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Composition – framing your shots

Updated 9 April 2018

  • 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.

Frame carefully

This shot (above) is badly composed. It’s not quite in the centre, it’s not quite level, and there are random things cluttering the frame.

This one looks much better. It’s framed carefully to emphasise how symmetrical the building is.

You need to be decisive about your framing: so if your shot isn’t meant to be centred, put it way off centre.

Keep 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.

Putting important things off centre makes for shots that look natural.

Some people use the rule of thirds (above): 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.

I prefer to use the golden section, which is a bit closer to the centre. This is an idea that comes from classical art. The difference between the smaller part and the larger part is the same as the difference between the bigger part and the whole thing (a ratio of about 1.61 to 1).

But it’s more important to judge whether the image looks right to you, rather than following a rigid rule.

Get it right

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 (like the feet in the shot above).

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.

Make it dramatic, wacky or scary

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

Symmetrical compositions can look cool.

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.

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.

Watch the background

Pay attention to what’s going on behind your subject and at the edges of the frame.

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.

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