You may have heard of two important and closely related composition guidelines, the “Rule of Thirds” and the “Golden Ratio”. Let’s examine these and see how to incorporate these into creating more powerful photographs.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds divides the canvas or photograph in to 3 parts vertically and horizontally. The most prominent features of the image are best placed along one of these lines with the subject or most prominent object in the photo placed at the intersection of these lines.
The horizon, for instance should be placed 1/3 of the way up or down the image. A prominent rock, tree, or face would be best placed at the intersection of one of the lines or at least on one of the vertical or horizontal lines.
It has not have to be perfect, but all several important components of the image should be pretty close to the lines and intersections. You should always be conscious of these relationships when choosing how you will compose the image.
The Golden Ratio
The “golden ratio” is defined by this formula on the top. I’m sure this is just what you wanted to know! The important thing to get from this is that the ratio of a/b is close to 1/3rd (0.38 instead of 0.33): the “rule of thirds” is really a simplified expression of the “golden ratio.” The “golden ratio” is sometimes confused with the term “golden mean” (which is really a philosophical term) so we will stick with “golden ratio.”
The golden ratio used repetitively forms an interesting curve that looks like a nautilus shell. The sweet spot is where the curve and bounding boxes get smaller and smaller in the lower right portion of the image. Look what happens if we superimpose our “Rule of Thirds” lines. The red sweet spot for the “Rule of Thirds” is very close to the blue sweet spot predicted by the “Golden Ratio.” For all practical purposes, we can consider these the same. Isn’t that great? Now you only have to remember one rule!
You may wonder if this is that important. I will tell you that it is very important, perhaps even critical! Great artists have followed the principle of the “Golden Ratio” for centuries. There may even be a biological basis for why we find compositions with these ratios more pleasing. It is the way we are wired! This ratio is found frequently in nature and some have postulated that we find faces more beautiful or handsome if their features follow the “Golden Ratio”! Often people cannot put their finger on the reason they like a particular composition but it is typically because ratios and key elements in the image follow this rule/s.
Always remember that there are other alternatives to these rules such as a symmetrical, centered, or exaggerated composition. However, if you ever decide to break the “Rule of Thirds” or the “Golden Ratio” do it with a particular purpose in mind and never mindlessly!