of working with pictures very well, just as grids in graphic programs support designers who use them as guidelines for the composition of elements.

We can use the golden ratio to increase the harmonic effect of pictures by placing the main motif on one of its imaginary construction lines or at its intersection points. This creates triangular compositions (rule of thirds) with added tension, which makes it easier for viewers to perceive what they see as more important than what they don't immediately notice. The essential difference between these two methods: while grid lines represent harmonious values ​​that can be easily counted and divided into equal parts, composition rules are more abstract and difficult to quantify, but still very effective.

A good example of how these rules can be applied is the picture above. The main motif (the flower) serves as a counterpoint to the geometric pattern in the background. A further division of thirds leads us to other tensions: one line leads diagonally from the lower left-hand corner to the upper right-hand corner of the image, another section starts almost at the top center and moves downward, while a third vertical line splits the image vertically into two unequal halves – with most of it being below this line. You don't have to consciously use grids or composition rules – just keep them in mind as a reference for getting started with your own ideas and quickly creating strong images.

What you should never do is use guidelines as ends in themselves. The individual shape of each work of art makes it clear that the ability to be creative and spontaneous plays a greater role than the rigid application of design principles. The idea behind these rules and grids is not to take all freedom away from the photographer, but rather to free him by providing important orientation points. There are no strict rules or guides for applying them; instead, we can give ourselves guidelines like "use contrasting tension at the center" or "place your motif on one of the intersections." Creating such simple boundary conditions (which can also be found in graphic software programs) is much better than leaving everything open because then we won't know where to start and what results in we might get.

In order to build tension in the picture, golden ratio design rules can also be deliberately broken. Nevertheless, it is helpful, especially for beginners, to comply with these rules.