Landscape Compositional Tool #5:

Golden Spiral

The golden spiral is a great tool for your landscape compositional toolbox. It is a curved spiral derived from a mathematical ratio that is commonly found in nature and is visually pleasing to the eye. The image below gives an example of what the golden spiral looks like; however, it can be oriented multiple different ways to produce a pleasing image to the viewer.

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To use this compositional tool, the goal is to place items of interest along this curve to provide a path for the viewer’s eye to follow when viewing the photograph. This tool can be difficult to recognize in nature, but with some practice it can be learned. The best way to use it while on location is to imagine a giant 9 overlaid on the image the camera is capturing and that can approximate the golden spiral composition. As we’ll see in the examples below, the golden spiral can be oriented multiple different ways to create an interesting photograph.

The golden spiral can also be used in post-processing when cropping an image to determine the best crop that will be pleasing to the eye. Most post-processing software, such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, include this as a crop overlay that can be adjusted to show the variations on this compositional tool. After opening the crop tool, Shift+O will adjust the golden spiral to show variations on the figure above. Using the different variations allows flexibility in how to apply this compositional technique to a photo when cropping.

May 15, 2021

As seen in the photos above of Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur, California, the golden spiral works well as a compositional technique. Starting with the bottom right corner, the waves and cliffs lead the eye up into the Milky Way, which guides the eye towards the top of the image, and then moving down leads to the bridge. The golden spiral gives a path for how the viewer’s eye will move through the photograph and ensures there is interest in the right places.

The photos below from Ennis, Texas during bluebonnet season show a different orientation of the golden spiral. Starting with the tree in the upper left-hand corner leads the eye down into the field of flowers, and then the eye moves across the field, up towards the horizon and then into the other tree. This provides a path for the eye to follow with interest along the curve.

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As another example, the photos from Grand Teton National Park’s Snake River Overlook in Wyoming below show how the golden spiral can be approximate. Starting in the lower left corner, the river leads the eye into the mountains and then across the sky and resulting in the mountain peaks. Notice how the spiral ends not on the peak, but just to the left of the peak. The golden spiral does not need to be exact, but this photo could be cropped from the left, which would move the end of the spiral to the mountain peak. Whether to crop this or not would be the photographer’s preference on what they feel looks better. I personally like the composition as it is and am comfortable with how the golden spiral is not placed on the peak.

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Another example from Bodega Bay, California shows the same golden spiral orientation as above but on another photo. Starting in the bottom left corner the coast line leads the eye into the star trails, which naturally lead the eye towards the center of the star trails. Again, the end of the spiral is slightly off center, but the composition still works even though it is not exactly on the center of the star trails.

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Another example from the T.A. Moulton Barn in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming shows a different orientation of the golden spiral. Starting in the upper right corner and following the clouds across the picture leads the eye to the mountains, down to the barn, across the grass into the trees.

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As seen in the examples above the golden spiral is a versatile compositional tool for your landscape photography toolbox. To read about more tools in the compositional toolbox, check out this article. This tool can be difficult to implement while on location, but by overlaying a “9” on the scene, it can approximate the golden spiral. This tool can also be used in post-processing to help with cropping an image to generate the most interest for a viewer. Placing items of interest along the golden spiral gives the viewer’s eye a path to follow with pleasing items to hold the viewer’s attention.

How have you used the golden ratio in your photography? Let me know in the comments below!

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