The Ratio of Two Photographers

The Golden Ratio works with just about all kinds of photography. Or does it?

Within this section I will look two photographers, one current and one historical. I will compare and contrast their types of photography with each other and in relation with the Golden Ratio.

First photographer I will look at is Yousuf Karsh.

Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf was born in 1908. He was brought up in Mardin, a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire, presently Turkey. During his younger years the Armenian Genocide and later fled to Syria with his family. At the age of 16, Yousuf was sent to Quebec, Canada to like with his uncle George Nakash who was a photographer. Yousuf attended school in Quebec and assisted his Nakah in his photography studio. Nakah saw potential in Yousuf and arranged for him practice with a portrait photographer. After a few years, Yousuf established a studio close to the Canadian Government. It didn’t take long before the Canadian Prime Minster discovered Yousuf and arranged portrait sittings with various important people. His work attracted the attention of many celebrities and on the 30th of December 1941 he took what would be his most famous portrait when he photographed Winston Churchill. His status gained him a spot on the top 100 most notable people of the century, named by the International Who’s Who book.

As you’ve probably guessed, his main area of work was in portrait photography. I will firstly look at the relationship between the Golden Ratio and Yousuf’s photography. (Roll over your mouse to show the Golden Ratio)

These are a few of Yousuf Karsh’s portraits. The last photograph of Winston Churchill being the most famous one of all. When looking at the photographs in terms of the composition and Golden Ratio, they all have a tendency not to fit well. The most precise point of the Golden Spiral is some why off the focus point that Yousuf want’s you to look at. This trend isn’t unique to Karsh’s photography, in fact its the portraiture category in general, as pointed out in my previous article. I believe that within portraiture the main focus is the male or female being photographed. The composition is almost irrelevant.

My next practitioner is a guy call Sam Javanrouh. He was born in Iran and lived most of his life there. He moved to Canada in 1999 when he got his first camera, a Nikon CP950 digital camera. In the year of 2003 he set up his own photoblog titled a daily dose of imagery. His goal was to document his day to day visual experience in a photographic form and post a new photo for everyday of the year and is still going today, 7 years on. His website has attracts thousands of page views each day and is a source of inspiration to many. He has also won many photographic and blogging awards from his site.

(Again, Roll over your mouse to show the Golden Ratio)

The selection of images have been picked out from his blog. Each shows a strong use of the Golden Ratio to achieve a visually pleasing image. With this method of composition Sam can take a simple mundane photograph and make it interesting, it takes a photograph from being ‘just another photograph’ to ‘wow, look at that’ in most cases. In my opinion Sam’s work has to utilise the Golden Ratio to achieve his reoccurring “readership” back to his website and this shows. If you flick through his website and visualise the Golden Ratio over the top of each image most of the photos would fit.

The key difference between Yousuf Karsh and Sam Javanrouh is genre 0f photographs being taken. Sure the two photographers have taken similar photographs from time to time, but its the number of times that Yousuf Karsh doesn’t use the Golden Ratio within his portraits because its not essential to make photograph and the frequency that Sam Javanrouh will use the Ratio within his work to make it visually interesting – regardless of the subject matter.

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Ratio in Other Medium – Magazines

Modern day media can use the Golden Ratio in many different ways. Within this article I will be looking at magazines to see how they utilise this visual technique.

I’ll start off by looking at magazines from the pre-modern period and compare the principles for the composition of visual images with those of modern magazines.  “The Gentleman’s Magazine” is considered to have been the first general-interest magazine, first published in 1733.

The Gentleman's Magazine - May 1759 - Hover over the image

By today’s standards this magazine looks rather visually uninspiring, more like a newspaper. As for the Ratio, it doesn’t work particularly well as it doesn’t seem to fit in any orientation. The visual aid of St John’s gate itself doesn’t mix well either with the Golden Ratio It maybe the case that the producers of the magazine were less interested in the layout of print and images and more concerned with text content.

Nowadays we live in world with stronger visual media images. If the Gentleman’s Magazine was on the shelves today we wouldn’t pick it up, despite the content. Technology for sure has influenced the nature of how magazines look. But has it taken onboard the way the Golden Ratio works within layout and photography?

Lets take a look at a recent issue of “Real Homes, the complete home improvement magazine.”

Ignore the fact that the dimensions of this magazine are slightly too wide, this is a perfect example of how a modern day magazine works with the Golden Ratio. If we take a close look at the text and image it shows that it’s almost a perfect fit of Ratio. We can now decode how the producers wanted us to view the magazine on the shelf, guiding your eye from the title, to what’s inside the magazine and finally ending up smack bang on the children of the nuclear family. It’s like the producers took the template of the Golden Ratio and designed the layout around it. A stark difference to “The Gentleman’s Magazine” of 1759.

Next, “More” magazine.

With this magazine the orientation of the Golden Ratio works in reverse i.e. from right to left.  This, to me, doesn’t flow quite as well. This could be because of the western orientation to read from left to right. This is the first time the orientation of the Golden Ratio has had an effect on how I read the image. Nevertheless, technically it still works. Not quite as well as the above (Real Homes) but does catch the main stories, apart from the “I had a baby with my brother” article which it misses out completely – no big loss though.

Moving onto “Amateur Photographer”.

“Amateur Photographer” is, because of its subject matter and target audience, a key magazine to look at. Being a magazine for amateur photographers, could be and probably is for many the first time they’ll read basic photography theory. The front cover fits the bill nicely covering the major articles within the magazine. But what I’m interested in is the way the images are composed within the magazine, not just the layout. A closer look inside is required.

I’ve pulled two photographs from the inside of this issue. The scan on the left shows how the photograph works well with the text. You can tell where the photographer wants you to look, straight into her eye. Scan two on the right is a full page image so the composition has got to be strong. As it is, the lighthouse is slightly off the perfect point of the Golden Ratio, but not by much and not detract from the overall effect.

For the last image I have pulled a portrait from the same magazine. The feature was titled “Art of Africa”. Photographer John Kenny took these intimate portraits of people living in sub-Saharan Africa. As you can see, with the crop of the photograph used, the Golden Ratio doesn’t really fit this image well. In fact, the majority of the images used didn’t fit the Ratio. This isn’t unique to John Kenny’s way of photographing this set of images, as out of all the styles of photography, portraiture appears to be the least concerned with the Golden Ratio. Something to look out for.

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Flickr & Facebook Photos

Before I do any primary research, I will conduct a small test using two popular web 2.0 sites. The first site, is Facebook. I am using this site as a representation of the views of amateur photographers, taking photos from friends who I know aren’t professional photographers.. The next site I will look at will be Flickr – a primary base for so many amateur and professional photographers.

How will I do it?

1) First step is to find a constant, something that will be the same for every result. I’ll use a black template of the golden ratio – easy!

2) Applying the template to the image. This involves layering the template over the image. This is where we fall upon our first problem. The template for the golden ratio will work in four places on an image (top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right). So we have to adapt the template for each and every image. Hint: Roll your mouse over the image to preview the correct position of the template for this image.

Figure 1 - Hover over the image

3) Next, we have to mark where the point of interest (POI) is. This aspect can be quite subjective as I have to enforce my knowledge of photography and judge where I think the point is. For example I have placed the POI on the tip of the plane’s propeller (signified by the white spot in figure 2)

Figure 2

4) Step four is a little laborious. Basically repeating the process for each photograph so you end up with the golden ratio template what looks similar to figure 3. Note, the blue dot is the POI from the above photograph (Fig 2).

Figure 3

What we are left with is a golden ratio with quantifiable results. The dots that are closer to the spiral end are said to be more aesthetically pleasing.

So, on to Facebook. As I have already explained these photographs were from friends who have had no professional experience of photography and would not class themselves as “photographers”. The photographs will be randomly selected.

Facebook Results

Flickr is up next. For this test I used Flickr’s “Interestingness” page from September 2010.

This page presents the best photos in terms of number of views, number of comments, number of favourites etc. per day. So it represents what people find interesting. I would class the photographers who took these images as having a reasonable knowledge of photography.

Flickr Results

So, what does this all mean? Well if you compare the two results directly you’ll see that more Flickr photos were closer to the bullseye than my Facebook friends.

On the Flickr site, a number of anomalies do exist with some points out in no man’s land. However, the tighter the spiral gets the more congested the points are. What this tells me is that within professional Flickr photography the Golden Ratio is certainly at work. One explanation for the anomalies may come from a photographic convention that says “rules are there to be broken”.  So with the knowledge of the Golden Ratio, photographers set out to break it.. Rebels!.

Facebook results show less willingness to congregate towards the centre of the spiral. This could be down to a number of factors. One, this could purely mean that most snapshot photographers don’t take on board the Golden Ratio that is around them and use it within their photographs. Two, as I took them off Facebook, without telling the person to take photographs of anything visually pleasing, they could have literally just pointed and clicked without any thought process, conscious or subconscious. I am hoping to eliminate point two when I conduct my own tests as I will be telling them to take photos of visually interesting objects/places and provoke that thought process.

In conclusion this small scale test, shows that well  informed photographers do use the Golden Ratio within their work. What is a little more dubious is whether snapshot photographers use the Golden Ratio or not. This one’s still plausible.

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Adrian Bejan and his relationship with the Golden Ratio

Adrian Bejan, most people haven’t heard of him but he has discovered the one reason why the Golden Ratio is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Bejan is professor of mechanical engineering at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He believes that in the animal kingdom be it a human in an art gallery or an antelope on the savannah – is orientated on the horizontal. For the antelope looking over the horizon, danger primarily comes from the sides or from behind, not from below or above, so the scope of its vision evolved accordingly. As vision developed, he argues, animals got “smarter” and safer by seeing better and moving faster as a result.

“It is well known that the eyes take in information more efficiently when they scan side to side, as opposed to up and down. When you look at what so many people have been drawing and building, you see these proportions everywhere.” … “[The Golden Ratio] is the best flowing configuration for images from plane to brain and it manifests itself frequently in human-made shapes that give the impression they were ‘designed’ according to the golden ratio.”

“We really want to get on, we don’t want to get headaches while we are scanning and recording and understanding things,” he said. “Shapes that resemble the golden ratio facilitate the scanning of images and their transmission through vision organs to the brain. Animals are wired to feel better and better when they are helped and so they feel pleasure when they find food or shelter or a mate. When we see the proportions in the golden ratio, we are helped. We feel pleasure and we call it beauty.”

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The Golden Ratio – History

While technically the golden ratio has always existed? in mathematics and physically although it is unclear when it was first discovered. The term pops up in different periods of history, which would explain why the golden ratio has many names (The Divine Proportion, the Golden Rectangle, the Golden Mean… etc.)

Historians of mathematics suggest that the Golden Ratio was first understood and used as early as Egyptian times in ancient mathematicians. The ratio subsequently appears in Geometry within the design of the Pyramids. As Mario Livio points out in his book “The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number”, the Golden Ratio has influenced the work of “some of the greatest mathematical minds of all ages, from Pythagoras and Euclid in ancient Greece, through the medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa and the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, to present-day scientific figures such as Oxford physicist Roger Penrose. All have contemplated this simple ratio and its properties.”

“The fascination with the Golden Ratio is not confined just to mathematicians. Biologists, artists, musicians, historians, architects, psychologists, and even mystics have pondered and debated the basis of its ubiquity and appeal. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the Golden Ratio has inspired thinkers of all disciplines like no other number in the history of mathematics.”

Greeks


The use of the Golden Ratio in different civilisations has been the subject of much dispute. Many would argue that the Greeks were one of the first civilisations to discover the golden ratio and to use it for practical means including the constructions of buildings. They experimented with the use of the ratio within triangles, rectangles. The Greek sculptor Phidias was said to have influenced the design of the Parthenon using has the Golden Ratio throughout this structure.

However, some people deny that the Greeks held an association with golden ratio. One critic, Keith Devlin says, “Certainly, the oft repeated assertion that the Parthenon in Athens is based on the golden ratio is not supported by actual measurements. In fact, the entire story about the Greeks and golden ratio seems to be without foundation. The one thing we know for sure is that Euclid, in his famous textbook Elements, written around 300 BC, showed how to calculate its value.”

The Renaissance

The Renaissance cultural movement brought a mass of artistic revolution. This “shift” in art was the transitional period from the end of the middle ages and the start of the modern age. The timescale for this movement is believed to have commenced from the 14th century in Italy.
The renaissance artists at that time used the golden ratio abundantly within their paintings and sculptures. However they did not call it the Golden Ratio, they called it “the Divine Proportion” – reflecting its God like properties.

The words “Divine Proportion” originated from a publication by Luca Pacioli in 1509 entitled “De Divina Proporione” which Leonardo Da Vinci provided illustrations and drawings for.
Da Vinci, used it to define the proportions within his painting of “The Last Supper”. This contains a golden ratio in several places, appearing in both the ceiling and the position where the people sit.

Another example can be found in the Da Vinci’s painting the Mona Lisa, which is full of golden rectangles of 1.618.

Mona Lisa’s face uses a rectangular structure based on the Golden Ratio. According to the ratio of the width of her forehead compared to the length from the top of her head to her chin. This may not be a big surprise to some and Leonardo was, after all, a mathematician. But again, like the Greeks, speculation is rife about whether the golden ratio directly influenced the work of De Vinci. Mario Livio himself points out that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa “has been the subject of so many volumes of contradicting scholarly and popular speculations that it virtually impossible to reach any unambiguous conclusions” with respect to the golden ratio.

Either way – for some interactive fun time have a play with the Mona Lisa Applet.

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What is The Golden Ratio?

One of the most long established  rules within photography has been the rule of thirds. According to George Field in his book “Chromatics; or, The analogy, harmony, and philosophy of colours” (1845) the rule of thirds appears as early as 1797 as a rule for proportioning scenic paintings. The theory behind this rule of composition is encapsulated around balance. If you place points of interest along lines or intersections within a photograph, the overall effect  will be more aesthetically pleasing.

The rule of thirds is used by many photographers as a simple method of achieving a athletically pleasing composition. A more technical and accurate method of creating an aesthetically pleasing image would be to use the Golden Ratio (spiral). This takes what is known as the ‘Fibonacci Numbers’ (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc) and applies them within the real world with the use of the golden spiral.

To explain this in more detail, I’ve placed a grid with the Fibonacci series of numbers within it. As you can see, it starts with 1+1 which is 2, 1+2 = 3 and so on. Fairly simple you may think. This next bit is when things start to get clever. Take, for example, boxes 5 and 8. You might think the difference between those boxes is pretty elementary, just another 3 boxes on each side. However, the length of the side of the 8 square divided by that of the 5 square is the (1.6180) golden ratio. So line B is x1.6 longer than line A. This sequence follows suit as the Fibonacci numbers increase.

This video below explains how the golden ratio works in a wonderfully visual way:

http://www.youtube.com/v/P0tLbl5LrJ8?fs=1&hl=en_US&hd=1

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The Numbers of Life – Fibonacci

To understand the golden ratio, first you must understand the Fibonacci sequence. Leonardo Fibonacci was born around 1170 into a wealthy Italian family. His father, Gugliemlo Fibonacci, was a successful merchant who directed a trading post in Bugia (a Mediterranean port, now Algeria). He learnt his mathematical skills whilst traveling around the mediterranean and learning from Arab mathematicians. He returned to Italy around 1200 and published what he had learnt in the Liber Abaci (meaning Book of the Abacus or Book of calculating).

A page from the Liber Abaci

Within this book, Fibonacci introduced a series of numbers to the western world. Fibonacci is commonly credited as having discovered this series of numbers. In fact  the numbers have been with us for a very much  longer period of time. To trace the orgins of these numbers  – we have to go back not to the Renaissance, not even to Adam and Eve but to the creation of the universe itself. It is a number that determines how sunflowers seed, Pinecones and Daisies grow and humans develop.. More on that in another post.

On To The Numbers

Starting with 0 and 1, each new number in the series is simply the sum of the two before it.

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

The ratio between one number and the latter in the series is roughly 1.6180 as the numbers increase (13 ÷ 8=1.625, 21 ÷ 13=1.615, 34 ÷ 21=1.619, 55 ÷ 34=1.618). So, whats the significance of this number you say? Its the “golden ratio”. And, if any of you were interested in the full Fibonacci number, here you go: its full version is 1.618033988749895.

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