Composition is the art of framing your video world. The visual frame is the artificial border that limits and defines the image you shoot-a border you set, for better or worse. Learn to set that border in a manner that pleases the human eye and you make that all-important leap from good video to great video.
In this article we will discuss this most artistic aspect of videomaking-from the basic rules of composition to tips from the pros.
Anatomy of an Image
Before we look at the mechanics of composing an image, let’s focus on the receiving side of the visual communication process: the human eye.
The human eye scans an image at incredibly fast speeds, and in many directions. Certain patterns, colors and shapes attract the eye, but other elements confuse it.
It requires considerable brain power to interpret a visual message. The more complicated and unfarniliar the image, the harder the brain must work.
A printed page is a good example of a familiar image; the brain has learned from experience to direct the eye to the upper left hand corner, then proceed across and down the page.
Most video images present a greater challenge to the brain. Typically, the brain must use a different strategy to digest the visual information of each individual image. Poorly composed images make the brain work harder, directing the eye to scan and re-scan images in search of meaning. Whatever message the image is meant to communicate is lost in the confusion; the brain fires and simply ignores the message. A properly composed image, on the other hand, makes digesting its visual information easy on the brain, and there-fore succeeds in communicating its message.
Rules to Shoot By
Everyone makes aesthetic choices every day; you start when you decide what clothes to wear. We can usually muster a yea or nay opinion on the artistic merits any given video image, though we might not be able to explain why.
A closer look at these subjective opinions reveals some simple rules of composition, rules we operate by-whether we realize it or not.
The buffer zone. Since we normally have space above our heads, whether we’re indoors or out, there’s usually a buffer area between th top of a person’s head and the upper limits of a scene. We expect the same considerations when viewing a video image.
Always leave a blank buffer zone or headroom between the top of the person’s head and the upper edge of the video frame. This blank space maintains the “natural” appearance and balance of the image.
The nose knows. Another visual imbalance occurs when someone looks or points in a direction other than straight into the camera. A full profile of a person is one example of this situation. Well-composed shots leave space in the direction of the looking or pointing. This extra space, called noseroom or leadroom, is particularly important when a person or object is in motion and the camera is panning to maintain framing. Whether you’re shooting a profile of a marathon runner or a passing Indy racing car the rule applies equally-leave space in front of the subject.
The human form. In face-to-face interactions we can usually see the other person’s entire body. In television, often it’s necessary to show only a portion of the human anatomy. There are guidelines to help in the composition of these types of shots.
Don’t compose video frames that cut people off at the eyes, nose, mouth, chin, bust, waist, knees or ankles. Instead, frame your shots just above or below these features. This still leaves you plenty of options; standard shots range from extreme long shot to extreme close-up.
For instance, the medium shot will frame the body above the knee while leaving ample headroom on top. The extreme close-up frames just below the chin and slightly above the eyes; in this example no headroom is necessary.
After you’ve properly framed your subject, check the background for objects that may interfere with your image. You don’t want a telephone pole sticking out of a person’s head, or a branch of a potted plant looking like the third arm of your interviewer.
The Rule of Thirds. Have you ever wondered why they call the middle of a frame “dead center?” Because it’s the most visually boring place in the entire frame-not where you want to place the most important element of your visual message.
Imagine a tic-tac-toe board superimposed over a television screen. Now horizontal and vertical lines divide the screen in thirds.
To increase the power of your visual message place the important elements of the image on or near these imaginary lines. This technique, employed by the masters for centuries, can create a balanced look without placing objects in the absolute center of the screen.
With the screen divided by these lines many compositional options exist; sometimes a videomaker might use only one line, other times two. For example, a news anchor might appear vertically centered in the frame, purposely avoiding an imaginary line. But the anchor’s eyes appear on the horizontal line that divides the upper third of the screen. The viewers, drawn to the eyes of the announcer by this composition, react exactly the way the news director planned they would.
In other situations, key image elements appear on both horizontal and vertical imaginary lines. For example, in a harbor shot, the mast of a sailboat falls on the vertical line on the right, and the distant horizon falls on the lower horizontal line. Whatever your message, knowing the rule of thirds will help you communicate it more effectively.
Whenever you’re shooting something in motion you must consider the directional axis of action, that is, which way your subject is moving.
Say you’re shooting a football game. In your quest for the best camera angle, you shoot from both sides of the field, during the same quarter. This proves kind of confusing when you play back the tape-without warning your team rushes towards the wrong goal line. You’ve forgotten the directional axis of motion, which changed a full 180 degrees as the camera switched across the axis, from sideline to sideline. You can break this rule, as long as you inform the audience.
When you move the camera to follow action, mimic the movements of the human head and eyes. This way, such moves as panning and tilting a camera seem natural to the viewer-like typical movements of the head.
Make sure to follow the rules of good composition throughout the entire pan or tilt. Rehearse the camera movement first. Determine whether you’ll need to alter focus or make other midstream adjustments. Make sure your tripod is level; a high quality fluid head will give you the best results.
Establish where the camera movement will begin and end, and hold the camera still for a few seconds in both places. Experiment with different pan speeds and camera positions; you can decide which one is right later in the solitude of the edit suite.
Be sure there’s a reason to move the camera; it’s best if an objector event is the motivation for a pan or tilt. A passing train, descending glass elevator, or off-screen scream justifies movement, but camera movement without apparent reason appears contrived.
Speaking of contrived, let’s examine the most obviously contrived camera move of all: the zoom. I know, it’s hard to resist using a variable-speed 15:1 power zoom lens when you’ve got one. The zoom lens is a great tool for setting up framing
you roll tape, but remember that you don’t need to use it
People don’t come with zoom lens eyes-unless you’re the
Six Million Dollar Man
. Since zooming is not a human phenomenon, it often appears unnatural to the viewer. So use zooms sparingly. Watch a professional production carefully, you’ll discover that on-air zooms are quite rare.
In fact, the handheld look dominating music videos and television commercials now illustrates the point well: the human point-of-view is the most natural.
Instead of zooming to follow a subject retreating from the camera, try physically moving the camera closer to the action-following the movement step for step. Unlike zooming, this technique produces an image and feel that is similar to the human experience, and therefore more real to the viewer.
A dolly or boom works best for smooth results. Many videomakers don’t have access to these devices. If you don’t, make due with a simple yet effective alternative: your feet. Try to keep your knees bent to absorb shock, and slide your feet instead of picking them up.
A wide angle lens setting will minimize picture jiggles. Technological advances in mechanical, electronic and optical image stabilization systems help videomakers get remarkably stable shots while in motion.
If an on-air zoom is necessary, be sure to maintain proper composition throughout the entire zoom range. It is often necessary to tilt up or down as you zoom in or out. If you zoom out from an extreme close-up of a person to a medium shot, you must tilt down to maiutain the proper amount of headroom. As we have seen, too much or too little headroom is very disconcerting to the viewer.
As with pans and tilts, rehearse the zoom before you roll tape. Whenever possible use a tripod for steady shots during the zoom.
It’s always a challenge to recreate a 3-D world with the two dimensional reality of a television screen. There are a few tricks that enhance the perception of depth: using shadows, placing objects in the foreground, manipulating the depth of field and experimenting with camera angles, to name a few.
Shadows are good. This may come as a surprise to those of you who learned to design lighting that eliminates shadows.
However, shadows can help mold objects with light and dark, using subtle shadows to add dimension. Do not be afraid of them.
Placing objects up in the foreground gives the viewer perspective on the depth of the scene.
Videomakers can also alter the depth of field, that is, the portions of a scene that are in sharp focus. A large depth of field keeps everything-from foreground to infinity-in sharp focus, thus enhancing the perception of depth. Manipulating the shutter speed, aperture and lens focal length all affect an image’s depth of field.
Don’t be afraid to keep the camera still, allowing the action to move towards and away from the camera. Here, without using the zoom lens, we let the moving objects get bigger and smaller, the way the human eye naturally tracks objects.
Give yourself lots of time to experiment with camera angles. Even a minute change in camera position may radically change the resulting image. Whatever you do, don’t just let the camera rest on your shoulder. Remember, too, that for the best impact and clarity on the small 3:4 ratio television screen, you must get as close as you can to the action.
Color composition is also an important artistic consideration. Much of the beauty and excitement of television comes from color; unfortunately for the videomaker, the majority of camcorder viewfinders do display in black-and-white.
If possible, connect a small color TV to your camcorder while shooting. The new LCD varieties are quite good for this.
There is a trend towards color LCD viewfinders. One of the more notable models is the Sharp VL-HL100 Hi8 ViewCam ($2200) with a four-inch color LCD display, and no traditional viewfinder. This set-up allows video-makers to use both eyes while shooting-avoiding the tunnel vision feel that viewfinders impose. Fisher has announced its 8mm FVC-30 camcorder equipped with removable 2.2-inch color LCD monitor with speaker and remote control functions.
Two final viewfinder taps:
1) Check your viewfinder for framing accuracy. Viewfinders are notorious for cutting off the edges of the frame, also known as over-scanning. It’s very frustrating to find out that your viewfinder lied and your composition paid the price.
2) Newer camcorders often clutter viewfinders with on-screen displays and prompts. Turn off all but the essential ones-don’t let these annoyances make composing a shot more challenging.
When to Break the Rules
A certain amount of aesthetic tension is good, it makes images more interesting to look at, less boring. Don’t feel constrained by the rules we’ve outlined here; once you’ve learned them you can break them with good purpose. In fact, there are times when breaking the rules is the most effective way to make your visual point.
Composition is more art than science. You determine which visual elements to include in your shots, and which to exclude. The choice is yours.David Welton is an independent producer and college instructor of television production.