The rule of thirds, leading lines, negative space — these are all important aspects of composition in photography. But, if you want to compose a photo that’s naturally pleasing to the eye, you should be aware of the golden ratio.

This guide will explain what the golden ratio is, how it differs from other methods of composition, and will explain how to apply it in your photography. Understanding and using the golden ratio will make you a better photographic artist.

Example of golden ratio in photography.
Photo by Adrien Olichon from Pexels

What is the golden ratio?

The golden ratio was discovered by the mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci. He noticed a repeating spiral pattern in nature that was composed of the same predictable ratio. This golden ratio, and the spiral it creates, can be found everywhere you look — from the shell of a snail to waves in the ocean to the strands of our own DNA.

Don’t worry, we won’t be getting very technical into the mathematics of the golden ratio. the important thing to remember is that the golden ratio is 1.618 to 1 and it’s based on those familiar spirals that are seen so often in nature. And, understanding how to apply this concept to your photography will take your composition from good to great. Using the golden ratio means you create photos that are naturally pleasing to the eye.

There are many ways to use the golden ratio in your photography, but the most common are the Phi Grid and the Fibonacci Spiral.

Fibonnacci spiral seen in nature.
Photo by Carla from Pexels

What is the Phi Grid?

If you’re familiar with the Rule of Thirds, the Phi Grid (pronounced “pie”) won’t seem so strange a concept. It looks similar, but the frame isn’t divided into equal thirds. Rather, the grid consists of a 1:0.618:1 ratio, making the center lines closer together. The concept is the same, though. The object is to line up the important parts of your image where the lines of the grid intersect, as shown below.

Phi Grid is a tool to apply the golden ratio to an image.
Phi Grid

Phi Grid vs. The Rule of Thirds

You could say that the Rule of Thirds is a simplified version of the Phi Grid. It’s a great compositional tool to use when you’re in a hurry. While it works extremely well for many situations, using the Phi Grid to achieve the golden ratio will allow for an even more precisely balanced image.

What is the Fibonacci Spiral?

Also known as the Golden Spiral, the Fibonacci Spiral is the spiral that is extremely prolific in nature. It’s built from a series of squares that are based on mathematics discovered by Leonardo Fibonacci. When used as a tool for composition, the spiral creates a path or flow that leads the viewer in a natural and pleasant way through your photograph.

Fibonacci Spiral
Fibonacci Spiral

So, how would you use this spiral in photography? Imagine you can overlay the spiral over your image. You should line up the area with the most details with the smallest part of the coil. The coil doesn’t have to be in a corner — it can be anywhere in your frame. Then try to place the rest of your subject along the curve, too.

See how the images below line up with the Fibonacci spiral?

Fibonacci spiral as a tool for composition.
Fibonacci spiral as a tool for composition.
The Golden Ratio
The Fibonacci Spiral 

How to apply the golden ratio in your photography

Now you can see how the golden ratio improves the composition of photos, but how can you use it in your own photography? Here are some steps to get you started.

  1. Assess the scene. How you’ll use the golden ratio will entirely depend on what you’re photographing. Every situation is unique! Start by asking yourself what you want to draw the viewer’s attention to? What secondary elements do you want the viewer to see next? Are there any leading lines, shapes, or curves that will help lead the viewer’s eye?
  2. Choose your method. Will you compose using the Phi Grid or the Fibonacci Spiral? Consider your scene. Leading lines work well for a grid while curves are better suited for a spiral.
  3. Imagine the overlay and shoot. If you’re used to composing for the rule of thirds, this is a simple concept. Though, imagining a complex spiral over your scene can be difficult. It may be helpful to turn on the rule of thirds overlay grid in your camera. It’s an option most cameras have. Then, you’ll know to compose with your subject closer to the center than the rule of thirds grid if you chose the Phi Grid. If you’re going for the Fibonacci Spiral, compose with your subject further from the lines in the rule of thirds grid. The point is to have the elements of your scene spiral out from the subject.
  4. Edit to get the perfect golden ratio. Understanding that most people don’t have a perfect picture of the Fibonacci Spiral in their mind’s eye it’s not possible to nail the exact 1.618:1 golden ratio every time. Fortunately, Photoshop and Lightroom have tools in place to help you perfect it.
Fibonacci spiral
Photo by Fabio Perroni from Pexels

How to apply the golden ratio in Photoshop

Understanding the importance of the golden ratio, photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom have made it incredibly simple to apply it to an image. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Open your image in Photoshop;
  2. Select the crop tool;
  3. Draw a crop box over your entire image;
  4. Click on the overlay options and choose between Golden Ratio (Phi Grid) or Golden Spiral (Fibonacci Spiral). This will put an overlay on top of your image;
  5. Crop your image to adjust your composition according to the overlay. If you chose the Golden Spiral and the spiral isn’t in the correct corner, you can easily rotate it within the same options menu or by pressing Shift + O.

Final thoughts

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that art is subjective. While that is true to a degree, science and math have also told us that the golden ratio is naturally pleasing to the human eye. Moving beyond the rule of thirds and incorporating advanced composition techniques, like the Phi Grid and the Fibonacci Spiral will help your images stand out.