Sunflowers and the Golden Ratio in Humboldt County, California
I’ve come to embrace the unexpected when I photograph. I tell people when I go out that it’s always an experiment, but I think they think I’m kidding. In part I am, as I am pretty comfortable with my photography, but there’s also a lot of truth to it. It’s dark while I’m photographing; I don’t simply make an exposure reading and take a picture or set a bank of lights (which I don’t have) to some magic value that will fill a scene perfectly with light. I’m not even necessarily interested in “perfect” light. I hope to make a striking image when I photograph, and that’s usually all there is to it. I do it by the seat of my pants; it’s art. I’ve found that while my planning will sometimes be enough, often it’s something unexpected that adds the touch of magic that makes it special.
My son came out with me the night I made the sunflower image. I told him as we traveled how usually the unforeseen will show up in the form of unplanned light of some kind, but when we arrived the unexpected took a different approach. I had imagined finding vigorous sunflowers standing tall and firm, their bright faces looking toward the next dawn, as in other sunflower images I’d seen. It’s the way they look, I thought without thinking. I hadn’t really considered it further. Instead we found a motley crew of disheveled figures, slumped and downcast as their time on Earth slipped through their shriveled petals. Night had only just fallen, and these flowers would wait through the long watch for the rays of one more morning’s sun. Dismayed at first that I had missed their prime, I realized as I stood awhile with them that these were telling their own poignant story, and it added an emotional component to the final image.
There is a mathematical sequence that appears frequently in nature called the Fibonacci sequence. I recommend looking it up; it’s fascinating. But while I’m not here to discuss it in depth, it is relevant to the image at hand. The little florets or seeds across the faces of sunflowers offer a ready example. A close look will reveal that the florets radiate from the center in strong spirals paths. The shapes of these spirals follow a Fibonacci sequence. Leaves on a twig also often arrange themselves spirally in this sequence, and there are many other examples in nature. It’s a ratio or sequence that we are as accustomed to seeing in our everyday lives as blue sky, though we may only subconsciously register it.
Closely related to the Fibonacci sequence is the Golden Ratio, a ratio of 1:1.618. In some circles it is believed the most pleasing rectangles to our eyes are ones the sides of which are made in this ratio. If so, perhaps it is because we are so accustomed to seeing things in nature that exhibit the Fibonacci sequence. I only speculate; I’m not an authority on the Fibonacci sequence or Golden Ratio, and I’m certainly no mathematician. But I’ll tell you this: when I first made an image in a rectangular shape with sides in the Golden Ratio of 1:1.618 I received a Best of Show for it. Your mileage may vary. Of course, after you make your image you’ll discover that 1:1.618 does not yield a standard print or frame size. For some reason the photo world adores the 8×10 rectangle, but it has no magic.
Because the sunflower gives us such a visible example of the Fibonacci sequence in the arrangement of its florets, which is closely related to the Golden Ratio, I am presenting this image in a shape with the Golden Ratio of 1:1.618. It does make a nice rectangle, doesn’t it?
The image of the sunflowers is available in standard 2:3 ratio in the Gallery here.