What is the golden ratio in photography composition?

Golden ratio
(Image credit: Future)

Composition is the art of creating order among the chaos of the natural world, achieved by careful selection of what we include in the frame and where we place those elements.

Probably the best-known compositional approach is the rule of thirds (opens in new tab): dividing the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically (see the lines in blue, above). The components can then be organized around these divisions, with key focal points placed at the intersection of horizontal and vertical lines.

The rule of thirds is a simplification of a naturally harmonious proportion known as the golden ratio (pink, above), which has been used in art and architecture for many centuries. 

So what is the Golden Ratio?

The golden ratio – also known as the golden mean, golden section, or divine proportion is considered to be beautiful and harmonious. The golden ratio originally comes from the ancient Greek mathematicians – it's closely related to the square root of pi and was originally discovered when the Greeks began examining five-sided figures like the pentagon.

Essentially, if the points of the Fibonacci sequence are plotted and connected by a curve, it creates a Fibonacci spiral, which is also known as a golden spiral. This spiral intersects at every point where the rectangle divides, according to the golden ratio of 1.618.

Golden ratio

Perfect examples of the golden ratio appear in nature (Image credit: Tomekbudujedomek via Getty Images)

golden ratio example

(Image credit: Future)

Use the Golden Ratio to crop when editing

Golden Ratio Crop Tool

The Crop tool’s Golden Ratio overlay is based on the famous Fibonacci sequence, and you can use this numerical sequence to break up a shot into a series of differently proportioned shapes. When we see a photo that we admire, we may not consciously be aware that its composition conforms to the Crop tool’s Golden Ratio overlay guide.

When using photo editing software (opens in new tab), there is one important factor that influences the overall harmony of the shot – and that is the crop. Cropping is a powerful tool that can make or break your image and when used correctly, we can eliminate any distracting elements in the shot, and direct the viewer’s gaze and attention to the main subject. This tool can allow new perspectives and transform your photos into results you may not have expected.

In Adobe Photoshop CC (opens in new tab), the Crop tool has other overlays to help you achieve a more pleasing composition. Choose the Golden Ratio overlay. Crop the shot and drag it inside the crop window to place key features in various sub-divided sections. Then, simply hit Enter.

The crop tool must be used with care, especially in portrait and fashion photography, as cut-off elements can impact the end result. Cropping images should be handled strategically – keep the ratio of your intended media platform in mind when doing so.

Golden ratio

(Image credit: Future)

Is the Golden Ratio better than the rule of thirds?

Since the dawn of photography artists have been experimenting with different compositions. Over the past few centuries, however, we’ve come to accept some basic fundamental rules that you can employ if you’re struggling to get a decent composition of the scene in front of you. 

You’ll have likely heard of the rule of thirds before, and it is one of the classic compositional approaches that we’ll explore in more depth below. The reason you’ll have heard of it before, and probably even used it to frame your shots previously, is for good reason – it’s a tried and tested method that forces you to position and space your focal points and horizon in a way that makes use of the available space and draws the eye in. 

An image is typically perceived as more photogenic if the focal point is carefully positioned one-third of the way in from one or two sides, giving it more room to breathe compared to if you were to butt it up against the frame edge. However, as with any rules, they’re only guidance, and if you have a creative reason to go against the rules that helps you tell the narrative you want, then try that approach, too. 

The golden ratio is similar to the rule of thirds technique, as the frame is divided up into nine boxes. What makes it different from the aforementioned technique is that the golden ratio uses the ratio of 1:1.618, so the boxes aren’t equal. The middle horizontal and vertical boxes that form a ‘cross’ shape are much squatter than those in the corners, and this places the intersecting lines of the grid much more centrally. The effect of this is that the action will appear to happen in the middle of the frame and will help to draw the viewer’s eye towards the heart of your shot.

For that reason, the golden ratio is better suited to compositions with a central focal point. The mathematical equation of Fibonacci’s spiral crops up time and again in nature and can be used to improve your landscape compositions.

You might also like to read about these 6 classic composition setups (opens in new tab), and tips for landscape photography composition (opens in new tab) with a wide-angle lens.

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Lauren Scott
Managing Editor

Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 

An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)

In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.

With contributions from