Shot Composition: How to Frame Your Scenes Like a Pro

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Crafting visually compelling scenes is not as simple as pointing and shooting. The art of composition determines what’s in a frame and how it’s arranged. Shot composition provides a very important context for your work—it can help tell your story, draw attention to a theme, and dazzle your viewers.

 

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What is composition in film?

Camera filming a car driving away on an isolated roadPopTika/Shutterstock

Film composition refers to the way the elements of a shot are arranged and captured, as well as their relationship to each other. Using cinematography techniques, filmmakers alter a shot’s framing, camera movements, depth of field, and depth of space to create an aesthetic and to imply meaning.

  • Cinematography: the art and technology of capturing moving pictures in a way that sets atmosphere and tone
  • Framing: the way a scene is set within the film frame
  • Camera movement: the various ways the camera is moved to create a different tone or mood; movements include tracking, zooms, pans, tilts, and handheld movements
  • Depth of field: how sharp or blurry the focus of a shot is
    • Shallow depth of field: a small area of focus, usually with the subject sharp and in focus and a blurred background
    • Deep depth of field: a large area of focus in which everything is sharp and in focus
  • Depth of space: the various components of your scene—the main subject, background, props, etc etc—are layered both near and far from the camera so that the foreground, midground, and background are equally important. This is how you give a two-dimensional film image a sense of three-dimensional depth.

Film composition techniques

Camera operator kneeling outsideJMk photographer/Shutterstock

Beauty—or any sort of aesthetic appreciation—is in the eye of the beholder, and viewers often respond to the same shot in different ways. Still, if you want to give your shots their best shot, these rules of shot composition can help make your job a whole lot easier.

The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds involves drawing what is essentially a tic-tac-toe board over the frame and positioning the subject at the intersection of the crisscrossing lines. The effect, which comes standard as a grid option on most cameras, creates a larger sense of contrast and energy in a shot than a centered image. Centering images can make them appear flat and dull. 

Rule of thirds compositionDarkroom Graphic/Shutterstock

Symmetry

Still, there’s always the exception to the rule. Sometimes it’s useful to break the rule of thirds and instead place the subject in the exact center of the screen—think of Wes Anderson’s famously symmetrical shots and how they draw the viewer’s gaze to the subject. This type of scene composition creates striking visuals and can imply connections between actions and characters.

Symmetry in shot composition“Moonrise Kingdom” Courtesy Focus Features

Blocking

Blocking is the way actors are positioned and move throughout the scene. In terms of shot composition, blocking can convey emotions, story beats, and mood beyond just where a person is standing. A person standing tall across the table from another who is sitting, for example, suggests an unbalanced power dynamic between them. 

film shot composition“Glass Onion” Courtesy Netflix

Top it off

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.

shot framing“Nope” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Draw the line

Another rule of thumb when shooting human subjects is that you should 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 such as the stomach, waist, or chest.

movie shot composition“Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul” Courtesy Focus Features

Take the lead

Use leading lines to direct the viewer’s eyes to specific parts of your shot. Think of Wes Anderson’s highly symmetrical shot compositions—rivaled in recognizability only by his use of distinct vibrant color palettes—or Leonardo da Vinci’s use of lines in “Vitruvian Man.” The leading lines in these shots draw your attention towards certain parts of the frame. To apply leading lines to your shot composition, consider any vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, or converging lines in the frame (telephone wires, trees, creeks, and houses all work great), and use them to direct attention towards your subject.

leading lines shot“Grand Budapest Hotel” Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Different shots for different reasons

To become a natural at shot composition, study the various kinds of shots and what they convey on a storytelling level. Learn the difference between the wide shot (which encompasses the entirety of your subject and some or all of the background), the medium shot (which frames a portion of your subject in greater detail than the wide shot), and the close-up shot (which hyper-focuses on a certain feature of your subject). Each shot can be used in varying ways to create drastically different compositional effects.

close up film shot“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” Courtesy Produzioni Europee Associate

Background matters

The background of a shot can help enhance its foreground subject and action. Whether you’re using a particular color to amplify an emotion or a subtle movement to add context, take some serious consideration into how you fold it into your composition and how it may affect your audience.

background shot“Spider-Man Homecoming” Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing