Frame Composition and Camera Moves That Speak

The sign of intelligent, incisive videomaking is good camera technique.

This article describes the bows and whys of using a camera, with special attention to controlling composition and movement. I’ll also discuss what makes camera work feel inevitable and “tight” onscreen.

Since effective film language is based on a human relationship to action and reaction, you can study the roots of film language in your own perceptions every hour of the day, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen

Free eBook


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen


Thanks! We will email your free eBook.

Lots of shooting and making tough comparisons between your own work and that of the best professionals is the only way to develop. More and better equipment is nice, but it’s not the answer.

Say Something

Even when working fast, camera in hand, try to compose each shot to reveal a thematic purpose, to impart ideas-to say something rather than just prettify the scene.

In a simple interview setup, for instance, you have the opportunity to place the subject in a meaningful setting, striking a mood and molding the person’s face through lighting, imparting subject information with clues revealed in the environment. Include as much useful, provocative and even contradictory visual information as you can; we’re often closest to people when we understand their contradictions.

Think of composition as an exercise in creating significance through relationship. At a cattle auction, the farmer is in relation to the other farmers, to the auctioneer, to the price received for the cattle, to the actual money as it changes hands.

A cow will stand in relation to the other cattle, to the imprisoning bars, the electric prod shocking the frightened beast into compliance. The cow is also in relation to the farmer, and vice versa. Sensitive composition brings these elements into juxtaposition so the audience can savor, evaluate and feel your vision.

Visible Significance

The video frame-so small and flat compared with the human eye’s 180 degree angle of acceptance-must be consciously arranged to squeeze maximum meaning into its limited area.

Significance becomes visible when the videomaker creates visual contrasts and comparisons, especially those that are ironic. The homeless man sleeping in a cold doorway is more poignant when the frame also includes a mansion with invitingly lighted windows. Beginners often shoot the mansion as a separate shot and then mate the two through editing; an effect busy and contrived compared with the more subtle and economical method of packing the frame.

As the screen is a two-dimensional representation of a 3-D world, composition must constantly work to evoke the world in depth, not just in height and width.

The antidote to the screen’s flatness is the inclusion of foreground and background detail. The foreground might contain a tree branch dipping into the top of frame, or the corner of an appliance. In place of an open doorway in a kitchen background, one might instead include a window framing a view of hills. This would supply not only depth but further context-revealing, for instance, the house is modest and set in a rural area of isolation and beauty. Even before the kitchen’s owners appear onscreen the viewer will possess considerable information about their lives and values.

To enhance the sensation of on-screen depth the experienced videomaker will shoot between furnimre, or railings, or between the heads of a crowd, creating perspective and new framings within the frame. Such extra planes and subframings reinforce the notion that the world exists in both relationship and depth even though some planes are out of focus.

Depth of Field

Contriving a soft-focus foreground or background is a way to direct attention to a subject in a world of competing detail.

There are two approaches to obtaining narrow depth of field. One is to place a tripod-mounted camera relatively far from the subject and compensate by zooming in. Because all telephoto lenses possess a narrow depth of field, your background and foreground will not be soft focus. This might usefully suggest your character is just a face in the crowd, or isolated by happiness or misery.

The second way to restrict depth of field is by operating your lens at a wide aperture. Some ingenuity will be required if you can’t override your camcorder’s automatic exposure setting. You’ll have to work in low light, set the shutter timing high or reduce light intake with a neutral density filter.

Position your camera so action takes place in the frame’s depth rather than across its width. If you’re shooting tennis players, draw an imaginary line between them, and shoot close to the axis rather than at right angles to it. Your characters will act in the depth of the frame instead of across the screen. Their size relativity and change in size as they approach or depart the camera will maintain the illusion of a third dimension through constantly changing perspective.

Shooting on the axis also makes it easier to hold players in a tight frame when the game becomes animated.

Remember, your job as videomaker is to use the frame to its utmost. Constantly assess compositional elements.

Some people use the viewfinder like a gunsight, seeing only what’s in the crosshairs. Good for hunting, not so good for video. Remain equally aware of the edges and corners of the frame. I make a habit of constantly running my eye around the frame in search of changes or possible improvements.

Parts Evoking the Whole

Intelligent framing often requires letting a part stand for the whole.

A car door alone can evoke a whole limo transporting the heroine to a business meeting. The unaware videomaker will back away and frame the whole automobile, leaving the audience uncertain who’s actually climbing aboard the vehicle.

Always ask how much of an object needs to be onscreen for the audience to comprehend and visualize the rest of it. A hand with long red fingernails allied to a sultry voice enables us to imagine an entire femme fatale.

Saying much with little can liberate areas of the frame to serve more important priorities. And in any case, much of the audience’s enjoyment comes from employing the same imagination used when reading a good novel.

It’s important to suggest through sound and composition the life outside the frame. A man walking out of frame in an arcaded walk encourages us to see what’s behind the camera, to imaginatively create the life behind the frame-a strategy established by painters long ago.

A common beginner’s mistake is zooming out without reframing. What begins as a nicely proportioned close shot turns into a wide shot with the subject dwarfed beneath acres of blank headroom. Things go from bad to worse when one edits out the zoom; the framing disparity between the two cuts all the more apparent. You should continuously reframe while zooming. If while zooming you find the composition is off, very slowly creep the framing into a more desirable position.

On the Axis

Shooting on the axis calls for complementary shots-framings designed to intercut with one another in a visually harmonious way.

If you shoot over subject A’s shoulder, you’ll probably need a balancing shot over B’s shoulder. The two compositions need a certain symmetry if they’re to be repeatedly intercut. A master three-shot often calls for three single shots intercut as complimentaries, and these will only integrate successfully if each composition draws its proportioning from its position in the master.

Videomaking has few rules, but there’s one you break at your peril:

when shooting any set of shots meant to be cut together, take all from the same side of the axis. If you don’t, your characters will face in assorted directions throughout the scene, and the sequence will look a mess.

Provided you stay on one side of the scene line, or axis, you can shoot near or far from the subject, along the axis or at right angles to it, and a subject will always face in the same direction. Hop over the line, and the direction changes.

When you compose a close shot of someone looking out of frame you need to leave lead space. Only when a person looks directly into the camera should you consider central framing; someone looking off the axis should be shot slightly offset.

Bisecting the frame either horizontally or vertically produces a predictable and boring composition. Use other compositional elements to avoid placing the subject dead center; diagonals are especially helpful in breaking the four-square tyranny of the screen format. Some pundits advocate dividing the screen into either horizontal or vertical thirds, placing major compositional elements at one-third or two-thirds position.

Frame Design

Consider what’s in the viewfinder not just as subject, but also as design-lines of force radiating like spokes from a focal point in the distance.

Be prepared to rearrange camera position, camera height, subject background or other compositional elements to achieve a stronger frame. Take advantage of any strong horizontal, vertical, diagonal or intersecting compositional elements.

In a room setup, derive compositional capital from available objects-even if it means set-dressing-to balance the picture in a visually pleasing, offbeat way. Make sure the viewer’s eye is led to what’s meaningful.

Early Eisenstein films such as Battleship Potetnkin and The Boyars Plot are classics of compositional design.

By superimposing strong design elements upon the randomness of life you impose pattern and authorial vision. Your audience will feel in sure hands, and pleasurably anticipate what is to come.

Setting Up and Panning Out

A tripod shot will enable a rock-steady view of a street scene while the slight unsteadiness of a handheld shot will remind us we’re seeing a fallibly human point of view. Each communicates different feelings and creates different contexts for what is to follow.

Never expect to capture acceptable handheld shots with anything but a wide-angle lens setting. Handheld shot sizes must be accomplished by moving the camera, only in exceptional circumstances by zooming. There’s an important difference between the two approaches to a close shot: zooming does not allow the perspective changes that occur when a camera physically approaches a subject. Tracking is therefore inherently more interesting.

The pan was developed as a lateral scanning movement to show a panoramic view of a landscape in one shot. When ready to shoot a pan, make sure to level the tripod beforehand. Include a static hold for five or ten seconds minimum before you begin the movement.

The movement itself must proceed at a speed appropriate for the subject, neither too fast or too slow. It should be free of jerkiness, and end decisively on a new composition, which must again be held for five or ten seconds before cutting the camera. If you do not like the movement, or the new composition, retake the whole shot. The static compositions before and after the movement allow options in editing later.

A very fast pan, called a whip pan, is a blur of imagery that can be used to link any static image with any other. It was once a favorite bridging device of newsreel companies.

Tilting-swivelling the camera vertically-requires the same general approach as the pan. Hold, make a smooth transition and end with another hold.

A sturdy tripod and a fluid-head mechanism will make pans and tilts much easier, but the operator’s hand still needs to be decisive and steady if the camerawork is to look secure.

Goin’ Mobile

When you take the camera off the tripod it can accompany life, rather than just show life moving toward, away from or past a fixed vantage point.

The mobile camera can be mounted on a car or dolly, can be handheld and moved as a responsive roving eye. As stated previously, the handheld camera implies a certain spontaneity and humanness. There’s a place for either approach, depending on the film’s subject, style and point of view. To learn more, study innovative feature film sequences shot by shot.

In a tracking-also known as trucking or dolly-shot the camera moves along an axis pointing ahead, to the side or behind. You might track alongside a man and woman walking a dog on the beach, showing them in profile, sometimes panning forward to the dog.

You can walk ahead of them, moving backward to shoot their faces as they walk. Slow down so they overtake you. Tilt to follow in close shot their feet, leaving footprints in the wet sand. During editing you’ll cut together the best angles, eliminating the more bilious movements.

The only way to track smoothly with a handheld camera is to keep your knees bent, slide rather than drop your feet, walking with in a straight line. These precautions will make you look like John Cleese in a famous Monty Python sketch, but with practice you’ll master a level glide without bobbing or swaying. Professionals also keep the nonviewfinder eye open much of the time, searching for the next shot, watching for obstacles. At first it’s a hideous sensation, but the brain adapts.

Vehicular Movement

A favorite arrangement for a steady tracking shot is for the videomaker to be pushed in a wheelchair; quiet and steady. Choose a chair with inflatable fires, and run the fires soft so they don’t judder over every piece of grit on the floor.

A car can be a good tracking vehicle but the noise will interfere with sound sequences. For slow handheld shots you can sit in the trunk or be roped securely to the hood, but don’t take risks with your safety or the law.

Use a tripod inside the car to shoot out the window; don’t forget to level it beforehand. You’ll probably need to set all three legs to different lengths to keep it upright and steady. Three-quarter forward or three-quarter rearward angles are often the most interesting. Camera motion appears about one-third faster onscreen than in life, so adjust your speed accordingly.

A craning shot alters the height of the camera during the shot, either to reveal something or lead the eye somewhere new. Smooth craning can be accomplished from an escalator, a cherry- picker or a modernistic glass elevator.

In handheld camerawork one might rise smoothly from crouching to standing, perhaps following a pet’s water bowl as it’s picked up and refilled.

Reason to Move

The audience needs to feel camera movements are justifled, that they arise out of needs created by the action or narrative style.

If a postal carrier approaches a front door to the sound of offscreen barking, it’s logical to pan to a window to reveal the irate pooch making the racket. If a woman working at a computer frowns in frustration while looking down, it’s logical to tilt to what the’s seeing-her desk clock.

Movements of this kind respond to our need to see something and represent a sort of visual question-and-answer technique.

In fiction videomaking a camera movement will sometimes deliberately anticipate what’s going to happen by creating a space on the screen for, say, the stalking murderer to appear. This kind of camera movement allows the storyteller to say “watch what’s going to happen.” Hitchcock films are frill of such moments.

More often one wants to hide technique rather than feature it, so camera moves often coincide with physical actions by characters or objects.

The camera might find a new viewpoint during a family argument, tracking with the son as he angrily crosses the room to switch off the TV.

Because the camera’s movements start and stop precisely with those of the son, the force moving the camera arises naturally from the life of the characters, not by the hand of an intrusive storyteller.

A favorite way of panning from street end to street end is to wait for a car to approach, then pan with it. The automobile’s movement seems to motivate the pan.

Observational Speed

In direct-sometimes called “observational”-cinema, the camera and its movements are entirely governed by what is shot.

As in ethnographic footage, nothing is rehearsed or arranged for the camera; there is no chance to stop and start the action when the camera needs repositioning.

In place of editing, the camera pans or tracks to position itself, moment by moment, at the vantage points that best reveal the event’s physical and psychological content. This is the most exciting camerawork possible, though quite irritating to watch when badly performed.

The key to success is avoiding constant movement. Aim to produce a series of static shots linked by decisive transitional movements. It helps to silently tell oneself what must be the next shot, then make the right transition to it, hold it, name the next and so on. Remember to collect cutaway and reaction shots so you can bridge out superfluous transitional movements during editing.

Just as every shot has an appropriate duration, depending on the activity it shows and the context in which it appears, every camera movement has an appropriate speed.

Cover yourself by holding static shots a little too long-they can always be edited shorter.

When in doubt, make several versions of camera movements at different speeds, then select the best during editing.

Even with spontaneous direct cinema, where the operator seems to have only one chance to get things right, there’s usually a great deal of editing control if you remember to shoot parallel action or inserts, cutaways and reaction shots.

An editor I once worked for used to murmur beautifully at the editing machine, “when in doubt, cut to seagulls.”

I can still hear his words of wisdom when I’m shooting.

Michael Rabiger is the author of Directing and Directing the Documentary.

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