The Golden Ratio (Phi) and Photography

North Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada, CA

The golden ratio is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.618.  If you want to know more about all of its meaning and usage, use this link to Wikipedia.  For the sake of art and architecture and all around asesthetics, Phi (\Phi\,), stands for beauty and balance.  Here are two pictorial representations of Phi.

A graphical representation of Phi using the Fibonnacci spiral
The standard view of Phi

OK, enough with the math, what does this have to do with photography?  If you want to make the best, most pleasing, and emotionally appealing photograph, most of the time you must use a Phi composition to get the best possible effect.  You can go on-line and look at 1000s of photographs and the best ones, in most situations, use this compositional technique, commonly referred to as the “Rule of Thirds”.  This is simply a short-hand heuristic for Phi.  As with most rules, it can and should be broken; however, when I am in the field, I always shoot a Rule of Thirds photo before I play with other possible compositions.  It is, in my opinion, the best place to start.

Rule of thirds – Look familiar?

Remember, too, about the four “power spots,” i.e., the four corners in the middle of the image.  Put the main focal point or subject of your image in one of these spots.  I have found, since (English speakers) read from left to right, that the right is usually better.  Furthermore, the bottom right power spot is my personal favorite.  You will probably develop your own.  Lastly, if you have multiple subjects, try to “zig-zag” them through the power spots so that the viewer follows the subjects in your image as you would want.  Sometimes the lines are diagonal, see North Lake photo above.  Do you see the three sections starting in the bottom left and working up to the top right?

Here are a few of our images that demonstrate the rule of thirds.

Patriarch Tree in the Bristlecone Pine Forrest, Eastern Sierra Nevada, CA

The Patriarch Tree photo uses a diagonal rule of thirds.  The large rock dominates the bottom third; the tree the middle, and the open sky on the right balances the entire photo.  The tree is in the obvious top left power spot.  The leading line of snow helps.

Joshua Tree, CA

Boy, you gotta love it when nature does the work for you.  This is a very popular photo subject in Joshua Tree, CA.  You just can’t screw up this composition.  The round rock is in the top right power spot.

Latourell Falls, Columbia River Gorge, OR

Waterfalls are fun to shoot horizontally and vertically.  The waterfall is balanced by the grassy rocks on the left and the open space between them.  The bottom of the falls and the beginning of the stream is the power spot.

So, when you are in the field photographing landscape, animals, or people, use the rule of thirds to start and then change up the composition.  Sometimes, it is obvious that dead-center, bulls-eye, is the best composition.  So, follow the rules and then don’t forget to break the rules.  To see more of our photographs, go to

Horseshoe Bend, Paige, AZ


  1. HecPV

    Hello, very cool post, I was looking for more of a mathematical-scientific explanation, but man, this is quite simple, very easy to understand. Thank you.

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