Today’s Question: Like perhaps every photographer out there, I’m familiar with the “rule of thirds”. But I didn’t know about the “golden spiral” until I saw it as an option for a crop overlay. I looked it up and read about it, and it didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Do you think this is a “rule” I should be paying attention to in my photography?
Tim’s Quick Answer: I put the Golden Spiral “rule” in the same category as the Rule of Thirds. Put simply, I think it can be helpful to be familiar with the concepts behind these guidelines for composition, but you shouldn’t feel the need to strictly apply these “rules” to your photography.
More Detail: Let’s start with the Rule of Thirds. From my point of view, the Rule of Thirds is not really aimed at making sure you align a key subject precisely along a line dividing the image into one-third increments. Rather, this rule is a “shorthand” for a concept, aimed at helping ensure you achieve a degree of balance, interest, and perhaps symmetry in a given photo.
For example, I tend to think about the Rule of Thirds as being more about balancing the “weight” of subjects in the frame, rather than being about strict positioning within the frame. It is often more interesting (and feels more balanced) to have a key subject off to the side, adding considerable “weight” to that side of the frame, with a relatively open space on the other side balancing out that weight.
The Golden Spiral is similarly focused on the distribution of the key subject (and secondary subjects) within the frame. But the spiral itself rarely applies completely to a photographic scene. Very often when I see photos that have the Golden Spiral as an overlay on the image, the photo itself only loosely matches the shape of the spiral. More often than not I get the feeling that the photographer may have simply found an image that worked reasonably well with the Golden Spiral overlay, rather than actually employing the Golden Spiral at the time of capture.
That’s not to say that the Golden Spiral is somehow “bad”, or that you should ignore this guideline of composition. Indeed, my feeling is that it is worthwhile to gain familiarity with guidelines such as the Golden Spiral, which can provide a degree of consistency and balance when applied effectively in a photograph.
So, I encourage you to learn about these various ratios and look for scenes that lend themselves to those ratios. I simply recommend using these various “rules” as compositional guides rather than taking a dogmatic approach. Allow these various rules to help you better see the world, but don’t get locked into always using a specific compositional guideline. The various rules of composition can help you better see the optimal composition so you can make better decisions about your framing, but there is more to making a great photograph than employing mathematical ratios in the composition.