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A Useful & Concise Comparison of The Rule Of Thirds vs. The Golden Ratio

By Kishore Sawh on October 25th 2014


Depending on the type of photography you’re doing at any given time, some theoretical principles will apply more than others. Generally speaking, it’s the rule of thirds that most photographers know something about, regardless of study or level of expertise since it’s the most frequently mentioned. The concept behind rule of thirds is rather basic as it’s a simple way to break composition into 9 parts using 2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines. Specific placement of elements in the image on the intersections of said lines should allow the viewer to interact with the image more pleasingly. Generally, it’s just more pleasing to the eye.

You can’t exactly argue with the rule of thirds, but there are other alternatives, and one I tend to prefer much more is the Phi Ratio, or Golden Ratio as is often called. I’ve written about it here if you’d like a more specific breakdown, but again, to summarize, the ratio, when expressed numerically is an irrational number that works out for be about 1.618:1, and it’s found all over nature in things we deem beautiful. Things that have this ratio would be the proportions of a dolphin, Pierce Brosnan’s face, ancient Greek buildings, and Michelangelo’s ‘David.’

golden-ratio-phi-grid-rule-thirds-composition-photography-slrlounge-5 golden-ratio-phi-grid-rule-thirds-composition-photography-slrlounge-1

That ratio, can be applied to photographic composition and within the context of an image, is represented as a type of spiral. Essentially, it’s less rigid than the rule of thirds, and tends to be more appealing to the eye as a result. The rule of thirds can be applied in such a way it’s very obvious, which doesn’t lend to a natural look, but the Phi Ratio is a bit more complex. Watch the video below from DNews presented by Tara Long. Tara does an exceedingly good job articulating the basics of both of these principles, and it’s a good refresher for anyone, and a good introduction for anyone new.

[REWIND: A Career’s Worth Of Wisdom On Retouch, In A Minute | Russell James]


I tend to dislike images where the rule of thirds looks applied in any strict sort of fashion, but it’s so simple to do that many people just end of doing it all too often, and all too obviously. I would recommend making it less apparent, and honestly, adhering to the Phi Ratio instead should take care of that as it’s a bit more complex in application if you’re thinking about it at the time of composition.

Also, depending again on the type of shoot you’re doing, you probably don’t have time to be critically thinking about the application of all these principles. The more advanced and experienced photographers will execute their image including the use of these principles, likely, without conscious thought, and that’s the point where I think we ought to get to.

To reference Taoism, it should be more ‘wu wu wei’ – which is essentially doing without doing. It’s the state where doing something is so effortless without trying it’s an extension of self. Liken it to driving a stick-shift car; when you begin, you’re focusing on when to depress the clutch, how much gas to use to keep the revs optimal, and when to shift, but after a while, you don’t even think about it, it just sort of happens. To me, when it comes to composition, this is the point where we want to be at, because it seems that only then does it all come across well, and naturally.

Source: PetaPixel

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Basit Zargar

    helpful article

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  2. Jason Boa

    You can’t fight the science !!

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  3. Ian Moss

    Any of my students will tell you -photography is all about the square root of two. :)

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  4. Ian Sanderson

    Mathematics and photography, 2 of my favourite things!

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  5. David Hall

    Wish my camera had this as an overlay in the viewfinder.

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  6. Ian Moss

    This has inspired me to rethink my teaching of the Golden Ratio. I just hope my students have got a good enough handle on solving quadratic equations by formula – or am I over thinking it again?

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  7. Kayode Olorunfemi

    All this learning…

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  8. Ian Moss

    OK, so far so obvious, but it really does help pointing out the obvious to beginners. Many of my students find their work improves greatly by applying these guidelines. They may never be the best, but they’ll at least be competent.

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  9. Kurk Rouse

    It really does not matter to me, I’ll use what ever suits what i’m looking at for that point in time

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  10. Clare Havill

    Great video, I hadn’t realised that phi grid was related to the golden ratio.

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  11. Stan Rogers

    Honestly, it all boils down to “look AT your viewfinder, not THROUGH it”. Unless you’re doing a Piet Mondrian sort of thing, you’ll find that you can analyze just about any picture where the subject isn’t bullseyed to make it conform to phi/Fibonacci, the rule of thirds, the diagonal rule, or whatever else you may have in mind (depending on whether you go by the left eye or the right eye, the edge of the face where contrast is highest, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum). When you’re just learning that the viewfinder isn’t a gunsight, it helps a lot to keep one of these “rules” in the forefront of your mind, but once you’ve trained yourself to look at the picture you’re taking instead of at your subject, just take the picture that looks good.

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  12. Brian Stalter

    It would be neat to be able to set up a grip overlay like this in Lightroom.

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  13. Eric Sharpe

    Based on where my camera’s focus points are, and with my focus and recomposing, I come out with a lot of images that are golden ratio by happenstance. Make me feel like a G.

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  14. Duc Hong

    “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ― Pablo Picasso. That’s the one I remember and try to bring out in almost every photos I took

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    • Zay Vee

      Great quote. I’m still learning some of these basic rules, and i’ve been learning for over a year. I can’t wait to get to the point where I feel that I have mastered them.

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