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Composition – framing your shots

8 July 2016

  • Composition means how you arrange things in the shot.
  • Your film will look a lot better if you compose the shots carefully.
  • Pay attention to where things are in the shot, what’s happening at the edges of the frame, and what’s going on in the background.

Keeping it natural

If you want people to concentrate on the story – not the filmmaking – you should frame your shot to look natural. But you still need to arrange it carefully.

Thirds

It’s a good idea to put things clearly off-centre if you want your film to look natural. Some people talk about the rule of thirds: putting important things or edges about a third of the way across, up or down the screen. In fact, many cameras let you overlay a rule of thirds grid on your scene to help with this. But it’s more important to judge whether the image looks right to you, rather than following a rigid rule.

Getting it right

matt bcu

When you film a closeup of somebody, try to put the eyes about a third of the way down the picture.

lowhigh

If they are too low or too high it’ll look wrong.

cutoff

Pay attention to the edges of the frame: try not to cut off people’s arms or legs at the joints.

looking spacemoving space

Put more space in the direction people are looking or moving. This is called looking space or nose room.

When you join shots of people looking at each other, the direction they are looking should line up: this is called eyeline match. There’s more about composing your shots so they’ll edit together on this page.

Making it dramatic, wacky or scary

matt wide angle cu

Centred compositions look formal, but they can also look odd.

birdseye

Symmetrical compositions can look cool.

canted

You can also use dramatic angles like diagonals. Putting your camera on a slant is called a Dutch angle. Use it to make things seem strange or scary.

Make the angle obvious, otherwise people will think it’s just a mistake.

Unbalanced composition

Really unbalanced compositions can make people feel uneasy.

To draw attention to shapes and patterns – like lines and grids – fill the screen with them and line the camera up carefully.

Lines on a cliff face

Watch the background

Pay attention to what’s going on behind your subject.

badbackground2

Avoid lines or objects going into people’s heads. Moving around can avoid this.

five shot rule - face

With a bigger camera and a telephoto lens, you can blur confusing backgrounds.

boring background

Plain backgrounds are better than confusing backgrounds, but they’re boring.

building behind

Ideally the background should tell us about the story: here, the presenter is talking about the building behind him.

Learn more

Gustavo Mercado’s book The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and breaking) the rules of cinematic composition is a great introduction to different shots and how to compose them.