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Are you a stickler for little details? Well, if you’re a photographer, you had better be. Discovering the rule of thirds is a big milestone for any photographer. Suddenly, you realize that all you ever did before was center your subject right smack dab in the middle of the frame, because that’s where the camera’s focus grid is located. Makes sense right? The rule of thirds took you to new heights in your photographic journey, moving your subject off to one side or another in your frame, or to the top or bottom. But don’t some of these photos look a bit crowded being so close to either side of the frame? Sure it works in some cases, but what if there was still another rule you could incorporate into your photographic repertoire?
Also known as the Golden Mean, Phi, or Divine Proportion, this law was made famous by Leonardo Fibonacci around 1200 A.D. He noticed that there was an absolute ratio that appears often throughout nature, a sort of design that is universally efficient in living things and pleasing to the human eye. Hence, the “divine proportion” nickname.
Since the Renaissance, artists and architects have designed their work to approximate this ratio of 1:1.618. It’s found all over the Parthenon, in famous works of art like the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and it’s still used today. The divine proportion has been used by companies like Apple to design products, it’s said to have been used by Twitter to create their new profile page, and has been used by major companies all over the world to design logos. It’s not talked about in most photography circles because it’s a somewhat advanced method of composition and can be confusing to a lot of people. It’s so much easier to just talk about the “rule of thirds” because it’s exact, precise and easy to follow.
This ratio can be used in many ways to compose a photograph. Lightroom 3 even has a golden ratio overlay option when you go to crop on image. This way, you can line up a grid of the golden ratio to coincide with lines or points of interest in your photograph. At this point, you may be quite confused. If you are, please take a few moments to watch any one (or all) of these videos that seek to explain this ratio.
Ok, hopefully that made things a bit more clear? By now you should know that this is NOT a conspiracy theory or fuzzy math. This is a real aspect of composition that has been used by historical famous artists and architects, and Fortune 500 companies. When applied to photography, this ratio can produce aesthetically pleasing compositions that can be magnets for the human sub-conscious. When you take the sweet spot of the Fibonnaci Ratio and recreate it four times into a grid, you get what looks to be a rule of thirds grid. However, upon closer inspection you will see that this grid is not an exact splitting of the frame into three pieces. Instead of a 3 piece grid that goes 1+1+1=frame, you get a grid that goes 1+.618+1=frame. Here are a few examples a Phi grid placed over some images that I’ve used it on in the past…
In the above example, I placed the slightly more dominant eye of the horse on one of the Phi intersections. Consider that if I had placed a rule of thirds grid over this photo and lined the eye up with that, the head would be crowding the left side of the frame. In this photo, the head isn’t center, it’s not crowding either side. It’s just right, would you agree? Let’s take a look at another…
This one is slightly different. If you’re a REAL stickler for details, you may have noticed that there is a slight difference between the intersecting lines of the Phi graph, and the sweet spot of Phi itself. In this image, I made sure to align the head of my subject within the spiral and placed the left eye approximately over the sweet spot. Ok, moving on…
In this photograph, from Key West, I lined up the horizon with the top line of the Phi grid. In my opinion, when you line up the horizon with a rule of thirds grid, the separation is too…obvious. I think it would leave a bit too much of what isn’t the subject in the image. In this photo, the sky and clouds are the perfect compliment to what I’m trying to convey in the photo: The church on the bottom right, and the famous Duval street on the left. But with any more sky than is already present in the photo, the viewer might think the sky is actually the subject. Here’s one more…
In this example, I used multiple lines on the Phi grid for my final composition. I lined up the doors with both vertical lines, as well as the bottom horizontal line. This provided for a perfect amount of ceiling to lead the viewers eye to the door. Here’s a few more examples without the grid. See if you can imagine the grid over the images and determine why the image was composed the way it was.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light on a somewhat mysterious subject in the world of photography. Fibonacci’s Ratio is a powerful tool for composing your photographs, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as a minor difference from the rule of thirds. While the grids look similar, using Phi can sometimes mean the difference between a photo that just clicks, and one that doesn’t quite feel right. I’m certainly not saying that the rule of thirds doesn’t have a place in photography, but Phi is a far superior and much more intelligent and historically proven method for composing a scene.
If you’d like to start incorporating this powerful composition tool into your photography, you’re in luck! I’ve included a PNG overlay of both the Fibonacci Spiral and the Fibonacci Grid. Just click this download link to start using them. These overlays are for use in Photoshop. Just place them into the file you are working on, then scale them to the correct size of the image.