Compositional Devices: Phi, The Rule of Thirds, The Golden Ratio/Section/Rule.

Phi Principles1

This week’s photo challenge is really beginning to bug me. Not least because the rule wasn’t really explained correctly in the challenge post. The way that the Rule of Thirds has been explained as an artistic principle, traditionally, is that one has to imagine a grid of nine squares dividing an image, with each line representing a potential guide along or within which to place a subject or element of a composition. It places compositional elements just off-centre, approximately, which is meant to be more pleasing to the eye, and thus creating a more successful composition. However, The Rule of Thirds is a misnomer, because it is loosely based upon the principle of the Golden Ratio, or as it is known mathematically ‘Phi’. One might be correct in thinking that it involves dividing the frame into three, either from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom, bottom to top. The grid that is demonstrated through traditional methods is to show the rule being applied from all directions at the same time, hence the confusion. But it’s still incorrect. Even if you apply the Golden Ratio from all directions so that you form a grid over the image, it looks more like the grid above.

The Golden Ratio, or Phi as we shall refer to it henceforth, is much simpler and more beautiful if used correctly. It is an exact measurement that divides a length or distance by 1.618, providing two unequal sections (not three). Get a piece of paper, measure it, then divide by the Phi number (1.618) and you will find the Phi point, from which then you can draw a dividing line either horizontally or vertically, or if you are feeling more adventurous, diagonally. Each section created by the Phi division can be divided further using the same principle to create more Phi points, remembering that this can be done from all directions, and to infinity.
A complex composition as with the Venetian street scene above, may contain many Phi points or lines as demonstrated by the coloured lines, which approximately line up with architectural features. When applied to a photographic image it has to be approximate as you cannot measure the frame through the viewfinder with any kind or ease or speed, although many digital cameras will display a grid as mentioned above when composing a shot. To apply the rule with the naked eye, as I have done in my own image above (ordinarily the intersecting lines should create a perfect square which surrounds the centre point of your composition, or chosen section of the composition), find the centre point of the shot, and place your compositional element a couple of degrees at either side, above or below. As our eyes and brains are innately equipped to recognise Phi, being that much of nature, including our bodies are based upon that principle measurement, finding that point should elicit a release of endorphins, i.e. it should feel right when you have hit that point. After some practise, you will begin to see it automatically when assessing a shot. Street Photography lends itself especially well to this principle because often you will have many horizontals and verticals, either formed by architectural features, people, trees, vehicles etc., or diagonals if strong shadows are being cast from buildings for example, stairways and lines of perspective inclusive, all of which provide guidelines for dividing your composition. Once again, place the object of interest at the centre of your frame and move slightly off in the direction of your choosing. Dead simple.

With reference to dividing the image into three portions, this is a different compositional device all together, which also has its unique merit, and can also create a very pleasing composition. However, that is because we also find divisions of three very appealing. I’ll be discussing the value of pyramids and the Rule of Three at a later point during mine and Bill’s series The Art of Street Photography. For now though, feeling slightly more at ease now that I’ve demonstrated the principle of Phi, I hope you have fun putting it to practise.

Have a great day!

Bess 🙂

P.S. Just for those who are wondering, I took the above shot on instinct. I liked it and pressed the shutter button. It just so happens that the Rule of Thirds, or Phi, The Golden Ratio, however you want to call it applies really very well in multiple ways, thus demonstrating how the adept the brain is at recognising complex patterns within the world around us as the highlighted link within the text proves.


8 comments on “Compositional Devices: Phi, The Rule of Thirds, The Golden Ratio/Section/Rule.

    • Thanks for your input Tina, it’s much appreciated. However, I have to disagree about what the average blogger is capable of understanding. I think if a concept is explained well, and simply enough then it can be understood. The Golden Ratio, or Rule of Thirds is not rocket science, it is just a compositional device. As WordPress decided to explain the rule with such vagueness, I thought I would clarify it. Teach people the correct rule from the outset, and that way they won’t develop bad habits. I assume everyone is of a reasonable intelligence.

  1. Bugger … I’ll never take another photo …

    It’s a bit like when the mischievous flea stopped and asked the millipede, in apparent earnestness—”My golly gosh! Wow! A thousand legs! How on earth do you ever figure out which one to move next?” And hopped off, leaving the totally gobsmacked (and stranded) millipede stalled in his tracks …

    For myself, I don’t know how I duz it—I just duz it, and sometimes I gets lucky.

    • Yeah well, I got lucky with this shot too. I rarely think about why I’m shooting what I’m shooting, despite having a knowledge of art theory. I just shoot what feels right most of the time. But that’s what has been discovered through scientific studies, that the brain is naturally adept at recognising very complex patterns within the world around us, and particularly within images, the Golden Ratio being one of them. I couldn’t have consciously composed the above shot using the Phi rule if I’d tried. I’d have missed the shot as someone walked into the alley way. My brain did this all by itself, clever thing. Very serendipitous shot really. 🙂

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