Understanding the golden ratio is key to unlocking the full potential of your pictures – master it and you’ll be halfway to becoming a great Jedi – er, sorry, I mean, photographer!
So, my young apprentice, let us discover the ways of golden ratio…
In boring practical terms, the golden ratio divides a rectangle (e.g., a photograph) into progressively smaller sections, with the larger section 1.618 times the size of the smaller – that’s the ratio part – 1 : 1.618.
(Don’t worry, we didn’t really understand that either!)
What does this have to do with photography? Good question.
The golden ratio helps to determine the ideal proportion of a subject in an image. In photography this is one third to two thirds (which, if you look at the diagram, is the ratio of the larger section to the smaller…)
Using the golden ratio an image can be divided into three equal parts – these dividing lines are known as force lines, and are valuable when framing a picture or video.
Framing your subject in the center of an image gives it an obvious symmetry, but makes for an unexciting picture.
Instead, try using the force lines to divide an image and note the four points where they meet in the center of the picture: these are the strongest points of an image and naturally attract the eye, so place your dominant subject elements at these points.
Studies have shown that although we all focus on the same areas when “reading” a picture the route our eyes follow is determined by culture. In the West, we read images in a Z-shaped route that goes from top to bottom and left to the right.
The diagram demonstrates why images dominated by horizontal features seem more restful than images dominated by vertical features. Our eyes are usually attracted to the strong points and and the center of an image, but large shapes can grab our attention, too.
Also remember that the eye is attracted by clarity, color contrast, and foreground diagonals.
Balance and distribution
Harmonious images balance their different subjects in terms of volume and mass.
As already mentioned, larger masses attract a larger share of our attention. Color, separation, and respective positions are all important, so when emphasizing a strong point in an image try not to steal attention from other strong points.
In this picture there are two things to notice:
1. The important elements (e.g., the climber) are near the strong points
2. The masses are balanced: the rock on the top left, the sky and sea on the bottom right.
The darker, contrasted rock is balanced by the clearer, blurred sea and sky, and the colors are balanced. It’s important that the blue area takes more space than the mountain, this makes the image clearer and more appealing to the eye. If the rock took more space than the sky and sea it would darken the image, making it less relaxing.
Notice also that the diagonal line of the rope intensifies and signposts the subject’s appearance.
And the picture possesses one vital element which always attracts the human eye first: the climber. Our eyes are automatically attracted to the people in any picture; in a portrait our eyes are attracted first by the eyes and gaze of the model (this is even true with animals).
These guidelines might sound complicated, but they’re all based on the way we instinctively perceive images. So the next time you’re seeking photographic gold remember to use the golden ratio – you’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes second nature when taking pictures.