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The Golden Mean

To see how the Fibonacci sequence relates to visual space, consider the following representation. We stack squares based on the numbers in the sequence. The first two numbers are one, so the first two squares have sides equal to one unit. The next number is two, so this square lines up nicely with the first two. As the arrangement becomes larger, it begins to fall into a recognizable, repeating pattern.

Creating an arc that traces the edges of each block leads us toward the center in what is called the Fibonacci spiral. Starting with just a few blocks, the spiral is not yet very accurate, but we can extrapolate what the spiral should look like given an infinite number of iterations. Artists call the center of the spiral the cradle and mathematicians call it the pole.

Fibonacci spiral
Fibonacci spiral

Consider how Phi applies within a composition. The ratio between lines and masses will correspond to the golden ratio. In the previous illustration, the ratio of line B to line A is Phi, 1.618. For example if line B is 16.18 inches long, line A is 10 inches, 16.18/10 = 1.618. The borders of the outside rectangle follow the same proportion. The area in pink is a square. The remaining rectangle is divided in the same way, by creating a square whose proportion to the overall rectangle is Phi. Each subsequent rectangle can be subdivided, and so on, to infinity.

Golden ratio, Fibonacci Spiral, and Cradles
Golden ratio, Fibonacci Spiral, and Cradles

The preceding diagrams are a form of armature, or a framework on which a photograph can be composed. The armature can be flipped horizontally, vertically, or rotated 180 degrees and it would still be in accordance with the golden mean. Additional golden mean armatures can be applied to subsections of the image. One way to use the golden mean in a composition is to place the design elements along the lines indicating the golden rectangles and Fibonacci spiral. Also, the golden mean should appear in the subjects. This means showing body proportions and other compositional elements that correspond to the golden ratio when compared to one another. For example, if you photograph a model laying on a rock, you might choose a rock that is 1.6 times her length rather than one that is twice her length. A group of rocks with a visual mass totaling this ratio would also suffice, especially if the subdivisions of the rocks also conform to the golden ratio.

Some photographers follow the golden mean religiously and sometimes sacrifice everything else in their photos in the process. Others reject the golden ratio outright, deeming it an over-practiced fad and actively avoid it. I prefer to produce images that I find interesting and innovative, rather than photograph according to a formula-but I also apply lessons learned from the classic methods of composition.

Also see: Rule of Thirds

Also see: Comparing Golden Mean and Thirds

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Comparing the Rule of Thirds to the Golden Mean

Some people are apt to assert that the rule of thirds is the same as the golden mean. The proportions are close, but not the same. In addition, most of the various golden mean methods emphasize a primary, off-center subject; the rule of thirds does not suggest an order of precedence among subjects. The rule of thirds involves only straight lines, while some golden mean offers the Fibonacci spiral for placement. The rule of thirds offers four points of interest and four division lines for the main elements; the golden mean can be used to proportion elements more deeply embedded in the composition.

In the following image, a 2:3 image, divided in vertical thirds and horizontal thirds, is shown in pink. A frame conforming to the golden ratio is shown in green.

Thirds vs. Golden Mean
Thirds vs. Golden Mean


You do not have to use either of these methods to construct your compositions. In four years of art school, not a single instructor or textbook mentioned either of these methods. They are relatively quick and easy ways to begin thinking about composition and the placement of elements. For this reason, many photographers benefit from trying them.

Also see: The Golden Mean

Also see: The Rule of Thirds


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Leading Lines

The use of lines is an effective way to add structure to an image. Lines are apparent in the distinction between light and dark, especially at the edge of the subject seen against the background and in the limbs.

Strong lines are powerful compositional elements that suggest to the viewer where they will look. A dominant line that draws our eye, such as a distinct horizon or roadway, is at times called a line of force, guiding line, or leading line.

In the image below, the lines of perspective converge on the model. Notice how the lines align with the lines of the body. The lower edge of the back railing lines up with the model’s arm and the upper edge lines up with her elbow. The edges of the slab on which she is lying line up with the interior lines of her figure.


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Irregular Lines

In photographic composition, there are many kinds of lines. When two kinds of line segments join, it can be called an irregular line. For example, a straight line that intersects a curved line.

The image below contains examples of irregular lines. One of these is highlighted: the arms form straight line segments and the light falling across the clavicle connects these with curved segments.


Irregular Lines

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Learn composition from the book Exquisite Curves


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Daylight versus Studio Lighting

Photographers go to great lengths to create natural-looking skin tones, shadows, and a soft pleasing light that mimics what we are accustomed to seeing. It requires large lighting modifiers and color-corrected flash tubes to generate the quality of light that the sun and sky provide. Painstaking effort is required to get the angle of the light correct, and the right ratio of fill light without making the shadows look peculiar.

Some of the most beautiful figure photographs are captured in nature. However, this is balanced by the lack of predictable results.

I encourage all figure photographers to experiment with both studio lighting and daylight. Make an effort to become proficient at both. Even if you end up having a favorite, as most do, you will add variety to your portfolio and strengthen your overall photographic problem solving skills.

The Advantages of Daylight

  • Inexpensive
  • Broad, natural-looking light produces expected results, a single catch light

The Disadvantage of Daylight

  • Unpredictable; lighting conditions can change, weather can become inclimate
  • Difficult to achieve privacy and, therefore, comfort for the model
  • Time of day and time of year dictate when, what, and how you can shoot
  • Most of the effort of shooting involves getting there, getting the right light, and looking for the right background

The Advantages of Studio Lighting

  • Easy to control lights
  • Predictable, repeatable results
  • Private, distraction-free environment, allows you to concentrate on the subject

The Disadvantage of Studio Lighting

  • Expensive to duplicate the power and quality of daylight
  • Requires setup of background, light stands, lighting equipment
  • May be difficult to find diffusion modifiers (soft-boxes, umbrellas, umbrella-boxes) that are large enough for a full-length subject
  • Lack of variety when compared to location shooting


A Daylight Image

Studio Lighting

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When Breaking the Rules is a Good Thing

When is breaking the rules a good thing? Some rules, I love. Rules help us all drive on the correct side of the road. It doesn’t matter whether the country you live in requires you drive on the left or the right. As long as we all conform, it works out well. But, in photography, following the rules leads to a different kind of conformity. If there is too much order, everyone’s images start to look the same. When it comes to artistic creativity, playing it safe leads to mediocrity.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times in photography when it makes sense to follow the rules. For example, when you’re just starting out and don’t know what else to do. Even if you are an experienced photographer there will be days when you fall back on compositional rules because you can’t think of what else to do.

Rules can be especially helpful for those beginning in nude photography. It is difficult enough to tackle figure photography, let along without some structure for composition. In my other writings, I explain plenty of rules aimed at helping novices with composition and armatures such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, diagonals, and so on.

Safety is the Enemy of Creativity

But rules often discourage experimentation. If you never stray outside of the lines, you will never know what other artistic creations are waiting to be invented. Experimentation, by its nature, leads to a mix of successes and failures. At some point you need to take off the training wheels even if it means you are going to fall a few times.

Just about every time I see a rule printed somewhere, it is accompanied by a statement that the rule is “just a suggestion,” “rules were meant to be broken,” or something similar. Nobody intends for these photographic rules to be set in stone. However, photographers who fall into the habit of following the rules too rigidly can fail to make the transition into creative work.

If you’re afraid to be wrong, you’ll never take the risks that are involved with being creative.

So why are so many photographers afraid to ever be wrong? Aside from a general social discouragement from experimentation, photographers are burdened by a particular habit of performance through rote.

Photography is based in math and science. In these disciplines there is only one right answer to any particular problem. When it comes to exposure, many people will tell you there is only one correct value for any given scene. This is not strictly true, as even in exposure there is some room for creativity. However, photographers often fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one best answer to every photographic decision. This is why compositional rules are so popular. They attempt to simplify for us what is right and what is wrong.

Beware especially of rules that are meant for portraiture. In portraiture, the goal is to flatter a subject who is typically not a model but rather the client. These rules are helpful to the portrait studio whose task it is to generate results with a certain level of predictability. When photographing models, on the other hand, your collaborator generally does not need help in hiding flaws in her appearance.

Experimentation should be the rule. If you’re following a rule of composition, you’re probably not pushing your creativity.

Photographic rules will never teach you how to express your personal point of view. All rules do is help you conform to preconceived notions of what your photographs look like. My suggestion is that you take risks – big risks. You should suffer large failures, dust yourself off, and try again. When you do create something outstanding, it will have been worth it.

I recently asked a number of my colleagues to choose one of my images as a stand out. They chose the photo above, despite the fact that it violates the following rules:

  • The subject is centered, violating compositional armatures such as the rule of thirds and the golden mean.
  • The legs are cropped close to the knees, whereas they are “supposed” to be cropped at mid-thigh or mid calf.
  • Shoulders are nearly straight-on (some advocate 45-degrees as the “correct” angle to the camera.)
  • Flat lighting: The image lacks directional contrast that is preferred in most figure work.
  • Nose breaks the cheek line: A head turned sideways but not in complete profile is often considered unflattering
  • Backs of hands: Many photographers caution that the backs of women’s hands can be unsightly. They do recommend an open, sideways hand.
  • Orientation: A standing figure is normally photographed in portrait orientation, not landscape.


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It’s Not All About Money

Recruiting Tip #2

Models care about more than just money. Certainly, getting paid is important to any professional model. Like anyone else, she has bills to pay and various other needs for cash. First-time or occasional models are going to be enticed by monetary compensation. Even part-time models rely on modeling for income. However, they want more out of a modeling career than just a steady stream of paying jobs.

Models want to be portrayed in a favorable light. They want a comfortable working environment and an amiable photographer. Models want to work with a photographer that they perceive to be an echelon above whoever they’ve worked with previously. Novice models will want to fortify their portfolios with images that are superior to their current ones. Experienced models care about working on projects that are higher profile than they have worked on before.

Certainly a few models seem to only care about money. But even the money-conscious model has more than one dimension. Although some models tell me that they are willing to work with anyone who will pay, I’m willing to bet that they perform better when they admire the photographer.

Offering more money will often bring in more models. But anything significantly above a fair wage will yield diminishing returns. Offering outlandish pay can backfire as models become suspicious of your legitimacy.

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Don’t Give Up

Recruiting Tip #3

Don’t give up if you have trouble finding models. The availability of models can be seasonal, rising and falling in sync with college schedules, weather, economic factors, and a whole array of dynamic elements. Staying motivated is the most important factor in early success.

New to nudes

Some photographers who are new to nudes may jump right in. Others are timid; if this is you, you need to work your way up by shooting other styles of photography. If your photography skills are rudimentary, you may wish to learn the basics with landscape and still life to fill in the times you can’t find a portraiture model. Start with friends and family if you don’t feel comfortable recruiting a stranger. Start with fashion if you don’t feel comfortable hiring a glamour model. Work on a glamour portfolio if you don’t yet feel up to photographing nudes or if you’re having trouble convincing models that you can produce worthy images.

At some point you’ll start working with nudes. A certain degree of apprehension is normal. After hundreds of nude models, I still have concerns about making sure a shoot works to its best potential. I wouldn’t say I experience nervousness any more, but rather a heightened sense of attention that keeps me on my toes. If you wait until you have no uncertainties, you’ll never shoot nudes. Somewhere between self-inflicted paralysis and utter calm lies the photographer who is ready to shoot nudes.

Building your portfolio

You need samples of nude shots in order to book your models. Building credibility is an essential step to recruiting models, and nothing builds credibility better than an astounding portfolio. But how do you get your first nudes? This may seem like a catch-22, but you can get there. You may have to add progressively unclothed shots to your portfolio until you have a portfolio of nudes. Shoot clothed models until your work is competent enough to convince someone to do glamorous bikini or lingerie shots with you. I’ve rarely met an attractive woman who wouldn’t pose in lingerie and for implied nudes. Then you can move on to models who do implied nudes (nude from behind, for example) or topless shots. In many cases your first nude model can be one you’ve already photographed clothed. Each time you work with a model, the two of you will build trust and comfort.

There is a first time for everything, and I’ve hired my fair share of models who are posing nude for the first time. I don’t recommend this for beginning photographers, since neither of you will have much experience with nude shoots. But bear in mind that every model who poses nude had a first time.

Eventually you’ll have no trouble finding your first nude model, especially if you work repeatedly with the same model or hire a model who has a lot of experience modeling nude. Finding your first nude model may seem difficult at first, but it’s really not.

Once you’ve finished your portfolio, complete with everything you need to impress prospective models, know this: you’re not done. You’re never done building your portfolio. Periodically review your portfolio and relentlessly eliminate weak or old photos. Recognize what works and stick with it or update it. Your portfolio should contain only consistently strong, recent work.

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Communicate Clearly and Fully

Recruiting Tip #4

Experienced models know the importance of communication. When doing a nude shoot, there are a lot of questions that can come up. It’s important to get these questions answered before the shoot is booked. Less experienced models are not going to know what questions to ask. When recruiting a less experienced or inexperienced model, you need to use your expertise to help educate them. Make sure you explain what kinds of poses you expect. This needs to be established before the two of you agree that you’re going to do a photo shoot. When it comes to recruiting nude models, images communicate better than words. A well planned and executed portfolio is the core of your communication.

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Diagonal and Oblique Lines

To most people, diagonal and oblique mean the same thing. For compositional purposes, though, diagonal can mean a line that runs between opposite corners of a shape (such as the image frame). Oblique can describe a line that intersects the middle of another line, instead of the corner of a shape.

Oblique lines draw the eye more than horizontal or diagonal lines. This is because lines that are parallel to the picture frame are more static than those that slope against it. The image below contains several oblique lines.


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