Getting Started: Video Composition

By virtue of its very nature, video is a medium that is judged largely on the way it looks. As such, qualifying video as “good looking” or “bad looking” can be very subjective. After all, different people have different opinions about what looks good.

Fortunately, you can hedge your bets and err on the side of “good looking” by paying careful attention to video composition. Composition is at the heart of making attractive video, because it focuses not on things like story line and plot development, or even the more technical issues of color balance, lighting and audio levels. Rather, composition is all about the placement of your subject(s) in the frame so that the effect is as pleasing to the eye as possible.

While many people are content simply to point the camcorder at something and start rolling tape, students of composition know there is a rhyme and reason to shot selection. Good shooters position their subjects carefully in the frame. There are several guidelines you can apply to help you compose more attractive shots.

The Rule of Thirds

It has been widely held among classical artists throughout history that painting objects on a rectangular canvas at certain predictable points causes the eye to flow more easily across the canvas, resulting in greater harmony among the painting’s visual elements. As a result, artists devised mathematical ways of segmenting the canvas so that they would know exactly where to place their images for greatest effect. The result was called “The Golden Mean.”

It isn’t necessary to go into the tedious mathematical history behind the Golden Mean. Videographers and filmmakers have adopted a modified version called “the rule of thirds.”

Essentially, the rule states that if you mentally divide your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and then place the important elements in your shot along these horizontal and vertical lines, you create visual images that please the eye of the viewer (see Figure 1).

To illustrate, you can move your camcorder so that your subject is on one side of the frame, resting at an intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines. With larger elements, such as people or buildings, which are vertically oriented, you can also position them on one of the verticals so that they occupy the space where one vertical intersects both horizontal lines.

The horizon, if you have it visible in your shot, can also be manipulated by the rule of thirds. You’ll want to place it on one of the two horizontal lines. Typically the horizon will look best if placed along the lower line.

When the elements of a shot are composed in this way, they tend to form geometric patterns that guide the viewer’s eye. Some elements might form a virtual circle, for example, causing the eye to move in a circular motion around the frame. You can form other geometric patterns with your visual elements, as well–perhaps a “Z” shape, or a simple diagonal line.

The rule of thirds, however, generally dictates that simply centering your subject in the shot will create an “unbalanced” image–one that will not lead your eye naturally to any of the other elements of the shot.

Talking Heads and Rules of Thumb

While the rule of thirds can be applied to any subject, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, the reality is that you will spend a lot of time shooting people. You can apply the rule of thirds to shots of people to make sure they are well balanced, but you can also apply some other people-shooting guidelines, as well.

Let’s begin by evaluating the talking head. This is the term for a close up (head and shoulders) shot of someone talking, usually to the camera. How do you frame this shot? You will probably have no choice but to position your subject more or less in the center of the frame. This may appear to run counter to the rule of thirds, but it isn’t necessarily so. You can still apply the rule of thirds in this case and at the same time deal with another people-shooting issue–headroom.

Headroom is the space between the top of your subject’s head and the top of the frame. Apply too much headroom and your subject appears to be sinking. Too little headroom appears to chop your subject’s head off just above the eyes.

To get headroom just right, tilt up or down until your subject’s eyes fall along that topmost horizontal line. Because your subject’s eyes are one of the most important features on his face, the rule of thirds says that it makes sense to align the eyes with that top third line, rather than putting the eyes smack in the center of the frame (see Figure 2). Keeping your subject’s eyes on that top horizontal line will insure proper headroom in close, medium and wide shots.

Space to Walk and Talk

Your subject will not always talk directly to the lens of the camcorder. Sometimes your subject will speak to someone who is off-camera, out of the shot. In these cases, you should position your subject to one side of the frame, rather than right in the middle. Why? Because you need to give your subject space to talk.

When your subject talks to someone off camera, your viewer’s eyes will naturally wander in the your on-camera subject faces. If you put your subject in the middle of the frame, or on the same side of the frame as the off-camera person being addressed, the viewer will feel as if there isn’t enough conversation space between your subject and the unseen off-camera person (see Figure 3). That’s why the space in the frame between your subject and the opposite side of the frame–the “talk space”–is so important to the viewer. It helps them to believe that there is really someone being talked to, and that this individual is an appropriate distance from your subject.

When you shoot a moving subject, you’ll need to pay attention to walking space, or “lead room,” as well. If your subject turns to her left (your right) and begins walking, you will have to pan the camera to the right to keep up with her. Otherwise, she’ll walk off camera. If you don’t move the camera fast enough, though, it will appear as if your subject is walking into the left edge of the frame (see Figure 4). To compose a moving shot properly, you must provide adequate lead room so your subject can move without getting too close to the edge of the shot.

That Wasn’t So Hard, Was It?

In theory, composition is an easy thing to master. Simply be aware of how you position things in the frame and follow the rule of thirds. In practice, however, composition is more of an art than a science. In time, and with practice, you’ll develop an eye for framing and all your shots will look attractive and well composed.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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