You don’t have to be George Gershwin to be a great composer.
Just carefully arrange your video scenes, and you’ll achieve visual harmony.
Now there’s been a lot of loose talk going around about composition.
No, not “composition” as in asphalt roofing or “composition” as in “What I Did on My Summer
Vacation,” but “composition” as in the organization of visual images. Some folks sneer at composition as
an artsy abstraction–a concern of little interest to down-to-earth videomakers.
Not so! Composition is, in fact, a practical tool that’s as crucial to videomaking as a tripod or even
a camcorder. And the great news is, you don’t have shell out hard-earned cash to add this vital technique to
your tool kit. Make just a modest effort to learn and practice it and the craft of composition is yours.
What follows is a no-frills survey of what visual composition is, what it does, how it works, and
how to use it easily and simply. To paraphrase the soap commercials, “Try composition and you’ll see
What Is Composition, Anyway?
Before we can use composition, we need a clear idea of what it is.
Composition is the purposeful arrangement of the parts of a visual image. This definition includes
three important concepts: parts, arrangement, and purpose.
The parts of an image are its pictorial elements–the components that make up the picture.
Depending on your personal cast of mind, you may see these pictorial elements as concrete objects in the
picture, or as abstract lines, shapes, and colors. In figure 1a, for instance, you may mentally categorize the
pictorial elements as sun, sails, clouds, hull, and sea; or you may see them as lines, circles, triangles and a
trapezoid. Whichever way you identify them, pictorial elements are the visual parts–the building block–of
But a good videomaker doesn’t just dump these parts into the picture any old way; he arranges
them–that is, he distributes them purposefully to create an effect. Figure 1b shows how figure 1a might
look without the purposeful arrangement of pictorial elements.
Finally, the arrangement of pictorial elements serves several purposes. It organizes the image,
directs the viewer’s attention within it, and contributes to the impression of a third dimension in what is
really a two-dimensional world. We’re about to look at each of these purposes, in turn. (Composition can
also deliver an esthetic/emotional impact, but this effect is a bit beyond our introductory scope here.)
Composition Organizes the Image
Composition’s most important function is to help you make sense out of pictures–to “decode” their
pictorial elements into meaning. It does this by organizing the picture components for you, arranging them
on the picture surface in a pattern that makes visual sense.
The seascape in figure 1b is so simple that you can quickly figure out what it represents, even
though its composition is almost nonexistent. But check out figure 2a. Here the lack of organization creates
serious visual confusion. You can eventually see that there is a running woman and a truck and they’re in
some kind of urban setting.
But what’s going on here? Is the truck important or the woman, or maybe both? Does the
videomaker want us to focus on the store front behind them? Where are we supposed to look?
Figure 2a is puzzling because it lacks three important characteristics of good visual organization:
simplicity, order, and balance, all illustrated in figure 2b.
- Simplicity reduces the number of visual elements to just the important ones, so that
you don’t have to hunt for and identify them. Figure 2b removes the truck, reduces the background and
enlarges the woman, so that she is obviously the most important element.
- Order arranges the remaining visual elements into easily understood patterns. In
figure 2a, the buildings are a jumble of architectural details. The better-organized 2b, flattens the buildings
into a background panorama that more easily reveals what they are. (We’ll have more to say about
compositional order when we discuss the so-called “rule of thirds,” below.)
- Balance orchestrates the visual “weight” of pictorial elements so that the image
doesn’t feel somehow lopsided. Balance is an elusive, intuitive principle. And though hard to describe, it’s easy to see. In figure 2a, the heavy visual mass of the truck unbalances the composition by placing too much weight on one side. In figure 2b, the woman is almost as massive as the truck, but she is balanced by the cloud and buildings in the left third of the frame.
Composition Directs the Eye
Notice that the lower camera angle in figure 2b isolates the woman against the blank sky and her
foreground position makes her the biggest component of the picture. In creating the composition, the
videomaker uses three techniques to direct our eye to this center of attention: contrast, size, and
The strong contrast between the woman’s dark hair and face and the pale sky behind them draws
our attention to her. In this example, the contrast involves value (lightness vs. darkness), but you can create
contrast with other visual elements too. The images in figure 1 use color to contrast the sailboat with the
sky and water. A still life of a postage stamp among several coins would contrast its rectangular shape
against their round ones. There are many other ways to contrast pictorial elements, but you get the
Figure 2b also contrasts the woman by her size. In the real world, she is actually smaller than any
of the buildings. But in visual composition, the only size that matters is size compared to the frame around
the image. Because she is in the foreground, her relative size is very large.
Finally, this composition directs attention to the woman because of her position on the flat plane
of the image. Notice that she is about one third of the way in from the edge of the frame and her head is
one third down from the top. This places her face (the human center of interest) in one of the most visually
powerful points in the picture. (Again, we’ll explain why in the section on one-third composition,
Finally, composition directs the eye to the center of interest by simply pointing at it, as you can
see in figure 2c. Though the woman is in a weaker compositional position compared to figure 2b, she
remains a strong center of interest because the converging lines of the picture and the wall point directly at
her. In our world of roads and rooms and buildings, these pointers (often called “leading lines”) are all over
the place, just waiting for the astute videomaker to turn them into pointers.
To do this successfully, however, you must learn to see these pictorial elements not as picture
frames or steps or highways, but as lines converging on the surface on the picture plane. In other words,
you need to understand how composition simulates depth through the techniques of perspective.
Composition Simulates Depth
Video images can look so realistic that it’s easy to subconsciously assume that they are faithful
recordings of the actual world.
But video can never be fully true to life because it’s missing one of the most important aspects of
reality: depth. Though the monitor screen might be slightly curved, every last video image on it is strictly
two-dimensional. All apparent depth is created by perspective: the simulation of three dimensions on a
two-dimensional surface. Over many centuries, painters and then photographers have developed five major
ways to add a phantom third dimension to 2-D compositions: convergence, size, overlap, position, and
what we might call atmosphere.
Figure 2c shows two of these perspective techniques, but figure 3 provides a simple demonstration
of all five:
- Convergence. Notice that the actual lines of the highway and the virtual lines of the
telephone poles come together (converge) at some point in the distance.
- Size. Of the two cars in the picture, one is much larger than the other. Because our
brains “know” that the two autos are really about the same size, we “see” the larger one as nearer than the smaller.
- Overlap. Because the larger car overlaps part of the figure of the man, we interpret
it as “in front of” him and therefore nearer.
- Position. Notice also that the smaller car is higher on the two-dimensional surface of
the picture than the larger one, and each successive phone pole is farther up from the image’s bottom edge. The higher an object appears in the frame, the farther away we take it to be.
- Atmosphere. In figure 3, note that the second line of mountains in the background
is paler and less distinct than the hills in front of it. That’s because the volume of air between real-world objects and the viewer affect the contrast, color saturation, and resolution of those objects. So in the two-dimensional world of video, the sharper and more vivid an object appears, the closer it seems.
Since you probably can’t shoot under the tightly controlled conditions of a movie studio, you can’t
always use all five techniques of perspective. But if you stay aware of them, you can exploit these
principles to create good compositions, as we’re about to see.
But before you organize video images into effective compositions, you need to master one
deceptively simple trick: don’t look through your camcorder viewfinder, look at it. Regard it not as
a tiny window through which you see the world, but as a small, two-dimensional picture of that world.
(This is easier to do with external LCD viewfinders, which I heartily commend to all videomakers at every
level of experience.)
If you can see the image as a picture, then you can treat it as one, organizing it by applying the
techniques we’ve been discussing.
Putting Composition to Work
First of all, be alert for ways to enhance the feeling of depth. To promote convergence, shoot into the
corners of rooms instead of parallel to the walls. Outdoors, look for steps, and other horizontal lines that
flow together in the distance. (And don’t forget to place your people so that these lines double as pointers,
as in figure 2c.) Size, atmosphere, and height within the picture tend to take care of themselves, but look
for ways to use foreground elements (like the large car in figure 3) to sell the feeling of depth through
To isolate and feature your center of interest, simplify and balance the components of the image.
(And, by the way, don’t forget to have a center of interest.) The simplest way to do this is by
observing the famous “rule of thirds.”
The idea behind this principle is that symmetrical balance is boring because it’s static, like two
kids on a seesaw who have trouble moving it because they weigh the same. You can see a static version of
our sailboat picture in figure 4a. Notice that the horizon is half way up the vertical picture axis and the sun,
boat and reflection are all half-way along the horizontal access. The result: a visual snooze.
Figure 4b returns to our first sailboat composition but with an added tic-tac-toe grid that divides
the picture into thirds. Note that all the important pictorial elements are located at the intersections of the
grid lines. The result is a non-symmetrical balance that looks more interesting. This is the rule of thirds in a
nutshell: try to place important visual components at the four one-third points of your compositions.
As you use the rule of thirds, keep these two points in mind:
- The rule is only approximate. If you place important elements in the general neighborhood of
the one-third points, the results will look fine.
- The rule is not iron-clad. There are times when you’ll purposely ignore it to make a striking
composition. For instance, figure 2c looks well-composed even though none of the important elements are
at the one-third points.
To sum up, the simplest way to enhance your video compositions is by constantly emphasizing
depth and by organizing your images through the rule of thirds. But for the best results, you need to master
one more simple set of rules: the rules for placing people in your frame.
Composition and People–The Quest for Depth
These rules cover head room, look room, and lead room; and they all stem from the universal
tendency to put people’s faces smack-dab in the center of photographic images.
We do this because that is how we look at people in the actual world. But in the video world,
bounded by its unbreakable frame, the results look amateurish, as you can see from figure 5a. Here the
performer’s head appears dead center of the image. (I call this compositional sin “headhunting” because it
looks as if you’re about to shoot the victim right between the eyes.)
To improve the composition, we need to reduce the head room: the distance between the subject’s
eyes and the top of the frame. As a rule, you shouldn’t place a person’s eyes below the top third of the
image, regardless of the person’s size. Figure 5b corrects the head room for a closeup and figure 5c
illustrates good head room in a full shot. In both cases, they eyes are on or above the one-third line.
But 5b and 5c fail to correct two other problems: look room and lead room. For more pleasing
compositions, try to place characters with more empty space in front of them–that is, on the side of the
image toward which they’re looking or walking. You can see the look room corrected in figure 5d and the
lead room in 5e.
To complete our quick survey of figure placement, compare figures 5f and 5g. Notice that cutting
off the bottom of a face is not acceptable, although cutting off the top looks quite all right. This is
especially true, of course, if the subject is speaking.
Composition Is Visual Music
At this point, you’ve suffered patiently through a fat fistful of rules and regulations about composition.
If all this seems a bit abstract, don’t worry.
For one thing, these rules, like so many others, were made to be broken. No professional
videomaker subjects each image in the viewfinder to a checklist of compositional correctness. To adapt a
phrase often quoted by the great Peter Shickele, if it looks good, it is good. So treat every precept
in this column as nothing stronger than a guideline.
Secondly, composition is like music: the formal study of visual composition can yield important
insights about it.
But you don’t need it to whistle.