If you want people to sit up and take notice of your images, whether that means getting someone to buy your work or just pay attention to your latest vacation, you need to have clear, compelling compositions that strongly affect the viewer. Composition comes down to the ability to choose and arrange things within the scene in a way that the image is clear to the viewer. Viewers see what you want them to see and understand what you want them to understand.
But as you explore composition in your imagery, realize that good composition can be highly subjective. You may find that with certain images, some people like the composition, some don’t. You have to decide if the image does what you wanted it to do or not. In this article, we’ll teach you how composition works and the techniques of framing images that convey what you want them to.
It’s All About Communication
Composition is really about communicating. If your image communicates clearly, regardless of what you are trying to communicate, the composition works.
With so much visual stuff in our world, from the billboards we see on the way to work to the magazines that surround us to television news to the latest movie to our own home videos, we need something to cut through the clutter and make people look at our work. Strong compositions grab the viewer by the shoulders and say, "Look at me!"
So how do we clean up our image and create the strongest possible compositions for our videos? A lot of people try to do this by arbitrarily following a set of rules, like the rule of thirds (which we’ll come back to, shortly). These rules can be helpful if you use them as guidelines to consider. But composition based only on the rules won’t create anything new, interesting or dramatic. It is very difficult to make the real world conform to arbitrary rules and keep the real world real.
The first thing to do to make a composition work is to see your viewfinder as something other than a view "finder." Too often, the viewfinder is used simply as a sighting device–the subject is either in the frame or it isn’t. The result is usually less than memorable.
Instead, see your viewfinder as it really is, an image on a little TV set. Do you like that image? Is it easy to understand? Is it something you’d leave on your regular TV monitor? You’ve seen a lot of television, some good, some bad. Look at your little "monitor" on your camcorder in the same way. What this does is encourage you to look at the whole image, rather than just the subject. It is very easy to get so caught up in your subject, that you miss what else is in the frame. A composition is not only the subject, but includes the subject and everything else seen in the image area, whether it is in focus or not.
It helps to mount your camcorder on a tripod. This allows you to see a locked-down composition so you can better decide what you like or don’t like about that little image on the monitor.
Don’t forget about composition, however, when the camcorder is not locked down. Moving subjects or scenes that require you to move the camera (panning or tilting) still need to be composed so they can be understood.
What should be on that screen? How do you decide? A good way to look at composition is to break it into three simple, but very important key words and their related questions:
- Include–what needs to be included in the composition?
- Exclude–what needs to be excluded from the composition?
- Relationships–how are things in the composition related to each other and the edges?
What to Include
What should be in the picture? On the surface, this almost seems to be too easy. The subject should be in the picture, of course. But do you want a close-up, a medium shot or a wide shot? All include different things around the subject.
Background and foregrounds–these can be dynamic, effective parts of an image. The background is everything that sits behind a subject and provides a backdrop for it. Foreground is that stuff in front of the subject that defines the space between camera and subject.
Backgrounds and foregrounds can enhance or destroy the clarity of the subject. Look for backgrounds that set off or complement the subject. Look for foregrounds that frame the subject or provide some scale or setting.
The setting of your subject can be vital to understanding a composition. What is a birthday party without the decorations? Look for ways to include them in the foreground or background. But be careful not to include too much or things that distract from the image.
A big difference between still photography and video is that parts of your image can move in and out of the composition as you shoot. You need to be thinking about this, so new picture elements that now are "included" in the shot are there because you decided they belonged to the image and not because they just happened to appear. Before you start shooting, do a quick check to see what might move into or out of your composition.
You may also want to look for ways to include small elements in the composition that will change the meaning of your subject. For example, include some red in the background of a playful child to intensify the action. Or include some blue in the foreground with a sleeping baby to add to the mood. By changing your camera angle, you might add a scoreboard to a shot of a ballfield.
Search out telling details, colors, forms, shapes, anything you think can help your subject. But always keep the purpose of the shot in mind. What are you trying to show? Don’t include things that take away from what you want to communicate about or make it hard to tell what the image is really about.
Frames are an effective way to use the foreground. They include anything that goes to the edge of the viewfinder to create a "frame" around the subject. Look for objects to shoot through to get this effect: a tree, window, playground objects, rocks, etc.
What to Exclude
When our attention is focused on the subject, particularly a moving subject, it is easy to forget to keep looking around the image for distractions. How many times have you seen a shot marred by someone’s foot, a stray headlight, an out-of-focus shoulder, and so forth?
What we keep out of the image area can be just as important as what is kept in. This is another instance where the edges of the viewfinder can be critical. Watch the sides, check the bottom and top for anything extra, anything that doesn’t belong. Especially be sure to look over backgrounds carefully–they seem so far away that it is easy to miss problems back there. Sometimes you can eliminate distractions by changing your camera angle to the subject; not just side to side, but also getting higher or lower can make distractions disappear behind the good parts of the scene.
Changing your framing can help eliminate things, both by going for the close shot and by backing off for the long or wide shot. The close shot is pretty much self-evident–as you get closer and tighter on the subject, surrounding details are kept out of the viewfinder.
Wider shots might at first seem like a dumb way of excluding things. They include more stuff, so how can they exclude things? They exclude when you have a big subject close to the camera that contrasts against the small things in the distance.
A wide-angle setting of the zoom can also, paradoxically, help you exclude things. It makes the background smaller, so as you get close to the subject, the bad parts of the background can be taken out because they become small enough to hide behind foreground or subject picture elements, such as a rock, bush, chair or even people.
The wide-angle setting will also reduce the size of the background compared to a close subject. For example, you want to pan the camera along a nice planting of flowers near a fence. At a medium distance–say, ten feet away–the fence is always in the video image. But by using a wide-angle lens (or zoom setting on the camera), you will have to get closer to the flowers, which means you can angle down on the flowers and make the fence disappear.
A lot of artists talk about unity within a composition. This is a great idea but a little hard to explain. Unity refers to an image in which everything seems to belong.
Unity comes when you’ve done your job in making sure that you are including what belongs to the subject in your viewfinder and excluding what does not belong.
Once you’ve decided what belongs in the image and what doesn’t, you need to decide where the picture elements should go. You often have many choices–you make the right choice by deciding what your video is about. Then you look for relationships that clarify what you are trying to show.
Suppose you’re videotaping your daughter at the playground. You want to include your daughter and the slide because that’s where the fun action is. You’re excluding the bright red poles in the background because they’re distracting and unimportant.
You get low to emphasize the end of the slide. We now have one relationship–the slide end with the top and your daughter. You keep the slide end close to the bottom of the viewfinder and right in the middle. This makes a strong top to bottom kind of composition. The relationships include the bottom of the slide to the top and to each side of the viewfinder. This composition would have a real coming-at-you effect.
You could also put the slide end at one corner or the other of the viewfinder. This is the same basic composition in terms of what is included and excluded, but the relationships have changed. Now the slide end is nearer one side or the other and the action will head toward one side or the other. The image, through its composition, has changed.
Rules of Composition
Some of the so-called rules of composition can help you with how parts of your scene work together to make up the composition–the relationships. Think of them as guidelines, though, not as hard and fast rules.
Head room is one of the first things to consider and it applies to more than just room over a head. The term comes from television and talking heads–from news anchors to man-or woman-on-the-street interviews–and refers to the space above the subject. It is most often used with close-ups and medium shots (although a "close-up" of a mountain is possible–it will have a different scale than a close-up of a face). This can be space over a dog, a flower, a car, anything that you’re shooting.
Beginners often leave too much head room over the subject. They do this not because they are even looking at that space, but because they are centering the subject. Head room should be kept to a minimum unless you have a good reason to include a lot of space (such as needing to include something in the composition, perhaps a happy birthday banner). Watch the top of your viewfinder and keep the top of the subject close to it.
Space for the subject to move is also important. It looks odd to have a composition with a runner, for example, sprinting to the right with less space in front than behind. This lead room gives a place for the person to go (or animal or anything else that is moving). It usually works best to have the space in front of the moving subject be greater than the space behind. Avoid centering the subject.
The rule of thirds is one of the most common compositional guidelines. Basically, it says that if you divide the picture area into thirds, top to bottom, then left to right, you have some key locations for important compositional elements. The horizon (or other strong horizontal line) should be located at the lower or upper thirds line. Strong verticals (like a tree or side of a building) should be at the left or right thirds line.
The subject should then be at one of four points where the thirds lines intersect. This guideline is great if it helps you get away from putting everything in the middle. However, it can be bad when people slavishly try to follow it even when the world in front of them can’t be forced into the thirds mold. (See an example of the the rule of thirds at www.videomaker.com/edit/other/mpegpa.htm).
One thing that helps the image as you move things toward and away from the rule of thirds is balance. An image is visually balanced when side to side, top to bottom, the scene has things that balance each other. A big dark shape that fills half of the viewfinder can overpower the rest of the image and make it seem heavy on that side. By adding space to the other side, you can bring the scene into balance. Any time the image seems heavy on one side or top-heavy or bottom-heavy, it is out of balance.
A strong center of interest is very helpful in clarifying the composition. What are you trying to communicate in the scene? Keep the attention of the viewer on the one thing most important to the composition.
A common mistake is to make the scene in your viewfinder try to do too much. "Let’s show the kids in front of the Grand Canyon." Is the Grand Canyon your subject? Or are the kids? The choice will make you find a way to make kids and Grand Canyon relate to each other so that it is clear what the image is about. Look for things to include and exclude from the picture area to emphasize your subject, your center of interest.
One thing that is very tricky about video compositions is that you may have to deal with multiple compositions as you shoot. As you zoom from a wide shot to a close-up or pan across a scenic vista, the compositions change constantly.
The way to deal with this is to practice the shot before you actually start recording. Check your compositions both as a close-up and as a wide shot–know where your zoom starts and where you want it to end.
Choose a distinct and interesting composition for the beginning of your pan and something just as effective for the end. Too often people will pan across a scene just because they think a wide scene needs a pan. Maybe, but it needs something for viewers to lock onto at the beginning and end of the pan or you risk losing their attention.
The same thing applies to a moving camera, such as a walk into or out of a scene. Pick a good starting composition and one for completing the shot. If you can’t do a practice walk through, use your zoom to get an idea of what your final shot might be. If that isn’t possible, then keep your non-viewfinder eye open as you shoot and look for a composition that can end the movement.
One way of getting better compositions is to always go beyond your first impression of a scene. The first composition is likely the most obvious. Put the camcorder up to your eye and look for more compositions. Try something higher (to include more), lower (to exclude more), move left or right (to change relationships) and so on.
With better compositions, your whole video shooting will improve. You will look more carefully at everything in the viewfinder. At first, this will require some conscious effort and a little extra time. With a some practice, it will become automatic and you will quickly find the best compositions.
So get out there and look for the best picture parts to include in your image, keep the worst parts out, and find interesting ways of putting them all together in the frame.