The Golden Section vs. the Rule of Thirds

by Natalie van Sambeck

All images are created by the author unless noted otherwise.

Sure we’ve all head of the rule of thirds.  It’s a basic composition principle intended to create more balance within your composition.  To do this we divide the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically.  This breaks up our image into nine equal parts creating four intersections points referred to as “sweet spots.”  These sweet spots are considered to be areas where the eye is natural draw to so the idea is to place the subject of focus either along one of the four intersecting points or along the grid lines.  As you can see in the image above, the legs and the rose are positioned along the lines with one of the sweet spots intersecting just above the knee.

While this is a common compositional principle in photography, have you ever wondered where it came from?  Technically speaking, painter, writer, and printer, John Thomas Smith, first coined the term in 1797.  Smith was commenting on some observations he made over Rembrandt’s painting The Cradle, which was two thirds in shadow and one third in light.  However, in my humble opinion the rule of thirds is really an over simplification of the Phi grid, which comes from the golden section.

Otherwise called the golden mean or the golden ratio, the golden section is an irrational mathematical constant that equals to approximately 1.6180339.  Plato was the first to discover this golden ratio, which he expressed in a line.  Looking at the image below we see line A is divided into B and C.  The golden section says that A is to B as B is to C.  In other words, Ais 1.618 times longer than B and B is 1.618 times longer than C.

The number 1.618, which I’m sure you all recognize as Phi, is responsible for the fibonacci spiral.  Otherwise called the golden spiral, the fibonacci spiral is naturally found throughout nature with a growth factor of Phi.  That means that every time the spiral turns a quarter of a circle, the spiral grows so that it is one golden ratio away from the center of the spiral.    

So what does this have to do with the Phi grid and the Rule of Thirds?  The fibonacci spiral can be constructed inside a golden rectangle and both the fibonacci spiral and the golden rectangle is constructed using the golden section.  Do you know that the closest aspect ratio we have to the golden section in photography is 3:2?  This should not be surprising since 35mm film and most digital cameras follow this aspect ratio.  That’s not to say that other aspect ratios don’t have purpose and meaning but that’s a topic for another day.

Now back to the golden section.  If you look at the illustration below, you will see the large golden rectangle and the fibonacci spiral.  Notice how the large golden rectangle makes a square with a new but smaller golden rectangle.  This new golden rectangle can then be divided into a new square and an even smaller golden rectangle.  This can go on and on just like the spiral does. The smallest golden rectangle in the illustration, located in the upper right hand corner, makes up one of the four corners that make up the Phi grid. 

The next three images below show the rule of thirds, the Phi grid, and both the Phi grid and the rule of thirds.  As you can see the two principles aren’t too far off from one another.  However, some would argue that the Phi grid creates a more natural and balanced feel to the rule of thirds.  I am personally inclined to lean towards the golden section over the rule of thirds.  In fact, I find that I naturally apply the Phi grid quite frequently in my compositions.  A case in point would be the self portrait illustrating the principles below.  As you can see from the second image, one of the Phi lines cuts right through my eyes.  I would like to say that I created this self portrait with Phi grid in mind, but the truth is that this was coincidental.   However, this awareness in my own work has led to my personal belief that the Phi grid is more natural that the rule of thirds.  This is of course my opinion.  You may disagree.

Did you know that Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was first a painter before a photographer, often applied these sacred geometry principles when framing his compositions?  What’s even more compelling is he refusal to crop any of his images.  Take a look at the following image below.  You can see where the 3:2 frame is slightly larger than the golden rectangle but you can also see how he used the the fibonacci spiral in his composition.

In closing I would like to leave you with one more idea to think about.  The Phi grid is just one of many compositional principles that stems from the golden section.   Principles such as the occult center, the golden section from the double square, rebattement, ricocheting, and symmetry with triangles are just some variations of the golden section that many of the painting masters as well as photographer’s have used to successfully compose a master piece…and they didn’t use the rule of thirds.


[1]  Harris, John R.  Who Wrote the Rule of Thirds. Web. Retrieved on November 28, 2016 from

[2]  Olsen, Scott.  The Golden Section: Nature’s Greatest Secret. Walker Publishing Company, New York, New York, 2006. Print.

NOTE:  Both illustration came from Scott Olsen’s book and the last image was taken from