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Film Shot Composition Basics for Professional Framing

Ask any film editor and they’ll tell you that their greatest struggle when it comes to creating the final cut is the footage that they’re given to work with. Great footage leads to a great final cut, but less than acceptable footage leaves a lot of work for the editor just to get to an acceptable point in the final cut. Framing and Film Shot Composition can really go a long way in delivering impeccable footage that’s going to be fun and exciting for your editor to work with and yet, so many cinematographers overlook the basics as they find themselves so focused on so many other elements of the scene. They forget to focus on their shot composition and basic framing.

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We’re bringing you back to the basics with a focus on achieving the best Film Shot Composition and framing for professional footage that’s going to take the entire project to the next level.

With these tips, you’re not only going to be improving your shot composition, but also your opportunity to deliver a clear message to your audience. Remember, it’s all in how you show it!

What is Film Shot Composition?

When we talk about the shot composition and framing what do we mean? We’re essentially describing how the camera sees the scene. The shot composition represents everything that is within view of the camera, thus it’s everything that your audience is going to see if you capture the shot just like that. Sure, you could just point and shoot – anyone can do that actually – but cinematographers that take their time, and carefully think about their shot composition can make incredible impacts with their footage.

But how? What is it that every cinematographer should already be thinking about when capturing a shot? As we get back to the basics, we’re going to touch on some of the most essential, and yet miniscule, means of achieving great shot composition through:

  • Applying the Rule of Thirds
  • Focusing on the Leading Lines
  • Creating Shot Depth
  • Using Size to Your Storytelling Advantage

Once we’ve accomplished all of that, we’re going to go one step further in breaking all the rules just for fun! This is how you’re going to achieve amazing Film Shot Composition and framing that will engage your audience and master your storytelling advantage.

Applying the Rule of Thirds

Every cinematographer should understand the rule of thirds and how it applies to shot composition. The rule of thirds works for several reasons, it creates points of interest on the thirds to eliminate distractions elsewhere, positions the shot in a way that shows exactly what a character is feeling or how they’re thinking, and creates a balanced composition for the audience.

Applying the rule of thirds is simple. All you have to do is divide your frame (the viewable space you’re filming) into three equal parts vertically and horizontally.  Now, imagine you have lines like a tic-tac-toe drawn or a hashtag across your camera lens. Place your subject in the viewable area of the left or right third of the image such that the other two thirds are open. Yes, it’s that simple!

Focusing on the Leading Lines

Every shot is capable of having visible leading lines which draw the interest of your audience to your subject and your ideal film shot composition is going to create those leading lines. All you have to do is visualize the various lines within your shot as a roadmap to your subject. Whether it’s a staircase, a fence, a roadway, or a rushing river, filming along those lines so that they draw your audience’s eyes right to your subject can help you achieve amazing composition.

Before you begin filming, simply look around the scene and think about how you can incorporate leading lines into your shot to lead your audience to your subject. You’ll be surprised how easily you find the perfect line leading into your scene. Using leading lines to your advantage to achieve amazing composition is going to take your shots to another level of professionalism. It just takes a little creativity.

Creating Shot Depth

You’re going to master creating shot depth in the following ways: first, you need to understand that every shot you film has a foreground, midground, and background. Next, you make a determination as to how much, or how little, you show within your framed shot. Want to show a very deep shot? Want to show a very shallow shot?

There will be times when you don’t want to show much depth of frame. For example, if you’re filming a close up of a character, you might limit the depth of your shot to create audience focus on your character and his or her emotions rather than on surroundings. There will also be times when you want to show a lot of depth, perhaps to establish audience understanding of the world your character is in.

Your shot depth is impacted by your location and the lens you shoot with. The decisions you make in regards to shot depth impact how your audience focuses on your footage. Do you want the audience to focus on the character, their surroundings, something different? Use shot depth to create the ideal Film Shot Composition for your audience’s thoughts.

Using Size to Your Storytelling Advantage

As you master shot composition, you’re going to find that size plays a key role in your storytelling. You have the power, with simple adjustments to your shot composition, to make your characters appear larger than life and incredibly powerful or important or to make them appear small and almost entirely insignificant. The same applies to objects within the frame.

Think about your Film Shot Composition and the ways that you can use camera angles to tell your story. Viewing your subject from below can make the subject appear dominant, whereas filming from above can make the subject appear powerless or weak. Even small changes to shot composition have major impacts on the size of the character or object you film which can deliver important details about the story to your audience.

Breaking All the Rules

While following the rules of Film Shot Composition and framing can create powerful effects, breaking the rules can have equally powerful advantages. In fact, anytime a cinematographer can break the rules and still achieve the desired composition, it’s a welcome opportunity for sure.

Consider breaking the rule of thirds if it means your audience is going to be attracted to the shot and it’s going to tell your story visually. Don’t be afraid to film shots at different depths despite what you know to be “right.” Consider creative options that go beyond the basics, break the rules, and have fun – the more you follow the rules of Film Shot Composition and the more creative ways you find to break those same rules, the more powerful your footage will be!