Making great film or video is not as simple as pointing and shooting. There's an art to it. And that art is called composition. The composition of a shot is everything that composes a frame—what's in it and how it's arranged. The composition of your shot provides a very important context for your work—it can help tell your story, draw attention to a theme, and dazzle your viewers.
For example, say you are shooting two actors in conversation. They are arguing, and the conversation is becoming heated. A compositional choice that could enhance your shot might be to shoot the conversation near a fire, or in front of a “hot” background like something red or orange that can amplify the message that things are “heating up” in the scene.
But beauty—or any sort of appreciation of composition—is in the eye of the beholder. You may take all the care in the world composing your shots, but not everyone will get something out of your efforts. If you want to give your composition the best shot, however, there are a few guidelines (some call them rules) out there that will help make your job a whole lot easier.
The Rule of Thirds
This is one of the more elementary rules of composition. This rule of thumb involves drawing what is essentially a tic-tac-toe board over your frame, and positioning your actor or subject at the intersection—or power point—of the criss-crossing lines. The effect creates a larger sense of contrast and/or energy in your shot than you would get out of a centered image. Centering images can make them appear flat and dull.
Top It Off
This applies particularly if you're shooting a live subject, like a person. Too much space at the top of the frame above your subject's head can create a distraction for your viewers. Ample headroom draws too much attention away from the eyes, which are the most dramatic facet of a person's face. It also often makes it appear as if the subject is sinking. A good rule of thumb for headroom is to keep your subject's eyes—or most dramatic feature if nonhuman—flush with the top line of the tic-tac-toe board.
Draw the Line
Another rule of thumb if you're shooting human subjects—you will want to avoid edging your frame at their neck, elbows, shoulders, or any other joints. It is just naturally unflattering to the eye. Instead, choose a softer spot like the stomach, waist or chest.
“I'm Ready for My Close-Up”
There are a few standard “angles” for shooting. The wide shot encompasses the entirety of your subject and some, if not all of the background. The medium- or mid-shot zooms in and frames a portion of your subject in greater detail than the wide shot. The close-up is a shot that hyper-focuses on a certain feature of your subject, like the face or eyes if it's a person. There are varying degrees of each of these types of shots (extreme close-up!), and each can be used in varying ways to create different compositional effects.
“Back” to Basics
The background of your shot is almost as important as the foreground. As in the example above, it can really help enhance the foreground action. Whether you're using a particular color to amplify an emotion or a subtle movement or action to add context, you should take some serious consideration into how you fold it into your composition, and how it may affect your audience.