Use Composition to Improve Your Look

by Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 1998

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

The ancient Greeks used the elements of composition to proportion their statues. Artists throughout the years have applied it to create aesthestically pleasing paintings. Now videographers can use composition to improve the look of their videos.

What is Composition

With your camcorder you can “make pictures” not just take them. By selecting and arranging elements through your viewfinder, you can create scenes that will catch the viewer’s eye and maintain his attention. You have more control over your videos than you may imagine. Controlling the angle from where you shoot your subject, watching where the light falls and moving to control the background are all ways you can use your camcorder as an artist uses his paintbrush.

Five Rules of Composition

These are rules that artists and photographers use when they want to create beautiful images. Consider them more as guidelines; you need not apply them all the time. When you are searching for ways to make a particular scene dance with life and meaning, try one or more of these techniques.

1. Simplicity: Limit your shot to include just one main subject, or a single center of attention. If you clutter up your picture with too many elements your viewers may get confused. The center of attention might be someone’s face or a particular object. If you are not sure what the main point might be, you may have to look harder or even create one.

One way to emphasize the main subject is to frame it so that distracting backgrounds are eliminated or subdued. You can make the background out of focus by physically moving far away from your subject and zooming in with your lens. This creates a short depth of focus where the subject is sharp and the background is fuzzy.

Reposition yourself to avoid distracting backgrounds. Make sure a background is not merging with your foreground subject. For example, if someone is standing near a pole, make sure he stands to one side of the pole so it doesn’t look like it is growing out of his head which will look painful and humorous besides distracting.

2. Framing: Another way to avoid distracting backgrounds is by framing your main subject. For the same reason that you place a frame around a painting, you can use your camcorder to create a frame around your subject to enhance the subject’s appeal and to complement its appearance.

The frame helps direct the viewer’s eye to the main subject. It also helps create a sense of depth. Whenever you can give a 3D look to a flat TV screen, your viewer is further drawn into your video. For example, if you use the branch of an overhanging tree to frame the church, not only are you enhancing the image of the building, but your viewer feels the perspective of viewing it from a distance.

You can find frames for your video all around you. Sometimes you just need to move back from the subject to find something that can act as a frame. An arch, a doorway, a blackboard, a window–just about anything your subject can stand in front of can act as a frame.

Ask your subject to stand in a doorway. He will be framed by the doorway, and the viewer’s attention is directed to him. You can use framing to take an otherwise dull shot of a building and bring it to life by moving under a nearby bush or tree to frame the building.

3. Rule of Thirds: Novice photographers and videographers place the subject in the center of their frame. However, graphic design professionals know the eye naturally moves to a point about two-thirds up the page. You can better catch your viewer’s eye and achieve an informal or asymmetric balance to your shots by incorporating the rule of thirds.

To use this rule of composition, think of lines dividing your frame into thirds, horizontally and vertically, as if a tic-tac-toe pattern was laid over it. Try to place important elements of your shot where the lines cross. These are points of strength in your frame, and your main subject should occupy one of these points.

But isn’t the picture going to look off balance? Shouldn’t you simply place your subject in the center of the frame? With your main subject at one of the cross points, position a secondary object at a point on the opposite side of your frame. This will help you achieve balance, and the asymmetry will add life to your videos.

For example, if you are shooting video of the beach, place the horizon in the upper third of the frame. When aiming for the sky, place the horizon in the lower third. If someone is feeding a shore bird, move yourself so that the person is on one side of the frame and the bird is on the other. Again, try to get the horizon at either the top or bottom third of the viewfinder.

The point you choose for your main subject depends on the feel you are trying to achieve as well as the shots that come before and after the one you are composing. Keep in mind that most people instinctively look to the right, so try placing your main subject to the right with the secondary subject to the left. However, if there is action going on in the frame, such as your subject handing food to the bird, you might want to place the subject in the left, because she is going to move her hand to the right. The right side of the screen will be where the action will move to, and that is where the viewer’s eye will naturally go, as well.

Pick up a book on photographic composition and you will see that this rule of thirds was developed with mathematic formulas. Architects and painters studied how the eye sees and how it scans objects. Even the shape of a TV screen, being wider than it is high, comes from this rules of composition. This rule of thirds helped create our rectangular frame and the visually appealing asymmetric balance.

4. Balance: The rule of thirds relies on balance between the main subject and secondary objects. When your main subject is in the center of the frame, you probably don’t need to worry about balance. When using asymmetric or informal composition, remember to find some object or even something in the background to proportion your frame.

You can use colors in the background or foreground to create balance with your main subject. A small area of bright color placed at an opposite crosspoint from the main subject could keep the eye from being too quickly attracted to the main subject.

Balance can be used to support the main subject. Placing secondary objects within the frame can actually add support to your stronger main subject. The subject becomes enhanced by these supporting elements, and your overall shot takes on life and character.

5. Leading Lines: As with the rule of balance, a line can be a secondary object to both complement the main subject and lead the viewer’s eye to it. Where do these lines come from? Try viewing the world as designs and patterns. You will start seeing lines formed by such existing structures as a fence, a bench, a sidewalk leading to the main subject–even an aisle in the middle of an auditorium. Try to locate one of these existing line patterns to lead your viewers eye to the main subject.

With your camcorder’s lens zoomed out to the wide angle position, get the camera down as close to this line as possible. Then position your subject or yourself so that the line leads the viewer’s eye toward the subject. Not only will this line help direct attention to your subject, it will help create the illusion of depth.

You can further create the 3D effect by positioning your camcorder so these lines move to your subject at a diagonal. This gives your picture a more dynamic feel and can be used to complement the actual movements your subject may be taking.

Generally, try to use lines that move from left to right. Avoid any lines that appear to cut through the middle of your frame or your subject. You may have to turn off the autofocus on your camcorder so that you can focus on the main subject and not on the foreground line.

Additional Composition Guidelines

The five basic rules will help you to develop a repertoire of skills that will give you more control with your camcorder. Let’s look at other ways you can reposition your camcorder or your subject to achieve more visually appealing videos.

Try adjusting the angle you shoot from. Rather than have the camcorder always at eye level, try crouching down or even sitting or lying on the floor to get that dramatic low angle. Get up on a chair or table to get a wide perspective on your scene. You can even tilt the camera a little from side to side in what is called a Dutch angle. Do this carefully and rhythmically, and you’ll soon be a candidate for MTV videography.

You can achieve more of a 3D effect by shooting your subjects not straight on, but from an angle a little to the side. For example, a building takes on perspective and looks more dynamic if you shoot it from a corner. It takes a little more time and perhaps some creative thinking to choose just the best location for your camcorder to make a static shot come to life.

Experiment with different ways of holding your camcorder and you will open up new worlds of facinating imagery and visual delights. Turn it upside down and you can fool your viewer when you shoot reflections from a still pond or when you videotape someone walking on his hands. Hold it high over your head or mount it on a tripod that you hold from the bottom of the tripod legs. Mount the camera on a skateboard or suspend it from a bungee cord. It is your camcorder and you can do whatever you want with it.

Once you master some of the rules of composition you can begin to break some of them in order to expand your creativity. However, without an understanding of the rules, aimless experimentation may not result in visually pleasing compositions.

Study the architecture in your town, notice landscape design, visit an art museum–these are ways you can study how the rules of composition are applied all around you. Pick up a book on still photography, and read the section on composition. Two books written specifically on photographic composition are Mastering Composition and Light by Kodak and Principles of Composition in Photography by Amphoto in New York City. You will see examples of photographic composition that can be applied to videography.

Good shots are created, selected and recorded with a specific goal in mind. Once you practice some of these composition guidelines they will start to come naturally as you sharpen your eye for aesthetically pleasing images. Your camcorder is the tool you can use to create pictures that come alive and have a lasting impression on your viewers.

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