Chances are, you’ve heard of the Golden Ratio. Maybe you were introduced to it in school, in mathematics, art, or design class. Perhaps you saw the movie The DaVinci Code and learned about it. And there are plenty of websites that can tell you more than you ever wanted to know.
Precisely what is Golden Ratio composition, and can it really be applied to design and photography? As artists, should we use the Ratio, or should we ignore it? The good news is that it’s easy to apply and can indeed make your works more captivating and beautiful. If you’d like some real-world tips on how to use it to make your work better, look no further. Read on.
What is the Golden Ratio?
There is a lot of math behind how the Golden Ratio is calculated. But designers, artists, and photographers aren’t usually high-level mathematicians. To benefit the algebraically disinclined, let’s keep it simple.
The Ratio is approximately 1.618 to 1. It’s approximate because it is an irrational number that continues with an infinite number of decimal places. In math, the number is referred to by the Greek letter φ or Phi.
The Ratio was first described by the ancient Greek mathematicians Phidias, Plato, and Euclid, as early as c. 450 B.C. It has been studied and refined for two and a half millennia.
The Ratio is also closely related to the Fibonacci sequence. This mathematical pattern shows numbers that are added together to make the next number. The first numbers of the sequence are 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc.
Furthermore, when two successive numbers of the Fibonacci sequence are divided, their ratio is very nearly Phi. The larger the numbers, the more accurate the results become.
Why is There Controversy?
One of the most common arguments against the importance of Phi is that, while Phi can be applied to many things in nature, careful analysis shows that it is seldom mathematically perfect. When the spirals of a nautilus shell are measured, their ratio to one another is not exactly 1.618.
Famous pieces of artwork and architecture fail to stand up to careful study as well. This is true from ancient pyramids and famous buildings from ancient Greece to the Mona Lisa and other artworks by the masters.
While this is only speculation, it does seem to be a pedantic and academic argument. These works may not make the mathematicians happy, but the numbers are pretty darn close. Close enough to make people wonder and to convince the casual bystander. And regardless of whether or not the math is perfect, these works have stood the test of time. They are still studied and admired today.
As artists, we can understand. Things in nature and works of art are seldom perfect. And yet, we can still find them appealing and beautiful.
In this same vein, it has often been claimed that the Rule of Thirds in photography is a simplification of Phi. It creates roughly the same result while being easier to apply in the field or on the go. Does the Rule of Thirds help photographers create more captivating images? It does.
Does it have to be applied perfectly every time? No, you can get great results and beautiful photos by using it as a starting point and modifying it as you see fit.
When analyzing classic works of design, architecture, or fine art, it’s essential to keep this in mind. Did the artist explicitly think about Phi and the mathematics behind it when they created their masterpieces? Did they get out a ruler to measure off perfect golden rectangles? Possibly some did. But most of them just had an eye for beautiful proportions. And in applying their skill and their gifts, they got very close to what can be mathematically proven.
Why is it Important?
Like many things in nature, there is an interesting subconscious attraction to the pattern. Whether we realize it or not, humans can’t help but find objects that conform to Phi as intrinsically beautiful.
As artists and creators, we can use this predisposition to our benefit. By incorporating the Ratio in our design and photography,
we can improve the quality and beauty of our work.
Does it have to be mathematically perfect? No, absolutely not. The Ratio should be considered a helpful guide; it’s a tool to help your composition. It is not a rigid framework that must be adhered to. Regardless of where you stand on the debate, having a firm understanding of Phi and how it can be applied to your work makes you a stronger artist.
How to Apply It
One unique property of the Ratio is that it can be applied in a number of ways. It algebra, it is usually shown with the variables a and b.
But when working with visual arts, it’s easiest to apply it geometrically. The most common example is the use of rectangles. A Golden Rectangle is one whose short edge is 1, while the long side is 1.618. The rectangle can then be divided into itself by the magic number 1.618 an infinite number of times.
A common extrapolation of this is the Golden Spiral. By looking at the image of the slowly diminishing rectangles, the dimensions of a spiral shape can be drawn.
Once displayed visually, you can find evidence of Phi everywhere in nature. It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be observed in the spirals of a seashell, rainbands of a hurricane, petals of a flower, or the leaves of a plant. It’s only natural for artists to mimic the beauty of nature.
There are other ways to apply the Ratio as well. Any shape could have the ratio applied. Circles, triangles, or squares can all be divided into patterns based on the number 1.618.
Golden Ratio in Design
In design, layouts are the perfect place to start applying the Ratio. Two-column layouts are extremely common. But weighing the columns differently adds a dynamic flow to any publications. Webpages, in particular, use the sidebar concept to apply a dynamic, weighted feel that works naturally.
But what should the dimensions be? The units of measurement do not matter. The larger edge of the larger rectangle should be 1.618 times the length of the edge of the smaller rectangle.
For example, most web layouts are 960-pixels wide. When divided by 1.618, you get 594 pixels. This will be the height of the project layout. To divide it into columns, you do the same again. The large box, whether placed on the right or left of the layout grid, will also be 594 pixels wide. The smaller sidebar will be 366 pixels wide by 594 pixels tall.
You can continue the pattern as far as you like. The smaller rectangle can be divided down similarly as far as your design will allow. If you want to place additional elements inside the two-column framework that you created above, use ever smaller and diminishing rectangles to place them.
You can also place elements using the spiral based on those rectangles. Details of your design will become denser as the viewer’s eyes spiral towards the apex. This is an excellent way to balance white space in a design and maintain a pleasing balance.
Another excellent example of applying the Ratio in design comes in logo design. Many iconic logos can be distilled down to the ratio. By using 1:1.618 to all manner of shapes, cutouts, fills, and patterns, the symmetry of design can really come together. Search online, and you can find some excellent analyses of how some of the most iconic corporate brands benefit from the use of the Ratio in their designs.
These are simple examples, but it’s essential to realize that the Ratio can be repeated in a work several times over. If you divide your canvas into rectangles starting from the left, you can do it again from the right. Then, you have the same proportions centering elements, much like the Rule of Thirds in photography.
To go one step further, golden rectangles can be drawn over the frame both vertically and horizontally. Many experts interpret Leonardo’s The Last Supper in this manner, with rectangles drawn from all edges.
The Ratio can even be used to figure out what size font you should use. If you have trouble figuring out the typography for a project, take the size of the body font and multiply by 1.618. So, if the body font is 10 points, then the headers should be approximate 16 points. Page titles above that? Try 26 points or so. The rule can be applied the other way, too, if you want to set your title or heading size and figure out the body text size.
Once you see the magic of the proportions, the number of ways that they can be applied to your designs are limitless.
Golden Ratio in Photography
As stated above, many photographers use the Rule of Thirds as a simplified form of the Ratio. In the Rule of Thirds, you simply divide the frame into one-third sections vertically and horizontally. Important elements are placed at the intersections of the lines. The lines can also be used in the photo itself. Horizons in landscapes are commonly placed on a horizontal one-thirds line.
The size of each rectangle for a traditional Rule of Thirds image is 1: 1: 1.
The Rule of Thirds can be modified slightly to better apply to the Ratio. Instead of placing your vertical and horizontal lines one-third of the way from the edge, change them slightly and divide the frame into golden rectangles. The grid will now consist of two similar vertical and two horizontal lines, but the inner rectangles will be 0.618 the size of the outer rectangles. The grid can then be used just like the traditional Rule of Thirds, but with a closer approximation to the Ratio. So, the size of each rectangle for a Golden Ratio image would be 1: 0.618: 1.
Both guides can also be helpful with planning and placing elemental subjects and objects within the frame. Just like in design, photographers can play with exactly where objects lie along the grid frame or the golden spiral.
The spiral concept is especially powerful in photography. By placing your elemental subject at the point of the spiral, and radiating elements farther apart as you get farther away, you can combine the concepts of Phi and the golden rectangle grid described above.
Furthermore, these rules can be excellent guides when creating images. But they are just as powerful when cropping and doing post-production. Many average photos can be saved by creative cropping.
Another use of Phi in photography is to capture objects that already possess it. Plant leaves, distant spiral galaxies, flower petals, and seashells are alluring objects that make great subjects. The challenge is to recognize how the golden spiral plays a part in making that beauty and to capture it in an image. What can you do to emphasize the spiral and communicate that beauty to your viewers? Seek out objects that already use the Ratio within and leverage this to your advantage.
The Ratio is a great tool to apply to many photos and designs that would otherwise be lacking. Understanding the technical algebra and geometry behind Phi is not the most important takeaway when studying the Ratio. For designers and photographers, grasping what is golden ratio art is the first stepping stone.
Remember, using Phi is not just about composing your own images. It is also a tool to appreciating other visual arts you come across. It’s a tool for analyzing what appeals to you. In studying the work of others, you make your own creations better. Learn from others and see how they’ve used it. Using it in your work is all about composition, not about advanced math. It’s yet another valuable tool in your toolbox available to help you avoid banal designs and boring photographs.
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