I was guilty. You’ve probably been guilty of this crime, too. In fact, anybody who’s ever pointed a camcorder at anything has probably been guilty of it at one time or another.
The crime? Lousy shot composition. The evidence is compelling
Frame after frame of video with an interview subject dead center, eyes glazed over like a stiff in the morgue.
A lovely nature scene shot so tight that the audience literally can’t see the forest for the tree.
Or the footage of Aunt Jenny at the county fair – spoiled by the Tilt-a-Whirl ride that appears to be sitting right on her shoulder.
Sometimes, it’s enough to make the audience throw up their arms and surrender. So how do you avoid running afoul of the laws of good shot composition? Easy. Just follow these basic composition rules and you’ll beat the "ugly shot" rap every time.
Get Un-Centered: The Rule of Thirds
The art of composing pleasing pictures isn’t simple. Artists, photographers and top-notch videographers dedicate their lifetimes to learning how to constantly deliver world-class visual compositions. But the basics are easy to grasp if you understand the rules.
If there was a uniform code of shot composition, the first entry on the books would surely be the Rule of Thirds.
According to the Rule of Thirds, important elements of a shot should fall on or near the intersections of a grid of imaginary lines that look something like a tic-tac-toe board.
The lines of this imaginary grid fall one third of the way down from the top of the frame, one third in from the right, one third up from the bottom, and one third in from the left. That’s the "thirds" part of the rule.
This approach works because it moves important shot elements away from a fixed dead center position and puts them instead in areas where they encourage the use of opposing elements to balance the shot. This creates tension between the compositional elements and starts to give the picture a sense of flow and life.
Figure 1 illustrates a poor example of how beginning videographers might frame a medium shot during a "talking head" type interview
This kind of composition will quickly start to feel boring if left on screen for any length of time.
The composition in Figure 2 is much better. Simply by moving the subject to the intersection of the imaginary Rule of Thirds lines, and by directing the subject to face slightly down and into the scene, the shot takes on a sense of direction and flow.
Because the subject’s face is no longer the only compositional element, (we’ve added some of what designers call "negative space" to one side) the shot immediately takes on more visual interest. An added benefit is that we now have some room in the shot to bring in other items that can add even more spice to the scene.
Watch network news interviews and you’ll see this offset interview look everywhere. And those savvy pros take a step beyond and add visual elements such as well-orchestrated splashes of light, furniture and decor objects, carefully crafted shadows and even outside window views. They all help add interest and visually balance the opposing elements of the complex scene.
The Color Composition Crime
Figure 3 demonstrates an example of poor color composition. The subject, dressed in a black shirt, was placed against a black background. Because there’s little color contrast in the composition, the effect almost simulates a floating head.
The simple substitution of a contrasting colored background, evidenced in Figure 4, kills the color conflict and helps add some visual contrast to the scene.
Move to Strike!
Up to this point we’ve been talking about compositional elements that work with relatively stationary shots. But video is all about motion, and composition standards are also in play when you’re working with moving subjects.
One of the most important of these is what pros call "leading the subject," which essentially is providing enough nose room.
In Figure 5, the subject is walking from left to right across the frame. But the subject appears to crowd the right side of the frame. That’s a violation. Psychologically we expect the poor actor to bump his nose on the edge of the TV.
Figure 6 shows the solution. The framing is adjusted to allow enough room in front of the moving subject so that he appears to be walking into an ample amount of leading space. How much is enough? Again, remember the Rule of Thirds and try to keep your subject centered on the trailing third line.
The Deliberations Begin
Television programs and movies are wonderful places to study the effects of composition and framing. As you start to use some of the skills outlined here, you’ll begin to discover all sorts of ways that they are used to enhance the emotional content of the stories we watch.
For example, a football player walking away across the open ball field wouldn’t have nearly the emotional effect as moving the same shot to the natural frame of a tunnel leading from under the stadium.
By using the very darkness of the tunnel to direct the viewer’s focus, and by letting the natural convergence lines of the structure draw the viewer’s eye to the bright opening at the end of the tunnel, you communicate more than just the fact that the player is walking away. The shot implies something significant is waiting at the end of his journey.
And that example takes us to the real heart of why shot composition is so important to visual communication. When you choose a particular composition for a shot, you’re subtly saying which elements are important and how they relate to others in the shot.
Imagine a medium-distance shot of a child’s first steps. Because of lessons learned here, you bring in Mom and let her shoulder and outstretched arms form a natural foreground frame to the toddler taking those faltering steps toward the camera.
Like magic, the shot now speaks to the audience on a whole new level. It not only illustrates a child’s desire to walk, but also demonstrates the mother’s love as she awaits the child’s success.