Going Beyond the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is an excellent guide to composing images. However, be careful not to lean too heavily on the rule to make your composition. As my mentor, Robin Grigg-Woods, in her Art Basics program says, “use thirds as a tool, not a rule.”

The Rule of Thirds is useful to situate the focal point in your image. Once in place, make sure other factors in the frame assist the focal point, and not distract from it.

To illustrate the point, below are some of my editing decisions that begin with the Rule of Thirds and then work towards making the focal point stronger:

Yoga on Playa Serena

Rule of Thirds

The sky was socked-in clouds on this rainy season day in Panama. It made for a grey day. Thankfully Anne-Marie’s (the best yoga teacher I have come across) dress was as colourful as her personality. My focal point is Anne-Marie. The assist here is the color saturation in her clothing and the log that underlines her, which acts as a pointer. The log also has warm colors that will work for me. The thirds line worked beautifully on her outstretched leg.

Rule of Thirds

While the original image was dark and flat. I will use my assists to strengthen the focal point. In editing, I first increased overall exposure and saturation. Next, I masked off the log and Anne-Marie. That allowed me to slightly up the saturation in Anne-Marie’s clothing and bring out the yellows in the log. Warm colors advance in an image, so this helps bring the focal point forward. Her pointing leg echoes the buildings. They are repeating lines that draw the eye upwards to the sky, which I feel is a supporting element in this scene. To make the repeating pattern work better, I removed some other distractions. Maybe you will notice what is gone.

Green Meets Purple

My focal point here are the green sepal points that connect to the flower.

Rule of Thirds

Some of the distracting elements were yellow parts of the sepal that were in focus, a light spot that is a bit too bright, and a rough edge on the petal to the left. Warm colors, bright spots, and areas that are in focus attract the eye. I want the green points to stand out. So, here I worked to tame the areas that are pulling attention.

I achieved the edits I wanted using the Mixer Brush in Photoshop. However, there are other tools I could have used to gain good results, such as cloning and blurring. I just prefer the unsharp, painted effect that the mixer makes.

The finished image is here.

One final point about the Rule of Thirds. It is meant to create an imbalance. A tension, that makes the image more energetically dynamic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my approach to editing these images, and what your approach might be.

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4 thoughts on “Going Beyond the Rule of Thirds

  1. This is an excellent discussion on the rule of thirds and how to use the rule as a guide. Your additional discussion on other factors that support your image stories and make the images stronger are powerful. Integrating all of these things is essential and this provides an explanation that is clear and easy to understand.

    If I had edited the first photo with Anne Marie, I probably would have done it in a similar manner. On the flower photo, I probably would have changed the luminosity and maybe toned down the color. But, I like what you did better. My reasons for stating what I would have done is that I am unfamiliar with tools like the mixer brush. You have pointed out a very good use for it. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for truly looking at the post, Adele. It’s always interesting to see how the editing decisions someone else would make. I can completely see how turning down the saturation on the flower would work to make a pleasing image. I am definitely given to excess when it comes to color saturation 🙂

  2. I remember learning about the rule of thirds and soon after, a sentence that stayed with me; learn the rules so you can unfollow them :-). Nowadays I use the golden spiral to check my focus point. I loved when I learned more about it.

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