The hills of Tuscany, Italy

Five Reasons Why You Should Ignore The Golden Section

I just had an interesting discussion in an online forum that started with a question that sounded innocuous enough.

The question (paraphrasing) was: “Do you keep the thirds grid in your viewfinder on to help you with composing images following the rule of thirds?”

My answer was that I do keep the grid on, but just as an aid in aligning things vertically or horizontally and in helping with overlapping images when shooting a sequence of frames for a stitched panorama.

I also added, a bit provocatively: “There’s no such thing as a rule of thirds. It’s only a rigid and unjustified schematization of the concept that, in many photos, an off-center and asymmetric composition is more dynamic than a centered one. A thirds grid is not necessary to achieve that.”

Almost immediately, somebody retorted that I was causing Fibonacci to roll over in his grave and literally everything under the sun to have a laughing fit. They also proceeded to share a link to an online article extolling the virtues of the golden section in photographic composition. Because, you know, if it’s on the Web, it must be true.

I had a good read at the article which, predictably, was even worse than I expected it to be, having been pointed in the past to a number of such “resources”. It consisted of nothing more than the usual parroting of unsubstantiated claims about the magical powers of phi (yes, it did actually mention magic) and its prevalence in art since the dawn of mankind.

All it had in the way of evidence were a handful of photos with superimposed grids and spirals that very badly matched the main focus points of the photos, thereby defeating the original hypothesis.

What irritated me mostly about that sloppy article was the conclusion that the golden ratio and the rule of thirds were meant to “take the photographer to a higher level, allowing him to engage in a personal and refined photographic research” (emphasis mine).

Sure, because pedantically and mechanically applying rote rules is the key to a personal expression!

I’ll spare you the rest of the discussion I had in that forum, because it will serve no purpose other than reinforcing the belief that, when people religiously believe in revealed truths, no amount of rational discourse will convince them of the opposite.

Rather, I will spend some time to list five reasons why I believe you should never take the golden section, or even the rule of thirds, into account when composing images. I will not present here any detailed evidence for my claims. Not because I don’t need any, but simply because my good friend Mike Spinak has already done all of the groundwork in a very detailed and very well documented article, The Golden Section Hypothesis: A Critical Look.

At the time I’m writing this, that web page appears to be down, but you can still find an archived copy here. Mike also tells me that a revised, better version of it will be included in his forthcoming book, Notes for Aspiring Photographers.

With this preamble aside, here is my list of reasons.

It is not as prevalent as it’s made up to be

Podere Baccoleno, Asciano, Tuscany, Italy

It wasn’t used to design the Parthenon. It wasn’t used by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s not present in the shell of the nautilus or in the proportion of the arms of galaxies. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Ancient mathematicians, like Euclid, knew it well, but there is no evidence that ancient artists made conscious use of it. To put it simply, it was never meant to be an aid in composition.

I could go on, but you get the idea. If you don’t believe me, go read Mike’s article.

If Leonardo never used it, what makes you think that, by employing it, you’ll get better compositions than his?

In truth, the golden section is used quite frequently in modern photography. Probably by those who have uncritically started accepting the claims of its proponents.

It doesn’t make compositions more pleasing or harmonious

Trani, Apulia, Italy

Where’s the evidence for this claim? Has anyone conducted double blind studies, showing observers a set of images, some following the rule and some not following it, and statistically analyzed their responses?

Actually, some scientists did and the results were inconclusive or dubious, with some revealing a preference for ratios other than 1.618.

If you have links to studies that demonstrate a preference for it, please let me know and I’ll be happy to amend this section.

It trivializes composition to the spatial arrangement of objects within a scene

Rainbow over Tuscany's countryside, Italy

Even if it were true that humans have a preference for the golden section, there is much more to composition than pleasingness and placing items along the lines of some arbitrary grid. I think Mike Spinak sums it up perfectly:

“The golden section hypothesis – and its approximation, the rule of thirds – take the rich enterprise of creating art, and diminish it into mere visual design. They take the roles of the artist as creator of objects with meaning, interpreter of the world, and communicator, and diminish them into the role of technician of formulaic, mechanized constructs. They take the roles of the art observer as thinker and participant in the exploration of meaning, and diminish them into tester of pattern accuracy.”

Even in terms of visual design, a simplistic concern about the bi-dimensional arrangement of objects discounts other and much more profound concepts, such as visual mass, tension, depth, and principles of Gestalt theory.

We are taught that we should try to lead the gaze of the observer towards the focal points of the composition, but just putting them along grid lines will do nothing to accomplish that goal.

It makes your work less original

Tree overgrowing Khmer temple, Ta Prohm, Angkor, Cambodia

If everybody else is using the rule of thirds or the golden section, because everybody has been hammered with the notion that it’s the best thing since sliced bread, then by all means adopt it and let your pictures be like everybody else’s. Research into innovative ways of expressing oneself be damned!

It pays to be a contrarian

Venice, Italy

You automatically become more interesting when, in the middle of a conversation about the virtues of the golden section, you come up with, “I don’t subscribe to any of that bullshit!”

Try it. It works. 😉

Comments 9

  1. I don’t have the grid in my viewfinder. Why? Because I don’t care. I align things the best I can and I compose in a way that is pleasing to me. If something fits the rule, great. Then I line things up but sometimes, I like to be creative and just compose in a way that tells a story. I like things off center. I like things to be jarring at times. I’m still learning, of course, but rules are meant to be broken.

    1. Post

      Thanks for your reply. Edward Weston said that good composition is the strongest way of seeing. I take it to mean that we should look at a scene from different directions and with different framings, until we find the one that is strongest. The one where every part of the image is important.

      If it happens to be the one where a focal point falls onto an arbitrary grid, then fine, but we shouldn’t start with that goal in mind.

  2. I’m an amateur photographer. Never heard if thus golden thing. I have heard of rule of thirds. I don’t use the grid setting. It distracts me from the artistic view i’m seeing and wanting to capture. So i shoot what i like.

  3. Thanks Ugo. I have often felt this but didn’t know quite how to express it. Each setting has its own highlights and points of interest and to rigidly force them into “thirds” or the “golden section” may actually ruin the photo.

  4. I studied Aeronautical Engineering, and part of the fun was to take some “off-topic” courses. Among other I choose “History of Cinema Art”. I remember a class given by a known film photographer who at some point, gave us a clear A4 sheet of paper and asked us to put a coin on it to obtain an “interesting composition.

    About 1/4th of the students put the coin at the center most other located it at …. ques where? Yes, at the so called “rule of thirds” position. The rule of thirds is not a mathematical rule but rather a common perception of humans of comfortable location of objects in space.

    Next assignment was to locate a green triangle and a red circle on that sheet, which now had a vertical division line. To our amazement, almost all people located the circle and triangle at same sides of the sheet (I do not remember which), but when we where given same sized shapes but of other colors there was no coordination between people any more!! There are patterns according to which our brain is trained to “feel” and “see”, and knowing these patterns allows tp provide compositions commonly acceptable by “normal” 21th century human brain…

    As with all lows of physics and nature, these laws are just trying to describe the common way the nature behaves…

    1. Post

      Ze’ev, please allow me to reiterate what I wrote to Jennifer above. Quoting Edward Weston, good composition is the strongest way of seeing. When you and your fellow students placed the coin on a thirds line, you were intuitively putting it where it it made you feel that the composition was strongest. You didn’t start with the idea that you should put it on a thirds line to make it strong.

      1/4 of the students didn’t even see that way. Were they wrong? I don’t think so.

      My issue with the “rules” (be they of thirds, fourths, or whatever) is that they work upside down: start by following the rule and your composition will be stronger. That’s a shortcut and sometimes it fails.

      My suggestion is to start by examining the scene and find the composition that is naturally the strongest, without preconceptions. This is what your teacher asked you to do. If it happens to align with some “rule”, all the best, but let’s not judge it, as some do, based on this aspect.

  5. I think of the “rule” as more of a suggestion. I look at the overall composition and then decide where I want the subject.

  6. I don’t use any grid in my viewfinder, I prefer to keep it as clear and un-cluttered as possible .
    I had a tutor on a photographic course who was fixated on the “rule of thirds” and would mark down severely any image that did not fit this requirement, annoyed me intensely. I will keep it in mind when composing as it does have it’s place, but do not subscribe blindly to it.

  7. I do use the rule of thirds 90% of the time. I like using leading lines and framing. I don’t think that an image that doesn’t use the rule is automatically a bad image. There are times when not using the rule works. I do use the grid in the viewfinder. I don’t use it for the rule of thirds though. I use it mostly to try to keep my horizons straight, even then they are not so level sometimes.

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