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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Composing Your Shots


As in every skill that blends creative and technical elements, a lot of what makes good video comes down to what looks good to you. Does your video look good to you? Can you tell what's going on?

If you're going to make the step of sharing that video with the world, you'll have to ask another question...will that video look good to others.

Learning good composition is one of the basic steps in shooting better video. Much of the theory that applies to taking better pictures also applies to shooting better video.

A fellow videographer once told me that he liked to imagine every shot as if he was trying to get a real good still picture. After all, video is really just a rapid succession of still images put together to convey motion. In typical video in the United States, you're looking at around 30 pictures in one second. Films are shot at a rate of around 24 frames per second (giving them a different look). There are a lot of technical elements involved when discussing frame rates that we'll just leave out. Let's start by just looking at a few tips to get better composition.


What is composition?

Think of it as how you position the camera when you're about to take your video. Where is the subject you're shooting? (I know, in front of you) But where on your display screen is the subject?

For these examples, let's pretend you're shooting video of a baby. In your display or viewfinder, in which section the baby? Up top in the upper portion? Or off to the left? Imagine a tic tac toe pattern that stretches from the bottom to the top of the screen and all the way to the left and the right. This will be an imaginary grid you can use to make your video a little more understandable to other people.

The Rule Of Thirds

This rule is probably the most referenced when discussing composition in visual arts. This is how I'll present it: The eye (when looking at video) is attracted to the upper, lower, left and right thirds of the screen. If that's where the eye (of the viewer) is naturally attracted, then why not frame your subject in those thirds?

As simple as that might seem, it is a bit counter-intuitive. If you're getting video of the baby, wouldn't you want to have him or her dead center? As always, you have to make artistic choices, but the video with the better composition is going to be easier to watch for the viewer. Experiment with taking your subject out of the center of the screen. Dead center subjects are a tell-tale sign of amateur video.

Here are some of the ways I learned to think about the rule of thirds.

More sky; less sky

As a news photographer, I often found myself shooting video of boring things like buildings. In order to better compose those shots, I remembered a little saying that helped me visualize the rule of thirds in the field: more sky; less sky.

My subject in this case would be the building. In order to keep the subject in the upper or lower thirds, I always got a shot that had more of the sky in it (and most times shot another shot with less of the sky in it or more of the ground). Remembering this is a sure fire way to keep the rule of thirds in mind.

And it doesn't just have to apply to static building shots. The tip can also apply to just about anything.

Here are some examples:

Dead Center

More Sky

Another more sky

Less Sky



Looking Room

Most of our video involves people. And that's good. That's what's interesting. That's what people connect with. To keep in mind the rule of thirds when shooting a person talking, give them some looking room. In other words, if they're looking off to the right...frame them up on the left like they have sticks shooting out of their eyes and you want the sticks to stretch to the other side of the screen. Imaginary sticks, of course.
Remembering this will keep your subject framed in the left and right thirds of the screen.

Understanding better composition will make your video more digestible to those who have to view it or want to view it. It's important to remember that rules are made to be broken...but they are also called rules for a reason.

There are many situations in which centering your subject might make sense. Think about it. Ask yourself why. Perhaps it's just for artistic reasons and there's nothing wrong with that.

Just use these for some basic tips.

If the shuttle were a face, it would have no looking room.
Now you have a little looking room. 

Works both ways. 


What about focus, depth of field, shutter speed, filters and white balance?

For now, we'll focus on basic, home video. All these things are pretty much automated on consumer digital cameras and phones. For those looking for tips and info on more advanced video techniques, I will be addressing some of those in the future. Specifically, I plan to get into broadcast news videography tips.

But any of the tips I share here are meant for the hobbyist and aspiring pro alike.