The Golden Mean in Photography Composition

One of the oldest sets of rules in the arts, the golden mean was formulated by the ancient Greeks and is applicable to all of the visual arts, including painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography. It is basically a way of relating the parts of a composition to the whole in a visually pleasing way by means of proportions. The golden mean is based on the assumption that a part is most pleasingly related to the whole in a 1/3 or 2/3 proportion.


What is Golden Mean in Photography Composition?

In photography, the golden mean is generally applied by dividing the rectangle of the picture area into a grid of thirds, both horizontally and vertically, to place an important picture element at one of the line intersections or along any of the lines. You do not actually draw lines on the picture, of course, but instead imagine their presence while looking through the viewfinder. (Of course. you could apply such lines to the ground glass viewing screen of a view camera as some photographers have done. Many photographers consider this technique satisfying, however.)

As the ancient Greeks formulated the rule, and especially as they applied it to sculpture and architecture, the divisions were not exact thirds. In photography, however, the division into thirds is a good rule of thumb and is also quite easy to visualize. And since picture elements of importance are rarely discrete points or lines, but instead are masses or tonal areas occupying substantial amounts of space, exactness of the proportions is rarely a practical concern. Say, for example, that part of a building occupies one side of the picture area and a person the other. If the edge of the building falls along a line one-third of the way across the picture and the person is one-third in from the other side with the head about a third down from the top, the golden mean is fulfilled.

Not every picture can be composed in this manner, of course, but if you keep these proportions and the method of their use floating in the back of your mind, you may be able to use them profitably with at least some of your work. The proportions of the golden mean have been applied to all sorts of subject matter and photographic approaches with pleasing effect and with no sense of repetitiveness. If you are interested in the method, it is easy to experiment with, and you will quickly see how well the idea fits into your personal practice of photography.

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