Home Video Hints: Composing Your Shots

The key to good-looking video is a well-composed shot. What exactly is composition? Technically, composition is the relationship between two or more objects in a picture, where one of the objects shows dominance. This involves careful placement of your subject in your shot so that it looks good and grabs the attention of your audience. In this column, we will provide a list of common composition problems and their solutions.

Shaky Shots

Problem: Your footage is shaky and difficult to watch.

If you have to hand out Dramamine before showing your videos to friends, you might suffer from shaky cam syndrome. Tromboning (using the zoom too often like the slide of a trombone), hosing (panning the camera back and forth like a fire fighter) and constant stopping and starting movements all are symptoms of this problem.

Solution: Compose a shot, roll tape and hold still.

You should always compose your shots before you push the record button. Once you press record, hold the shot for at least five seconds before moving the camera. If you do have to move the camera or zoom, do it slowly and deliberately without stopping until the movement is completely done. Always know where you want to move the camera next, and plan your moves before you make them. It is easier to hold wide shots steady than telephoto shots. For best results, zoom out to the widest angle your lens permits and move closer to your subject.

The Slippery Slope

Problem: Your shots are tilted, making your subjects look like they might slide out the side of the picture.

This problem is obviously caused by the camera being tilted sideways at an angle. It doesn’t have to be a very big angle to distract your viewers. Is the water in that gorgeous sunset over the lake running out of the side of your shot? If so, you may be sliding down the slippery slope of composition.

Solution: Check your horizontal and vertical surfaces in the shot to make sure the picture is level.

The real key to this solving this common error is to pay attention to the frame while you shoot. Find a building, doorway or some other straight and vertical or horizontal object and use it as a guide to keep your picture straight and level. If you are shooting a horizon, especially one with a perfect edge like a lake or the ocean, line the surface up with the top or bottom of the viewfinder and then carefully tilt back to compose your shot. Try to place your horizon on the top third of the picture or the bottom third depending on what is more important, the sky or the foreground. Never depend on the leveling bubble on the tripod, which only shows the tripod to be level and doesn’t account for the parts of the tripod and camera above the level. Therefore, you should only use the leveling bubble as a quick reference point.

Sinking Sand

Problem: The people you shoot seem to sink into the bottom of the video frame as if standing in quicksand.

This is a common problem for beginning videographers. All too often, novices place their subjects eyes in the center of the picture with a great deal of space above their heads, allowing their feet or legs to sink below the frame of the shot.

Solution: Position eyes on the top 1/3 of the screen.

Place your subjects so that their heads are in the upper third of the shot with just a little bit of space above their heads. Compose the shot so that the bottom of the frame is at the chest (close up), waist (medium shot,) right above the knees (called a "cowboy" in the film industry) or just below the feet (called a long or full shot.) Never cut your subject off at the knees or ankles.

Background Interference

Problem: Objects in the background distract from the person you are taping.

Have you ever recorded shots where trees seem to grow out of people’s heads or telephone wires appear to run through their ears? If so, you probably are forgetting to do one simple thing: check your background.

Solution: Look at both the foreground and the background as you shoot.

Every time you look through the viewfinder, train yourself to look at three places. First, check the foreground to see if anything distracting is in the way of your shot (or to identify something in the foreground you can use to frame your shot). Next, check the background to see if there are objects that blend into your subject making him look like a space creature with antennae or a vacationing reindeer from the North Pole. Finally, check your subject. Failure to check the background is one of the most common mistakes made in video. We have all gone into the editing suite and seen distracting objects we didn’t notice before, well after it was too late to do anything about it.

Chin Chopper

Problem: If you sometimes find that your subject’s chins are missing in your shots, you might have Chin Chopper syndrome.

Solution: Compose your close shots so that you chop the top of your subjects head off, not their chin. Always make sure you can see your subject’s neck so that when they talk, their bottom jaw and chin won’t dip below the edge of the frame. Usually, you’ll want to shoot from their collarbone up to a little below the top of their head. This is a close up or tight shot. By placing their eyes on a line one third of the way down from the top of the screen, you will avoid the chin chopper and get a good looking and natural shot of your subject.

On the Edge

Problem: Important objects occasionally get chopped off at the edge of the screen.

If you place an important object too near the edge of the frame, there is a good chance it will occasionally disappear from your shots when you view them on a TV monitor. Does the edge of your screen swallow up objects or seem to drag them into oblivion? If so, your videos may be suffering from On the Edge syndrome.

Solution: Leave a little space at the sides of the screen. Because all televisions do not show the same amount of picture, you need to allow a little extra space on the sides, top and bottom of your shots for those TVs that show less of the picture than others. Keep important items in the inner 89% of your screen. This is known as the Safe Action Area.

Way Too Wide

Problem: Important objects are too small to see clearly and are lost in the shot.

If you constantly have to tell your audience what they are looking at because the subject is lost in a huge background, you are shooting too wide.

Solution: Zoom in or get closer to your subject.

The tighter your shot, the greater the emotional impact. Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal with your subjects (unless you are videotaping lions or alligators). The zoom can let you get close to your subject without physically having to move closer, but remember it will also add shake to you shots.

Final Composition

Good composition shouldn’t take any more time than bad composition if you train yourself to avoid the problems we have listed and check the viewfinder carefully before you shoot. It is all a matter of gaining experience with your camera and spending time looking through the viewfinder.

[Sidebar: Manipulating Backgrounds]

Sometimes you can’t avoid distracting backgrounds. To minimize the distraction, you have to minimize the background. To do this, move your camera away from your subject and zoom in on them. As you zoom towards a telephoto setting, you reduce the amount of background seen in the shot.

If you are shooting in a beautiful location and you want to see more of the background, move your camera closer to your subject and zoom out. Make sure you don’t move the camera too close to your subject, as a wide angle lens setting can
distort the face.

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

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