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Photography Composition

Introducing the golden mean and the rule of thirds

photography composition

OK, photography composition is probably something you've taken an interest in before - after all it's often the key thing by which an image lives or dies.

If you're like me, you may have pretty quickly retracted from whatever little gems of half explained, apparently quite mathematical advice on composition in photography that get offered up, to go back to the fun of just shooting things in your own way.

There's no doubt that the best way to improve your photography and take better pictures is simply to do it and develop your own eye. But there are a few little principles and guides that can be really useful and help to focus your attention when shooting.

I've tried to sweep away all the waffle and jargon, and provide a clear introduction to some basic photography composition principles.

In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.

- Henri Cartier-Bresson


The Rule of Thirds

Let's deal with this pretty quickly. I'm sure you've heard of the 'rule of thirds' - a simple aid to composition in photography whereby you imagine your scene as divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically:

first light happisburgh

The blobs at the intersections of the lines are good places to position the focal point of your picture, whilst the surrounding scene can be positioned roughly according to the main divisions.

Basically, this gets you thinking about the proportions in your photos, and that it's not normally a great idea to stick a focal point smack in the middle. It's a handy guide and usually one of the first basic digital photography tips that will be suggested to you.

I find it helpful to pause when I'm taking a shot and think about the size of various parts of an image. Is the effect lop-sided? Could I balance the whole scene out better? I picked up a lot of very useful tips and techniques on this area reading Michael Freeman's The Photographer's Eye

The rule of thirds will help you take better pictures, but...

It's really just a simplification of a more interesting aid to photography composition: the golden mean.


The Golden Mean (or Golden Ratio)

I hate maths. If you've been put off looking further into the golden mean in the past by horrific sequences of numbers, calculations and Greek words, you're not alone! But relax, because insofar as the idea has a practical application to photography composition it can be explained really simply.


Basics and Background

The key thing to grasp is very simple: the golden mean is just a matter of proportion. Proportion being about the relationship between something big and something small.

When the larger and smaller things put together have a proportion to the larger part which is this same as that between the smaller and the larger part, the two things are in the golden ratio.

As a number, this proportion is 1: 1.618 That's about 3/8 to 5/8.
But forget the numbers, just get an idea of what it looks like:

So why golden mean? Because this ratio shows itself everywhere! Right across the natural world - from trees and flowers, to human bodies, the patterning on animals' skin and the structure of skeletons.

It's found its way into the arts and sciences from ancient Greece to the present day, into musical rhythms, poetic beat, composition of paintings and, soon maybe, your photos!

It's pretty mysterious and appears quite fundamental to the fabric of the world around us, exhibiting a balance of proportion which often meets the approval of our aesthetic sensibilities. It just seems to help composition 'work'.


Using it in your photography

On to the important bit. So you're out there with your camera, pointing it at something worth photographing. Worried that the golden mean all seems a bit complex and formulaic? - stop there - it's way more flexible than the rule of thirds. No need to visualise one grid of thirds over your image, any elements of the scene which could have a 3/8 to 5/8 relation can work.

Photos are rectangles, so for starters let's get a basic idea of how you can start seeing this shape divided by the golden ratio.


It doesn't look a million miles from the rule of thirds, and once again it's at the intersections where you can put the focal point. But these focal points are, at 3/8 in from the edges, a bit nearer the centre than those on the grid of thirds. Plus, you can go on dividing parts of the scene up into bits which share the same proportional relationship.

Here's one of my snaps of a bloke on his bike, which roughly accords to the golden ratio. Something at one of the intersection points would have strengthened the shot:


Another useful diagram to help you visualise a rectangle divided by the golden ratio is this spiral. It can re-positioned and inverted:


The spiral uncoils at first within the small section, which takes up 3/8 of the vertical part of the picture, and then flows out to the larger part. In a photo the focal point would be at the tightest curl of the spiral, which is actually a little nearer the corner than the intersection points on the above rectangle.

So the viewer's eye is drawn to a well placed focal point, before being taken through the image as it unfolds around golden ratio proportions. It's a handy way of approaching shots that you'd like to be both neatly composed and dynamic.

Henri Cartier Bresson was a real master at pouncing on interesting moments with his camera, whilst somehow(!) composing them perfectly in a split second. Check out some of his work here - it's a pretty good guide to photography composition!

Here's one of my pics which sort of fits the spiral:

not funny anymore

So have a go at dividing the scene in your viewfinfer into horizontal and/or vertical parts measured roughly by the golden ratio. One bit 3/8, one bit 5/8. Or 3/8 then 2/8 in the middle, then 3/8. Use the spiral or the little square in the middle as a guide for focal points.

It takes practice to immeditely see a potential image broken up into pleasing proportions. For me, Michael Freeman's The Photographer's Eye has been the most helpful and easy to read guide on what makes a strong photo.

Here's a couple more of my shots to help illustrate the idea:

river gypsy



I really hope that helped because it's often given a quick and unsatisfactory explanation. But remember - rules are supposed to be broken. This is helpful to bear in mind when thinking about digital photography composition, not stick to like a creed.

The legendary photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, after time spent studying rigid formulas of composition with the artist Andrew Lohte, said:

I left Lhote's studio because I did not want to enter into that systematic spirit. I wanted to be myself.


For more advice on taking better pictures and digtial photography composition, have a look at this article on balancing foreground and background elements in a scene. Feel free to get in touch with any questions you have about photography composition.

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