Composition – The Golden Mean

Your three-dimensional subjects and the scene they’re in are composed through your lens. This composition relies on many factors, including lenses and shot sizes, as well as camera angles. But one underlying principle can’t be understated: the golden mean appearing in nature, a ratio studied by mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (whom you might recall from that high school geometry class). Many cameras are equipped with rule-of-thirds gridlines, which provide a decent way to compose your images—keeping eye lines on the top third of the image and your subject in either the right or left third, for example. But photographer Jake Garn argues that the Rule of Thirds isn’t as naturally dynamic as the use of the golden mean, which we can see in one of his photos in Figure 1.1 —the girl in the foreground composed along the golden mean.

Figure 1.1

Garn explains how Mario Livio explores this topic in his book, The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number (Broadway Books, 2003). The ratio provides a spiral and rectangular pattern that reflects a pattern found in nature and, when used by photographers and cinematographers, can create powerful compositions.

If you want to learn how to do this and train your eye to compose your images around the golden mean, the Shutterfreaks team—a group of photographers who have created a website with tips and tricks ( )—offer a Photoshop application that allows you to take stills of your compositions and see how well they fit within the golden mean. You may download Shutterfreak’s application for Photoshop, so you can analyze a still within a golden mean grid; see

Vincent Laforet’s Reverie, shot on a Canon 5D Mark II was the first sensational DSLR web hit that highlighted the low-light capabilities of the camera. It features a man longing for a girl, failing to find her during a late-night rendezvous. Let’s look at a few random stills and apply Shutterfreak’s golden mean app in Photoshop, just to see how it holds up compositionally along the golden mean (see Figures 1.2–1.4 ).

Another aspect of composition includes creating the illusion of three dimensions by providing depth to a scene. The woman in Figure 1.4 appears to stand out from the background due to the fact that lights are on in the background— this gives the scene depth. Also, you may stage background and foreground characters and move them along different planes of action to signify the sense of depth as well.

Practicing with depth, light, and placement of your subjects is the best way to train yourself for good composition. Ultimately, there are no rules, only what looks and feels right for the story. But an understanding of where and why these rules work—and a mastery of them in your shooting—is important if you want to create powerful shots. Don’t break the rules until you know how to use each of them well.

Figure 1.2

In the opening shot of Laforet’s film, we can see how the man and woman kissing become the compositional center point, the naturally occurring spot on the “canvas,” placing the Brooklyn Bridge in the background into balance. If Laforet had composed the characters dead center, the choice may not have been as compositionally powerful as the one he chose. Whether or not Laforet was conscious of it, the golden mean used as a tool helps provide compositional resonance to the scene. (Still from Reverie. ©2008 Vincent Laforet. Used with permission.)

Figure 1.3

In this tight close-up, we can see again how Laforet’s compositional choice resonates with power around the golden mean. (Still from Reverie. ©2008 Vincent Laforet. Used with permission.)

Figure 1.4

The woman waits for the man, but he’ll be too late. Whether or not he was conscious of it, Laforet composed her along the golden mean, providing strong composition to the scene as the camera tilts up. Note the back light placement causing a rim light glow, as well as her shadow to fall across the ground right across the golden mean line, presenting a strong compositional vertical for the shot. (Three-point lighting setup is covered in the next chapter.) (Still from Reverie. ©2008 Vincent Laforet. Used with permission.)

Excerpted from DSLR Cinema, 2e by Kurt Lancaster © 2012 Taylor and Francis. All rights Reserved.

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