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There Are No Magic Numbers

(© Ian Plant) Today is Friday the 13th, a day of special significance to the ranks of the superstitious. There are those who believe that certain numbers have mystical, occult, or magical properties. Unfortunately, many photographers fall into this category.

I’m not talking above the lucky number 7, the unlucky number 13, or most of the other numbers out there that people imbue with special meaning. I’m talking specifically about two numbers in particular— 0.33333333… and 1.61803399…—which unfortunately cause much mischief these days in the photography world (by the way, the dots at the end of each number indicate that both are endless fractions).

At this point, you are probably wondering, what am I talking about? Let’s start with 0.33333333…, which expressed as a mere number seems rather harmless. A more familiar way of putting it is “one-third,” or even more familiar to the photographer, the “Rule of Thirds.” This so-called “rule” of composition holds that one should divide a photograph into thirds horizontally and vertically, and place important parts of the image on the resulting dividing lines or at the intersection of two lines.

The second number, 1.61803399…, is more commonly known as the “Golden Ratio,” or by a host of other increasingly ambitious names culminating in the “Divine Proportion.” Claims about the Golden Ratio are as vast and irrational as the number itself (an irrational number is any real number that cannot be represented as a simple fraction with terminating or repeating decimals). In recent years a whole slew of junk science and preposterous assertions have arisen arguing that the Golden Ratio is the unifying proportion that “explains it all”—that the number is “written into” all people, all of nature, and the very Universe itself. According to Golden Ratio aficionados, all great art conforms to the Ratio, whether intentionally or not. By the way, I’m not making any of this up.

Sorry folks, but magic numbers aren’t real—especially in the art world. The Rule of Thirds may be a useful guideline from time to time (I use it quite often), and the Golden Ratio might even have some merit as well. But I can tell you this: all great art is great because the artist was able to successfully convey his or her vision to others. Mastering composition, mood, and moment are all elements of creating successful art, but the precise proportions and ratios are not. To claim otherwise is to trivialize the genius behind each masterpiece. The mystery and awe we experience when we view Da Vinci’s “The Mona Lisa,” Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or de Goya’s “The Third of May” have nothing to do with the numbers.

Besides, I can’t help but feel that anyone who wants to reduce something as creative and subjective as artistic composition to mere numbers is looking for some sort of illusory comfort zone. That simply won’t work. Art is chaos—it is messy and unpredictable, and that’s the way it should be. Simple rules are for simple minds. Trying to reduce art to the numbers is just that.

If you want to believe that the numbers can make your photographs great, so long as you are creating good compositions, you won’t hear me complaining. But think of it this way—if all you are doing is applying a formula to your photographs, what does that make you? I can tell you what it doesn’t make you: original or unique. So my advice is to skip the superstition, and don’t be afraid to find your own path.

Unless, of course, that path leads under a ladder or past a black cat.

Check out my article in this month’s OP called Break Free From Your Comfort Zone.

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