Tips For Better Holiday Pictures This Year

the golden spiral
The Golden Spiral is just one visualization trick you can use to take better family photos this year

I wanted to revisit two separate articles on the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio and try to merge them into a way of viewing a scene and seeing the photograph within before everyone heads home for the holidays and starts swamping image services with the same family photos with the same really bad composition and lighting we see every year.

Just to review, the Rule of Thirds is a composition guideline that goes back almost as far as recorded time that suggests instead of putting a subject dead center in a photograph, shift the subject roughly a third of the way toward the edge of the frame. The way to visualize that is to picture a screen of nine equal size blocks overlaid on your view screen. The object is to put the subject at the interior intersection of any four of those blocks.

You can apply the same technique to your family photos. Instead of focusing just on the subject, try to focus on what they’re doing. If a family member is in the kitchen cooking, try to pan the camera over far enough to capture what they’re making. By focusing on the task instead of the subject, you’ll actually be moving the subject closer to the edges of the photograph. The same if they’re working in the garage or unwrapping presents. By framing the activity to the center, you’ll naturally be moving the subject toward the thirds.

That rule also provides guidance for distance. Adjust your distance so you can still see the person performing the activity, with what they’re working on center frame. If there’s distance between the subject and edge of the frame, you’re probably too far away. Move in or zoom in, if you can’t take a step forward.

Breaking Up The Police Lineup

Invariably everyone rushes into a line against the wall while someone snaps a few pictures with that dreadful straight-on flash. This year, escape from the police line up by borrowing a trick from the Golden Ratio.

To help visualize the golden ratio, imagine a widening swirl that starts in the upper right third of your camera frame that then curves toward the bottom of the frame, then starts up the other side, ending at the upper left corner.

Let’s say there were three couples in the police line. Break that up by having one couple stand to the back and off to one side. Have the second couple sit or kneel closer to the center of the frame and a little forward, and the third couple sit on a couch or stool off to the left at a medium distance. Now picture the swirl. It should start around head height of the standing couple on the right, sweep down to the couple on the floor, then sweep back up to the couple at medium height on the couch or chairs.

Now you’ve broken up the dreaded police line and created interesting composition by aligning your logically grouped subjects along the golden spiral. The result will be much better family photos!

Some of these concepts seem abstract until you can translate them to something that’s real to you. Experiment a little and look back years later with pride at the pictures you took.

Photography Basics: The Golden Rule

Applying the golden ration
Missed it by that much - According to this overlay I should have lowered the frame just a tad.

The rule of thirds is one of the easier elements of composition to master and I like it because it’s easy.  Mentally divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically and put the subject near the power points. Easy.  My kind of rule.

The Golden Ratio is a little more complicated and involves math.  For thousands of years artists and intellectuals have studied the Golden Ratio and other constructs based on the Golden Mean and how it applies to art composition.  That has yielded tools like the Golden Triangle, the Golden Spiral, and the Golden Rectangle.

This gets deep in a hurry, so I’m going to simplify by saying the Golden Rectangle is one where the short side and long side relate to one another on a ratio of 1.61803.  You might recognize the Golden Rectangle by another name, we call it 16:9 (actually a ratio of 1.777, but close enough).

Align the visual elements of a picture to the golden ratio and apparently humans perceive the composition more positively.  It’s true.  If you look at an older TV show shot in 4:3 it looks boxy compared to a show shot in wide screen format.  Once you get used to wide screen it’s hard to go back.

By way of a simple calculation, divide the frame diagonally, corner to corner.  Then draw a second line from the lower corner to upper intersection of thirds.  That will yield a rough approximation of the Golden Triangle.  Do the same drawing a line from the upper left corner to the lower left intersection of the thirds.  If you can picture all that in your head, then you’re aligned with the Divine Ratio.

You can see how your pictures measure up to the gold standard at this handy site.