When we decide where to point a camera, we are composing a shot. The choices are infinite.
You can point the camera anywhere along the horizontal axis (north, south, east or west). This can be measured in 360-degrees but there are fractional degrees in between. There are 360-degrees along the vertical axis, straight up at the sun at noon or straight down at the insect crawling on your shoe.You can zoom the camera in or out or rotate the camera 360-degrees clockwise or counter clockwise (right side up or upside down). The shooter can take one step forward or two steps back, three steps to the left or half a step to the right. I write about all of theses choices to spell out explicitly the multitude of choices available to a camera operator. The great photographer Ansel Adams made these choices very well, so have the moving image makers Edwin S. Porter, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.
Composing a shot challenges the camcorder user to tell a story in one 30th of a second. What you choose to include should contribute to the story you're telling. You wouldn't exclude any visual elements that may be part of the story. One must consider the characters, the objects in the environment and how the characters relate to these objects and each other in an effort to the story. Which characters or objects are closer to the camera or higher than the others present just one small example of how their framing can be used to tell the story.
We are uniquely wired to recognize faces and the emotions expressed via the hundreds of muscles in a face. Deciding to use a close up or an extreme close up, showing just part of a face (a watery eye, or a slightly wrinkled lip) presents a different set of framing choices. What emotions of which characters and to what level of detail are most important in helping tell the story? The rule of thirds provides a guiding principal for shots which are balanced and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Simple concepts like proper headroom or advanced techniques like using depth-of-field contribute to balance. While this is important, it does not necessarily tell the story. A shot that is pleasing to the eye can be useless if it doesn't include related visual elements. It's not essential that every shot include visuals related to the story, but if none do, the storytelling may not exist in the final video presentation.
Great still photographers have to tell their story in one frame. We video-storytellers have an unlimited number of frames to use to tell our story. But that doesn't mean we should over-shoot. Brevity is just as important to good story telling. Studying great photographic works is a fantastic way to learn more about framing shots. A good exercise is to search the Internet for random images to evaluate their storytelling capacity. Never underestimate the power of shot composition to help you tell the story.
Matthew York is Videomaker's Publisher/Editor.