The Golden Ratio, or the Rule of Thirds

This week one of the photo challenge groups is doing the golden ratio, or the rule of thirds, and since I did this last week for a different challenge, it seemed like a good time to talk about what this all really means. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, and some of you have expressed interest in learning a bit more about photography, so this will be my first of several posts talking about photography techniques.

Many photographers think that placing your main subject in one third of the frame, is what the rule of thirds is all about. This is true, and not true. Photography is magical because we can either shoot, or crop, our subject in that magical one third spot. But to really understand the whole concept, you have to look at the whole picture.

In photography you hear about the rule of thirds all the time, in fact, It seems like photographers think they invented it. But in truth, the golden ratio, or the golden mean, has been around a very, very long time. According to Wikipedia, “The golden ratio has held fascination for 2400 years, although not with reliable evidence to this. We do know that Fibonacci (1170–1250) mentioned the numerical series now named after him in his Liber Abaci; the ratio of sequential elements of the Fibonacci sequence approaches the golden ratio asymptotically.”

And we also know that Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, and many, many famous artists after them employ the golden ratio to their art. Artists today, still follow the golden mean..hopefully anyway. Being married to an artist I have been hearing about the golden mean for years. Al makes sure all his work follows the golden mean, so that it all has balance and proportion. When I became serious about photography, he would critique my shot, or the way I cropped it to make sure I was following this Golden rule.

Al’s cousin knows more about art then anyone I know. He use to do classes, and one time I heard him speak about the golden mean. This was years ago, and I have never been more fascinated with a subject, as I was after that. He talked about the golden mean in nature, our physical bodies, and of course applying it to art.

Balance, it’s all about balance. Da Vinci called it the golden proportion, which is really pretty accurate for the true meaning.

I specifically shot this image to show all the concepts of the golden mean.

The Golden Ratio, or the Rule of Thirds

First, we have 3 subjects that are roughly one third larger than each other. Torrey is one third larger than Roxy, the cactus is roughly a third larger than Torrey. The horizon line is one third up in the photo, and Torrey, who is the focal point here, is at the one third mark on the right side. All the concepts of the golden ratio are in this single image. If I had shot this image with everything in the middle, it would not be nearly as interesting.

This is a pretty good example of the focal point being right in the middle. Cute, but not so interesting.

Dogs in the desert

I showed you this photo last week, but it’s a pretty good example of the rule of thirds. Torrey is in the top third of the image, and we have the foot prints that start in the bottom corner leading up.

The Golden Ratio, or the Rule of Thirds

This Ammonite is pretty good example of the golden mean in nature. Each spiral is one third larger as they go outward.


So what is the easiest way to employ the golden mean in your photography? Your camera should have a grid view in the view finder. Some cameras you can turn this on, or off. My Nikon viewfinder has the outside of the grid always on. As you can see, there are lines that will help you place your subject, or the horizon line for landscape shots in a third of the frame. This is useful for getting things right in the camera. But look at everything else in your shot. Like the photo of the dogs I took above, I had them, and the horizon line to get right. Crowding your subject into one third of the frame is not always the best way to achieve the golden mean.

When shooting landscapes, you should try to have either one third sky, and two thirds ground, or vice versa. This shot I probably could have shot a bit less sky, but I liked the clouds, and I didn’t want to crowd the tall tree on the right.

The Tetons

And of course, rules are made to be broken too. Not every photo needs to follow the rule of thirds, not every subject is perfect for it. It’s all in the eye of the photographer, or the artist.

When I am shooting sunsets, or sunrises, I want as much of the color in the sky as I can get.

desert sunrise

When working in Lightroom, it’s easy to see where you need to crop an image by utilizing the grid in the crop tool. Photoshop has the same grid as well. But again, you want to get it as right as you can in camera. You can only crop so much.

Screen shot rule of thirds

I hope this explains a little more what the rule of thirds really means, and how you can use this in your own photography. I recommend following the links, or doing your own google search because I can’t even start to explain the math behind the whole golden ratio. I only know what I have learned from art, and artists, and what looks balanced.

And here are my photos for the other photo challenges this week.

The Dogwood 52- Straight out of the camera. The golden hour is the perfect time to get the best shot.

the golden hour

And for 2LilOwls- Shadows. All the rain we had last week created some nice little hills and valleys in the sandy wash.

Shadows in the desert

I hope you found this useful for your own photographic journey.




The Golden Ratio, or the Rule of Thirds — 13 Comments

  1. Nature and the mathematical elegance of its design is there for us to discover, behold and grasp through art. I had JUST read this weekend, about the rule of thirds and here you are again, showing me the great possibilities in our photography! YES! This is yet another thing I need to practice. THANK YOU!

  2. I grew up with a grandmother who preached the rule of three in gardening and in life. I’ve found myself using it in my jewelry and I really like your explanation of it’s use in photography.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

%d bloggers like this: