12 Days of Framing: Tips & Tricks for Great Composition
This post originally appeared as part of the Unpack the App campaign.
If you are new to film and video, figuring out how to compose dynamic shots can be intimidating. In this post, we break down some of the most common visual storytelling conventions and pull back the curtain on what makes a strong composition. Here are Premiere Clip’s Top 12 Tips for film & video shot composition.
12. Depth of Field
Depth of field (DOF) refers to the range of distance in an image that appears sharp or “in focus.” Although a lens can precisely focus at only one distance at a time, the decrease in sharpness is gradual on each side of the focused distance. This means that within the depth of field, any unsharpness is imperceptible under normal viewing conditions.
A small depth of field (“shallow focus”) means that only one thing is in-focus, while other objects in the foreground and background are out of focus (and thereby de-emphasized within the frame). A large depth of field (“deep focus”) means that nearly everything in the frame appears in-focus. This Premiere Clip video by Eric Nynatten employs both shallow focus and deep focus to capture the mood in Times Square:
Depth of field is an important creative device in cinematography, and is used to direct the viewer’s attention. A shallow depth of field can be used to create an intimate mood, a dreamy effect, and to eliminate distracting elements in the background or foreground, focusing the audience’s attention on the main subject. It’s also gorgeous when used with lights, as you can see in the video above. A deep depth of field is essential for establishing shots, landscapes, and when all aspects of the video frame need to be in sharp focus.
Rack focus is a technique that can be employed when a shot has a shallow depth of field. With rack focus, the focus shifts from a subject in the foreground to an object in the background (or vice versa), directing the audience’s attention in the scene by literally shifting focus.
Check out this clip from Young Victoria (2009) to see how a shallow depth of field is used to create simplicity within a busy and ornate dinner scene, and how rack focus is used to direct the audience’s attention.
What determines Depth of Field? Depth of field varies with camera type (DSLRs are notable for their ability to achieve a wide variety of depths), aperture (the “opening” of the lens that allows light in and sets the range of focus) and focusing distance (how far the object intended to be “in focus” is from other objects and from the camera). Larger apertures (a more open lens, which translates to a smaller F-stop number) and closer focusing distances produce a shallower depth of field, with fewer things in focus and the rest of the image blurry. A small aperture (a more closed lens, and a larger F-stop number) and a long focusing distance will produce a deep depth of field, with more things (and at greater distances) all in focus.
Since iPhone cameras don’t allow you to have manual aperture control, you can play with depth of field by controlling how close or far away your focal point is. The closer your focal point is to your camera’s lens, the shallower the depth of field will be. The further away the focal point is (as with landscape photography), the greater your overall depth-of-field will be.
With mobile devices and point and shoot digital cameras, a large depth of field is the standard (sometimes called “infinity focus”), but you can achieve a shallow depth of field with a camera phone. Here’s how:
Get up close & personal: If your subject is in the foreground, get your camera really close to your subject. If your subject is a few feet away, make sure that some other objects are really close to the camera and appear in the frame.
Keep ‘em separated: A shallow depth of field is achieved by the difference between one subject being really close to the camera, and everything else being several feet (or more) away. Make sure that whatever appears in the foreground (your subject or another object) is some distance away from the next object or background. (If most of the elements in your image are about the same distance away, autofocus will take over and you will not be able to achieve a shallow depth of field.
Tap to focus: Set your iPhone’s focus by tapping on the screen. Because you have one thing really close to the camera, try tapping on it, and the background should get out of focus. Then try tapping on a subject that’s several feet away. The objects in the foreground should fall out of focus. Once you decide which effect you like and where it makes sense to focus your viewer’s attention, lock the focus by holding the tap on the thing you want in focus, and start recording!
Each scene should have a single story to tell, and elements you capture on video should be related to that story. When framing up your shot, be intentional about what you are including in the frame. Keep an eye out for things in the foreground or background that are distracting or irrelevant to the scene, then move them or change your camera position to eliminate them.
Simplify your pictures and strengthen your center of interest by selecting uncomplicated backgrounds, avoiding unrelated subjects, and moving in close. If you want to make your center of interest even more dynamic, place it slightly off center in your frame as we have done with this young artist.
Unless it’s relevant to the story, try not to place your primary subject against a busy or congested background. Same thing goes for objects in your scene. If there are objects or props that are relevant to the character or action of the story, keep them in. If they aren’t relevant– ditch ‘em! Simple as that.
There are two main forms of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical.
Symmetrical balance is created by dividing the video frame in half at the center, with the same or similar elements on either side of the center point. This creates a formal appearance, great for scenes that have a “formal” weight to them (such as government buildings, museums, universities, etc.).
Asymmetrical balance creates a feeling of movement and suggests a creative and dynamic mood. In this type of balance, elements are not mirrored. When this shot is of the subject, a smaller or less significant object or character will “balance out” the weight of the main subject.
Use the form of balance that is most appropriate for your subject. For example, a shot of the state Capitol may call for symmetrical balance, while a shot of the boardwalk would be more interesting with asymmetrical balance. Does this mean you can’t mix it up? Of course not! It all depends on the feeling you want to create in your scene.
When balancing your composition, consider the placement, size, height and “visual weight” of the elements you are including in your scene. Placing your main subject off-centre according to the rule of thirds creates a more interesting photo, but can leave a void in the scene. Try balancing the visual “weight” of your subject with another object or character, or by using leading lines.
Juxtaposing shots that employ symmetrical and asymmetrical balance in your videos is a powerful technique and creates visually interesting montages.Take a look at these shots from Contact (1997).
In this scene, Ellie (Jodie Foster) has just given testimony about her interstellar travels and is exiting the Senate hearing with Palmer (Matthew McConaughey). This scene has a formal feel appropriate for their setting in a government buidling, and the actors are placed almost symmetrically between the columns.
The next shot of people gathered in front of the Washington monument employs asymmetrical balance. Check out the height of the Washington Monument and the leading lines of the walkways radiating from it. The Monument is balanced by people who are closer to the camera. This scene is more dynamic and is a great way to show the crowds of people interested in the outcome of the hearing, juxtaposing the formality of the federal building in the previous shot with the crowd gathering for a chance to talk to Ellie.
You can watch the full Senate hearing scene from Contact here. This sequence begins at 6:45.
9. Frame within a Frame
Similar to leading lines, compositional frames draw a viewer’s attention to your subject while creating a sense of depth.
Try placing your subject within a frame of their mise-en-scene. Look around where you are shooting for natural and manmade features that can serve as frames: trees, archways, doors, overpasses… and yes, even frames themselves! By placing a frame around the edge of the composition you help to isolate the subject and draw attention to them as the main point of interest.
Be aware that if you have horizontal and vertical lines in the frame (particularly manmade objects like buildings, counter tops, picture frames, etc.), that you pay attention to how they appear within the video frame. Make sure that horizontal lines are level and vertical lines are straight up and down. Remember, the framing element is supposed to draw attention to your subject, not distract viewers by making them wish a line was straighter.
8. The 180 Degree Rule
When filming a scene using separate shots from different distances, it’s important to let your audience know where things are in relation to each other so that they can follow the action. The 180-degree rule is a convention of shooting and editing that keeps the camera on one side of the action (giving 180 degrees or a half circle for the camera to travel along the axis of action), helping your audience understand where people and objects in the scene are by maintaining the same left/right relationships between them.
Imagine you’re looking at a scene from the side. You can see the whole scene. If you look at one character, they are on the left hand side of the scene facing right. The other character is on the right side of the scene facing left.
Here’s what this scene looks like from above. Imagine a line between the two characters. This line is called the axis of action. As long as the camera stays on on side of the axis of action, our sense of space will be preserved. This leaves a half-circle, or 180 degrees, to play with in terms of possible camera positions.
You could just show your scene in a wide shot (what Camera B position’s in the diagram above would capture), but then the audience wouldn’t be able to see details like facial expressions, and it would not be as visually interesting because the camera position and shot distance wouldn’t change. Here’s where the 180 degree rule and different shot types work together. The 180 degree keeps the camera on one side of the axis of action, preserving the sense of space established in the wide shot, even as you edit together a variety of shot types and viewpoints (like Medium Shots, Close Ups, and Over the Shoulder shots).
Crossing the line
Once you have established which “side” of the line we are viewing the action from, if you cross over to the other side, it will look like the subjects have changed position, or like they are looking in the same direction instead of at each other.
“Crossing the line” can be used intentionally to disorient and unsettle the audience. This scene in The Shining is a great example of intentionally breaking the rule to create a creepy mood:
You can watch the whole scene here.
Similar to the concept of Lead Room is “Headroom”. Headroom refers to the distance between the top of the subject’s head and the top of the frame. How much headroom you should leave depends on how much of the frame is taken up by the subject (ie, is this a Wide Shot or an Extreme Close Up?).
For example, leave too much headroom in a wide shot, and it will look like your subject is dwarfed by their environment. Too little, and the composition is crowded (and maybe you’ve cut off the top of your subject’s head).
The closer in your are to your subject, the less headroom you should leave, but still keep in mind that you don’t want to crowd your subject.
So, how to get the right amount of headroom? Remember the Rule of Thirds? A good rule of thumb is that the subject’s eyes are positioned one-third of the way down from the top of the frame. Before you hit record, take a look at your composition to make sure that the amount of headroom isn’t drawing attention away from your subject- then you’ll know you’ve got it right.
These shot types are especially great for showing different perspectives, creating tension and drama, and communicating about the emotional state of your subject.
Over the Shoulder (OTS): A shot that looks “over the shoulder” of someone or something at the subject.
Over the Shoulder is most often used when filming conversations between two people, but this technique can also be used as a framing device. This shot type can used to create tension because it almost puts us in the subject’s perspective, but not quite.
Point of View (POV): A shot that shows the view from the subject’s perspective.
High Angle: A shot taken from up above– a “bird’s eye view.” The camera is up high looking down at a steep angle. This can be used to communicate things about the subject or about the relationships between subjects. If someone is being “looked down on” they look smaller (think Hobbits), and may also be “feeling small.”
Low Angle: A shot taken from below– a “worm’s eye view.” The camera is lower than the subject, looking up. This is a great way to make your subject look tall or intimidating.
Using High Angle and Low Angle shots in combination can help further your story and describe the power/emotional relationship between two characters. With these two shots in sequence, it looks like this old dog is getting in trouble.
5. Shot Types
Think of video as your opportunity to “drive” someone else’s eyes for a while. As the cinematographer or director (or perhaps both!), you get to show your viewers what they should be paying attention to. Using a variety of shot types is a way to communicate what’s important to your audience as well as maintain visual interest.
If all of your shots are from the same distance, the audience might miss out on details or on the big picture. Try creating a video that includes three or more different types of shots as a way to build interest and tension.
The examples show a person as the subject, but these different shot types apply whether the subject is a human, animal, or inanimate object!
Extreme Wide Shot (XWS): An extreme wide shot is shot from an extreme distance, giving the context of where the film’s story is taking place. When the XWS is of a location that establishes where the action of a film is occurring, it’s called an establishing shot.
Very Wide Shot (VWS): A shot taken from a long distance, where the subject is now visible in their surroundings, but the emphasis is on placing the subject in their environment.
Wide Shot (WS): The subject takes up the full frame, with some context of their surroundings. When shooting a human subject, this usually means we can see their whole body, head to toe, against the background (or we could if they were standing up). The focus is now on the subject. AKA: Long Shot, Full Shot
Medium Shot (MS): Shows some part of the subject in more detail while still giving an impression of the whole subject. Sometimes called a “Pocket Shot” because this is generally from the waist-up or pockets-up of a human subject. When a Medium Shot is of two people, it’s called a “Two Shot”.
Medium Close Up (MCU): Halfway between a Medium Shot (MS) and a Close Up (CU). With a human subject, this might include their upper torso and face, whereas a MS would show from the waist up, and a CU would just be their face.
Close Up (CU): A certain feature or part of the subject takes up the whole frame.
Extreme Close Up (XCU): An extremely close, detail shot. For example, if a Close Up (CU) is of someone’s face, an Extreme Close Up might focus in on their eyes. Extreme Close Ups are great for revealing detail and showing more about the psychology of a character.
Cut In: A shot that shows some other part of the subject in detail (that will be “cut in” to the story). This can be a Medium Close Up, Close Up, or Extreme Close Up of the same subject, but with a different focus.
Cut Away: A shot of something other than the subject that adds to the story.
Check out our “Practice Basic Shots” story guide next time you create a new Clip project. Dave Werner’s animations will walk you through how to combine different shot types to tell a visual story.
4. Lead Room (aka Look Room or Nose Room)
Well-composed shots leave space in the direction the subject is facing or moving. This space in front of the subject, whether the subject is moving or stationary, is called “lead room” and helps create a more open composition.
Think about it this way: we want to see where the subject is looking or going, especially if they are in motion. Framing the subject so that there’s a little more room in front of them than behind will maintain a sense of moving forward, and will keep your audience “looking ahead” as well.
Rules are meant to be broken
The “rules” here are more guidelines than hard and fast rules. Understanding these guidelines will help you create more impactful visuals, and knowing when to break the rules to create an “unsettled” mood or feel to a scene is important too!
Original plane image via Estaban Alvarez. Used with Creative Commons attribution.
3. Leading Lines
You followed the rule of thirds, so now what to do with all of that “extra space”? Try creating leading lines! Compositions that pair leading lines with a subject placed according to the rule of thirds are very dynamic.
Leading lines are elements in your composition that connect the foreground to the background of the scene, drawing your audience into the scene by creating depth and dimensionality. Leading lines are all around us in the natural world and in urban landscapes. A road or a bridge, a river or trees can all serve as leading lines, but so can stairways, airplane wings, or the neck of a guitar!
This #MadeWithClip video makes excellent use of leading lines and the rule of thirds throughout:
But what do they lead to? They don’t have to literally lead anywhere– leading lines serve more to guide your viewers eyes within the video frame to help direct viewers’ attention to what’s important. They can lead the eye to another point in the image, or even out of the image. To infinity and beyond!
2. The Rule of Thirds
For maximum visual impact, follow the rule of thirds.
Imagine dividing an image into thirds vertically and horizontally (or turn on the “Grid” function in your device’s camera settings). Placing your subject along these lines or in the cross hairs (where the lines meet) will create more tension, interest, and energy than simply centering.
Pay attention to how this technique is used in your favorite movies, TV shows and even the news.
Sometimes you will want to center your subject (for example, when someone is directly addressing the camera), but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore the rule of thirds. Experiment with balancing elements along the thirds, whether it’s part of your subject or an element framing them.
1. Landscape Mode
Landscape Mode (or horizontal) means that an image or video is wider than it is tall (like a landscape is). Film and video formats are oriented this way, as are many of the screens we use to view them (including movie screens, computer screens, and TVs).
When you shoot in portrait mode (vertically), your video will be taller than it is wide, which means that if you export it for use anywhere besides on another phone, the image will be “letterboxed”– it will have black bars on either side to make up for the fact that there is not any image content there.
It’s an easy fix– just turn your device 90 degrees when you are shooting so that the image is wider than it is tall!
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