Part Two - Video Composition Rules

Video composition is a very much talked about subject, so I thought I’d spend a little time here discussing the subject. It is good to know the rules and also how to break the rules to make an impact.

The classic discussion when one is talking about composition is the 'rule of thirds' where the picture is divided up into thirds both vertically and horizontally and your main subject should be placed on those thirds. Of course this is the traditional view and rules are always meant to be broken. The great innovative filmmaker Stanley Kubrick used a single point of perspective in all of his films, and this can give a very compelling and different viewpoint.

Start out playing by the rules

Some people feel that these rules restrict them too much. However, if you’re trying to control the visual messages your video is sending, you need an understanding of traditional rules of composition. Then when you go about breaking the rules, you’ll be able to do so with purpose and intent!

These rules are not new however and were developed by artists centuries ago to guide them when painting or positioning objects in a rectangular frame. They discovered that certain placements of subject were somehow more pleasing and also the eye was inextricably drawn to some areas of the canvas more readily.

The Rule of Thirds

Of course rules are also guidelines and a radically different framing of a photograph, painting or film frame can be extremely dramatic. Think of the entrance of Omar Sharif in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia. If you haven’t seen the film I suggest you grab a copy even if it is for the shots across the desert photographed by the great British cinematographer Freddie Young BSC.

The traditional rule of thirds states when framing your subject, you move the camera so that the prominent subject elements fall along one of the third lines, preferably at a point where those lines intersect.

A more dramatic framing would be a large expanse of sky with the very bottom part of the frame as the subject. Or if you’re filming a yacht at sea for example you may want to emphasise the sea and the smallness of the boat on the horizon, so frame accordingly. One general accepted rule of composition is don’t centre the horizon in your frame. Place the horizon on either the top or bottom third line. Again if you had the subject on the horizon, or perhaps the expanse of the interior of a spaceship for example the central placing of the disappearing point can be very effective and compelling

This is all about your artistic choice! Which one looks the best to you, and perhaps more importantly what tells the story in a more effective way? The point is to take control of the situation and to frame the most appealing shot. Look for alternatives every time you frame a shot.


Headroom refers to the amount of space between the top of a person’s head and the top of your frame. Too much headroom makes the person appear to be sinking out of the bottom of the frame. Most inexperienced photographers will frame shots of people with way too much headroom.

When framing shots of people, pay attention to where the eyes appear. This is perhaps where the rule of thirds is most commonly accepted as best practice by placing the subject’s eyes on the upper third line and their mouth on the lower third section

When framing shots of people, don’t forget to avoid placing the edge of your frame at one of the body’s natural cut-off lines: neck, elbows, waist, knees and ankles.

Lead space or look space

Lead space refers to space in front of your subject, leaving them space to look into, and this gives a very natural looking and pleasing composition normally.

If filming a moving object or a person, for example a car, a cyclist or even somebody walking down the street then leaving some space for them to walk into will be the most pleasing for your viewer. The opposite of this will create tension and is used a great deal in horror films and thrillers where the edge of the frame is very close to where the person is walking and so the body can jump out at any time within the darkened house, and this is especially handy when you have a sudden musical score which emphasises the action.

What’s in the background?

The background of your shot is sometimes more important than the subject because if the background is brighter more colourful and extremely interesting, it can become extremely distracting. You will need to make sure what’s in the background of your shot doesn’t draw your viewer’s attention from your main subject, yet tells you something about where the person is or what they do for a living for example.

There is also the possibility of somebody waving to the camera in the background and this is extremely distracting, you may have seen this on news items or at football matches for example.

Always keep checking what’s in the background of the shot you are framing. Background clutter or distracting objects can often be avoided by repositioning your camera (moving it left or right, framing a tighter shot, changing the camera angle) or moving your subject.

You might also be able to put the background out of focus by decreasing the depth of field in your shot. This can be done by adding neutral density (or ND) filter, and this enables the aperture of your lens to be opened up giving a less in focus look to your picture, and will throw the background out of focus, thus predominantly showing the subject you want to be in focus more starkly.

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Posted on June 17, 2015 and filed under Part Two, basics.