Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio

April 22

19 min. to read

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Find out what is the golden ratio and how can you use it?

The golden ratio is a mysterious proportion considered the secret behind many works of art. It appeals to our senses. People seem to appreciate it so much that beauty standards are based on it. No wonder the golden ratio was called “the Divine Proportion” during the Renaissance.

Among the famous artists who used it are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Sandro Botticelli. Salvador Dali used the golden ratio to compose “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” It has been used for centuries in architecture too. The Parthenon, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the UN Secretariat Building are just a few examples.

Extensive use of the golden ratio in art has made golden ratio appealing for modern artistic fields like photography and design. The golden ratio even applies to music, as analysis of works by Debussy, Béla Bartók, and Erik Satie shows.

Here’s everything you need to know about the golden ratio and how you can use it in the visual arts.

The golden ratio: the theory

Few people know exactly what the golden ratio is. The name is slightly misleading, as the golden ratio is an irrational number symbolized by the Greek letter Phi and has nothing to do with gold. It was first used in 447 BC by the Greek sculptor Phidias in the sculptures he made for the Parthenon, hence its name. Like Pi, its value can’t be computed precisely, but it’s approximately equal to 1.61803398874989484820.

The golden ratio can be defined by a geometrical construction, using the Fibonacci series, or using trigonometry and limits. The easiest way to understand its visual impact is to divide a line into two segments, a and b, according to the following proportion:

(a+b)/a= a/b=1.618...

The golden ratio — also called the golden number, golden section, and golden mean — appears in the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13). If you take any two successive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, you’ll see that their ratio is close to the golden ratio. And the higher the numbers, the closer the approximation. There’s a lot of math related to the golden ratio, and you can have fun trying to see what mathematical implications it has.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image1

By dividing an area into rectangles according to the golden ratio and adding a curve in each rectangle, you can get a better idea of the golden ratio and its relation to the Fibonacci series, called the golden spiral. Just from this simple sketch you can already recognize one of the most appealing shapes in nature.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image2By Jahobr - Own Work, CC0

The golden ratio in nature

The golden ratio isn’t just a number with a strong mathematical background. It’s a number that appears frequently in nature. You can find shapes and structures based on it in romanesco cauliflower, sea shells, flower petals, leaves, DNA molecules, the Milky Way, hurricanes, and the entire human body.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image3

Why does nature use the golden ratio? Botanists have concluded that plants optimize their sun exposure by growing leaves in a spiral and making sure they aren’t at repeating angles. Physicists have concluded that shapes created using the golden ratio consume less energy. In brief, nature is always optimizing, and the golden ratio is an optimal solution to many issues.

There are strategies explaining why shapes based on the golden ratio are so appealing to humans. It’s not just that you can see the golden ratio in nature. It seems that humans (as well as animals) interpret these shapes faster than any others. Our brains are trained to recognize and interpret this type of information. Fascination with the golden ratio and golden spirals might explain why we’re fascinated by hurricanes despite the obvious danger.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image4

Natural patterns are often implemented in man-made products, and the golden ratio is no exception. We’ve been using it for centuries just to discover that, as always, nature was ahead of us.

The golden ratio: examples and applicability

Leaving aside the mathematical aspects and its popularity in nature, the golden ratio in art has an important quality: it naturally attracts people’s attention. This is the dream of any visual artist. If Renaissance painters were looking for innovation and freedom of expression, modern artists are looking for uniqueness and authenticity. They want to stand out from the crowd, get attention, and get a loyal audience.

The golden ratio is frequently used in photography, design, and architecture. It helps you build a balanced composition and establish a strong focal point. It isn’t easy to use an irrational number in creative fields, but there are tools and methods that can ease the work for you.

People have discovered many outstanding works of art that respect the golden ratio. But many of them were built without claiming to use it. So is this number really useful in modern visual arts like photography and design?

The golden ratio in photography

The easiest way to use the golden ratio in photography is to choose an aspect ratio that respects the Divine Proportion. Instead of using the classic 4:3 or 16:9, try using a 16:10 ratio. This is especially useful in exhibitions, where your works are printed at large scale and you want to gain people’s attention and interest.

You can also use the golden ratio in photography as a composition rule. Similar to the rule of thirds, this is called the golden rule. To apply this rule to your photos, divide your image using the Phi Grid: two vertical lines and two horizontal lines that respect the golden ratio. Then place the focal point of your image along these lines or, even better, at their intersection.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image5Photo by Eric Muhr

The golden rule is commonly used in landscape photography, where vast scenery needs to be framed in appealing proportions. You can also use it in street photography to add motion and perspective.

While you can improve with practice, imagining the Phi Grid when you take photos isn’t as easy as imagining the rule of thirds. Fortunately, there are some image editors that can help you achieve the golden ratio in post-processing.

Luminar 3 has a crop tool designed to help you deliver better compositions. You can choose the aspect ratio when cropping an image, and 16:10 is among the options.

You can also activate a grid that shows both the rule of thirds and the golden rule. Simply place your subject along the intersections of the grid. When you get the composition you want, press Done and the image will be cropped.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image6
Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image7

To be able to afford cropping, you need to use large photos. It also helps to consider using the golden ratio when you take photos. Even if you aren’t exact with your positioning, you’ll minimize the cropping.

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You can use Luminar 3 both for editing your compositions and increasing image quality, as it’s also a fast and efficient image enhancer. Luminar has many presets designed for specific categories of images that make post-processing easy. For example, the image below was enhanced before cropping using the Autumn Colors Look from the Landscape set.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image8

You can try all the features of Luminar 3 right now by downloading the free trial version.

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While derived from the same golden ratio, the golden spiral or Fibonacci spiral is considered a different composition technique. The golden spiral is used when an image has more curves than straight lines. This technique places the objects of interest along the spiral, creating a visual vortex.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image9Photo by Ryan Searle

The golden spiral is commonly used for portraits, interior design, and commercial photography. It’s up to you if you want to combine several composition techniques and use the golden ratio in more than one way.

You can use the golden ratio in photography to create balance in a composition. Choose the perspective and shooting angle in such a way that the relation between subjects respects the golden ratio. You can use this technique in still life photographs, commercial photography, and portraits. Experiment with proportions and use color contrast to make your compositions complex and meaningful.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image10Photo by Roberta Sorge

The use of the golden ratio in photography can be extended by choosing subjects with the desired shapes and proportions, resizing image components to golden ratio dimensions, or adding Fibonacci spiral effects. For example, a picture of a rose will be more appealing if you photograph it from the above, framing the spiral arrangement of the petals.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image11Photo by Dorota Dylka

But can we get the perfect image simply by following a geometrical rule? In his book The Decisive Moment (1952), Henri Cartier-Bresson says:

“In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes.”

You can do any math you want when taking a picture. But if you don’t have a good subject, good technique, and a strong message to convey, your images will be dull and uninteresting.

The golden ratio in design

Graphic designers couldn’t miss the opportunity to get people’s attention by using a simple geometrical proportion. The math behind some famous logos — including for Apple, Twitter, National Geographic, and Pepsi — is proof of the golden ratio’s importance in design. It creates not only appealing shapes but memorable ones.

Without noticing it, you use the golden ratio in design when you use a web page template with a lateral sidebar. You use it when you choose font sizes for titles and body text, when you create logos, and when you decide how much empty space to use in web design. You can use the golden ratio even when you choose a color palette.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image12But not only digital design benefits from the golden ratio. Magazine templates, object design, interior design, and fashion are using it too. The most flattering dress patterns respect the golden ratio in their bust/waist and hip/waist proportions. The hourglass shape is given to us by the golden ratio.

Some argue that the golden ratio isn’t a panacea and doesn’t solve all design requirements. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have bad design. And the argument is valid. People also observe unusual shapes: things that breaks the rules, distortions, and exceptions.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image13

You can use the golden ratio in design to create a template and decide what type of content you need in each place. You can use it to create a path that’s easy for the human eye to follow and concentrate attention in a specific area. You can use it to create negative space and minimalist design. But after all, a single rule can’t do all the work.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image14

You can infinitely divide a shape into smaller geometric shapes using the golden ratio. But you have to know when it’s not efficient anymore. Even if people are genetically programmed to like this proportion, there are many other conditions you must fulfill to gain the public’s attention.

The golden ratio in architecture

The history of the golden ratio in architecture begins with the ancient Greeks, to whom aesthetics were very important. But using the golden ratio in architecture gives balance, which is appreciated in any architectural style.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image15Parthenon, Greece

It was intensively used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Salisbury Cathedral (13th century) and the Palazzo Vecchio (15th century) in Florence are good examples. People are still looking for codes and mystical objects in these places.

There’s a long list of famous buildings that use the golden ratio. The list covers all periods of history and adds new buildings every day. The golden ratio and golden spiral are taught in architecture schools around the world.

Still, many people argue that the golden ratio wasn’t deliberately used in architecture. They say that attention to detail and use of geometric patterns was part of the architectural style of a specific period. Moreover, people didn’t claim to use the golden ratio until the 20th century.

Contemporary architecture has more aims than just being beautiful. The golden ratio can be a useful tool, but as in design and photography, it’s not the only thing that matters.

Everything You Need to Know about the Golden Ratio Image16Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo by Micaela Parente 

The golden ratio has challenged mathematicians, art critics, architects, and designers. It has been found in ancient buildings and works of art, in music and logos, but also in natural environments and even in our own bodies.

We’ve been fascinated for centuries by this amazing ratio that makes things beautiful. We’ve been also fascinated by its strong mathematical implications. But we’ve come to a point where we have to decide if we’ve let ourselves be fascinated by the tool or by the result.

The golden ratio is a useful tool. You can use it to create balance in two-dimensional and three-dimensional spaces. You can use it to compose music, create color palettes, and optimize web design. In photography, the golden ratio gives us tools to make better compositions and emphasize the focal point.

Nature gives us tools to understand and build graceful works of art. On top of that, we’ve built our own magical tools like Luminar 3, a photo editor that allows you to use the golden ratio in post-processing. You can download Luminar right now and try it for free.

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