Why The Golden Ratio Is Better Than The Rule Of Thirds

A long time ago I was a young art student, being told about the “Rule Of Thirds”. I was told it’s one of the most important fundamentals of art and photography, as it helps you get the right composure in your images. Overlay a tic-tac-toe/noughts and crosses grid over your image and crop or move your picture around so that the “points of interest” lie on the lines or line intersections. Sounds simple, it has been the basis of countless millions of images throughout the centuries. But is it perfect? No! Is there a better, more badass brother to the grid? Yes! Enter the Golden Ratio.

Just to slow things down a bit, here’s what the Rule Of Thirds (I’ll call it the ROT grid from now on) looks like on a plain black background. Chances are you’re familiar with it, you’ve seen it pop up on your cameras viewfinder or as an overlay in Photoshop or Lightroom. 

Here’s its superior, wiser and elusive brother - the Golden Ratio, also sometimes called the Fibonacci Spiral. It is the result of when you do some complex maths on a rectangle to the tune of: a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.61803398875. Theres no need to memorise this, you can find the overlays everywhere on internet image searches to download and paste over your images, as well as being built in (but very well hidden) to Lightroom. To access this spiral, press R to get your cropping function open, then cycle through the available overlays with O until you find the spiral. Turning it around is done by pressing Shift + O. There are eight variations to it.

If I put the two overlays on top of each other, you can see how similarly they intersect. The tight spiral of the blue ratio almost marries up with the lower right intersection of the red overlay. There is a reason why the golden ratio gets oft pushed away, because it’s murder to have all its eight variations displayed on a screen at once.

So if the golden ratio is more hassle than the ROT grid, why should I care about it? It all comes down to the long sweeping arc of the spiral. Putting your subjects along a curved line rather than straight grid lines draws the viewers eyes around the picture, forcing it to go closer to the tight coil of the spiral where you’ve placed your point of interest. It’s like a giant subliminal road sign pointing the eyes towards where you want them to go. 

I hope I haven’t lost you yet - Here’s a few real world examples of the Golden Ratio in practice on a few of my images, one without an overlay and one with. Hopefully you can see how many times the images follow the sweeping curves and conclude with the focal point of the image in the tight coil.

There’s a whole host of different ways you can use the Golden Ratio, from portraits, landscapes, even sports and street photography. Start looking out for the Golden Section when editing your pictures in your favourite cropping post-production programme and see how it can take your pictures from “yeah” to “oh yeah!”. I have to admit once I discovered my love for the Ratio, I started flicking back through the past few years of shoots to re-crop images in the Ratio. These newly cropped pictures feel more dynamic, interesting and forcibly lead the eye around the pictures. 

As always, it’s entirely up to you to take my advice, but I just want to be able to show that there’s more to the world of art than a criss-cross of lines. Lets just call the Golden Ratio “The Rule Of Thirds, Plus Some More” (TROTPSM for short.)

About the authour: Jon Sparkman is a Cheltenham, UK based fine art photographer. He discovered his love for using flash completely by accident and now centers his work around conveying a message through his photography. You can find his work at www.sparkman.photography and follow him @sparkman_uk on Instagram and Twitter. 

In Defence Of Flash

Flash is a complicated beast, let’s put it that way. 

Say you’ve spent the last few years of your photography journey perfecting natural light, and you know the exposure triangle by memory. Flash comes in to the picture and ruins that perfect triangle, making it more of an exposure square. Where once you could take on all ambient light challenges, flash messes up your previous knowledge base and confuses you from the off. Now you have flashes extra factors to consider - its power, intensity, direction, modifiers ambient-to-flash-ratios, fill ratios and relative size. Did I say its a square? More like an exposure decagon now. Now would be the perfect time to turn around and walk away, but if you’re still interested to know why I think flash is worth learning, read on. 

1. It’s not that hard.

Sure, it takes a while to learn how each modification to your lighting affects your image, but you’ve already learnt so much about photography, this is just the next step. A simple trial and error is all it takes to realise how versatile having flash can be. Have you ever had to spend time in Photoshop lightening a persons face because it wasn’t lit enough? Flash is there to help you. Have you had blurry motion because it was too dark, making you drop down to a slow shutter speed? Flash is there to help you. Just purchasing a flash with off camera capabilities will open up a whole new world of wonder/terror and only by learning, can you control the beast.

2. It’s not that expensive. 

Sure, you can pick up some amazing flash units like the £1,600 Profoto B1 heads, but you can also pick up some little Yongnuo YN-560 flashguns for £50. Unless you’re trying to illuminate large swathes of an outdoor scene, you won’t need those big flashes. I’ve used my cheap Yongnuo flashgun for the past four years commercially and its never let me down. Buy a few of them with triggers and you can start to play around with off camera flash lighting, which is the holy grail of photographic lighting.  Having multiple flashes illuminating different parts of the scene is much more preferable to having one huge singular flash lighting up everything.

3. You can light so it doesn’t look lit.

This is a technique thats hard to explain, but easy to show. Unless you’re in a pitch black room at night, theres going to be some ambient light that your camera can see. For the first job, dial in a setting so that your camera starts to pick up that ambient light, however weak it may be (think back to the exposure triangle). Now thats done - bring your flashgun in on lowest power, and fire off a shot. Start ramping up the flashes power (leave those camera settings alone), until the flash blends in with the ambient. It will blend eventually and if you want to then bring your ambient down a little bit, then read on to the next point. 

4. You can adjust ambient light to taste with one dial. 

This is true on every camera, ever made that can shoot with flash. Say you’ve got to that perfect mix of ambient light and flash, and you’ve fired off a few test shots. Suddenly the sun comes out from behind a cloud and that ambient you worked so hard for gets brighter, and messes with your exposure. Do not fear, a simple technique will fix this - your shutter speed. Moving the shutter speed settings around will not affect the flashes power, or how much flash power is coming in to the camera, it’ll just restrict (or let more in) the amount of ambient light around. When I figured this out it blew my mind. Theres a simple dial on my camera I can twizzle that can affect one part of the two piece ambient-flash exposure. Now I can choose how bright I want my wall lights to be in a picture, or how much glow I want from a candle. You think by slowing down the shutter speed will cause your subjects to blur slightly if moving? Not with flash! The flash freezes the subject that its pointing at, so this is really a win-win-win situation. Use that shutter speed as much as possible to control that ambient, just don’t go above the sync speed for the flash.

5. It can define a feeling.

 I love using flash (can you guess), finding out how different colours, sizes and directions of flash can give a picture a completely different mood. By just having a small flashgun in a different room, you can take an image from being one dimensional to two. You can now light to accentuate a mood, to highlight certain things. It takes you beyond capturing whats in front of you, now you can use flash to guide the viewers eye to different parts of the picture.

Give flash ago, you might just like it. Ignore the internet videos that show you the “right way” to light an image, go it alone, test and test again, find out what works for you and add flash to your gear bag. There is no right way, there is no wrong way. There is only what you think is good. 

About the authour:
Jon Sparkman is a Cheltenham, UK based fine art photographer. He discovered his love for using flash completely by accident and now centers his work around conveying a message through his photography. You can find his work at www.sparkman.photography and follow him @sparkman_uk on Instagram and Twitter

This blog was republished with permission by PetaPixel here on 30th September 2016.

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