10 Composition Techniques (for Filmmakers & Cinematographers)

Composition is an important aspect of getting cinematic footage.

Whether you use a $100 DSLR camera or a $60,000+ ARRI Cameras – does not matter, if your composition sucks, then your footage will not seem cinematic. The composition is much more important than anything else. If you shoot the crap, it’s just the crap (with a higher dynamic range 😃)

What is Composition?

The composition is about arranging the elements in the frame (or viewfinder) so that it makes sense to the viewer.

How we compose the story will eventually define the story. Especially in movies, composition alone can evoke certain emotions – hence an important tool for cinematographers.

If you want your footage to look cinematic, then you have to learn to follow the composition guidelines (although you might want to break it later on)

Remember that these are not the rules (and just the guidelines)

Even rules are meant to be broken, it does not hurt to break the guidelines. However, you can only do that when you know the purpose of the composition. Every form of composition serves a purpose and not every kind of framing works best for every kind of shots.

Hence, it’s absolutely essential to learn the purpose of the composition techniques and why does it exist. There might be 1000’s of composition techniques, some of them are more important over others. Here are few of those:

1. Fill the Frame

It’s the mistake most of the beginner cinematographer’s make – not fill the frame with the subjects.

When you don’t fill the frame with the subjects and the related objects, your composition will feel dead or dull. The subject should not necessarily be a person or objects, it can be a theme, a landscape or something that reveals a part of the story.

That being said, when the composition contains unnecessary details (or distracting elements), it takes the focus away from our subject. Look at the picture below 👇

What do you see? A lot of things, right?

That’s an example of a composition where the frame is not filled with the subject.

Maybe the subject in this picture is the man who is looking at something (to the left). What is he looking at? That area should have been there in the frame. Rather than keeping the distracting elements in the right, the photographer should have clicked with the person on the right side of the frame, and a little bit of looking room on the left side. As far as possible, fill the frame with subjects …

… that brings the life to your cinematography.

2. Rule of Thirds

Imagine dividing your frame into 3 rows and 3 columns.

Rule of third states that when you place your subject at or near to the four intersecting points, your subject will get enough attention from the viewers. And, it will also feel natural composition to the viewer. Here’s an example: 👇

In this example, had we placed the girl at the center of the frame, it would not seem more balanced. Keeping the subject in one third of the left or right ensures the composition is balanced. In this case, the photographer keeps her in the right third because she is looking at the left. This way, there’s also a looking room which makes it feel natural.

3. Symmetry

Symmetry breaks the rule of thirds. 😃🤔

Symmetry is one of those powerful way of showcasing the subjects in the frame, which makes the composition lively. It’s not always applicable though. In order to create symmetry in the frame, we need to find such places (like bridges, symmetrical landscapes and such).

Even when there is a camera movement, we can still keep it symmetrical moving the camera to the front or the back. This way, symmetry is preserved even when the camera moves …

… camera movement is an important aspect of cinematography.

4. Creating Depth

We see depth in the real world. For example, I am seeing my hands which are typing before the laptop, and then the books, the table and such

This is how we see the world.

But when beginners filmmakers (or cinematographers) capture images, we tend to forget about the depth of field. Sometimes, all we want to do is place the subject and create a Bokeh effect behind him/her. That’s fine (in most cases)

Nevertheless, maintaining the depth in the composition brings the place to life. It almost feels like we are at the place experiencing the moment.

Hence I try to add as much depth as possible without hindering any other guidelines mentioned.

In this example, the lights add depth to the scene. Had we taken the picture from the side (90 degree), the depth would not have been visible.

5. Leading Lines

Adding leading lines is a powerful method to draw the viewer’s attention to a point. As the name suggests, the line (imaginary) leads the viewer to a certain point (most probably – subject). Leading lines can be anything – mountains, field, bridges, etc. The line is imaginary – the basic idea is that the line should lead within the frame and take the audience somewhere.

Here’s an example 👇

Had we just clicked the picture of just the subject in this picture, it might have been OK. But, keeping in mind the leading lines, it added a new dimension to the picture. Similar is the case in cinematography. Here, the leading lines also add a sense of depth.

6. Diagonal Lines

Diagonal lines are much similar to the leading lines. The only difference is that the lines are diagonal (means the lines goes from left to right or vice-versa).

Diagonal lines also add a sense of depth in the frame.

7. Pattern / Repetition

Pattern (or repetition) is a composition technique that works well for cinematography (more than photography). Patterns are so natural. In fact, nature is filled with patterns.

Think about the mountains – All the mountains are similar to each other. When we shoot one mountain and pan the camera to show the other – audience feels the pattern in this case. It seems a powerful tool to capture certain scenes.

If you find the places with patterns, or repetitions of certain elements, try to incorporate that within your camera viewfinder.

8. Framing

Framing is about surrounding your subject with interesting elements.

It brings a new dimension to the story – revealing something essential (or hiding something important). Just like the frame we hang in our homes, we cover our subject or the action with something interesting. These can be anything – any objects within the viewfinder can act as a frame.

Framing makes the scene even more interesting.Especially when we find something that relates to our story. Keep in mind that the frame should not be a distracting element to the story. In fact, it should bring something to the story and the scene.

9. Dominance

Remember the first picture that I showed to you. See the picture once again and answer this question – “What’s the dominant part of the shot?”

You’ll find it very difficult to answer that.

Because the shot is composed in a way that reveals everything while the audience is confused about what’s the dominant subject.

That’s what every director needs to consider. Whether it be film or photography, you’re directing the audience’s attention. The audience does not know anything about the scene until you show them. This is where filmmaking can be utilized to the fullest as well – you can direct the audience’s interest in a way that’s rarely possible in any other art forms.

10. Focus

Needless to say that focus is important. Simple, yet super essential. Because if the subject is not in focus, then every other composition techniques will seem worthless. Hence, always keep your subject – the thing that you want to show, in focus.

As a viewer, we only think about one thing at a time – it’s upon your job as a filmmaker and cinematographer to make me think about the story. Focus helps a lot in this case.

It’s also about getting rid of the distracting elements.

In Conclusion

Well, that’s it …

These are the important composition techniques – we need to tweak, and twist them to tell our story, and make every scene valuable. Once again – these are just the guidelines and not the hard and fast rules. These are meant to be broken – once we understand the purpose and motivation of every composition techniques.

If I missed anything, let me know in the comment section below 👇

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Posted by Rajit Chaulagain

Rajit Chaulagain (Chief Executive Officer @ Swopna Digital) writes about SEO, Filmmaking, Blogging, Animation, VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality), and many other exciting fields.