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DSLR Video Weekly: Cinematic Composition

This is article #25 in the DSLR Video Weekly series.  If you’d like the whole thing in one shot, check out the book Creating DSLR Video: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

Once you get the hang of video, be sure to monetize it by becoming a contributor to Adobe Stock.


Be sure to think about composition before pressing the Record button on your camera. Earlier in this chapter you learned common framing techniques. But in videography, movement influences the composition.

The framing you choose will often need to vary throughout the shot. If the subject is moving, you’ll need to adjust your framing. In the following sections I offer four useful rules that I find essential when designing compelling shots for a video or film project.

When you want to create a relationship between a subject in your video and the subject’s environment, be sure to pay attention to eye lines.

Eye Line 

The eye line is basically where your subject is looking in the frame. For interviews, your subject’s eye line may vary a bit. Normal framing is to have your subject look slightly off camera (towards an interviewer who traditionally stands next to the camera). Having a subject look directly into the camera is usually reserved for situations like on-camera spokespeople or newscasters.

If more than one person is in your scene, you may need to think about where people are looking in relation to each other. Often, you’ll want viewers to feel as though both subjects are looking at each other (or perhaps the same item). To do this, you need to line up the subjects’ gaze with the object being gazed at. This is largely done by framing, which influences how a viewer interprets eye lines. Always try to incorporate a little “look room” by leaving a bit more space on the side the subjects are facing. In other words, try to avoid centering the subjects in most cases and frame them so the more open side of the frame is on the same side as their eyes.

The subject of the portrait and the object in the scene are placed using the rule of thirds.

Rule of Thirds

As a photographer, you’re probably familiar with the rule of thirds concept. Essentially, three vertical and three horizontal lines that are equidistant divide the screen, creating nine sections on the screen (like a tic-tac-toe board). The intersections of these parts serve as reference points that can be used when framing a shot. The common belief is that points of visual interest naturally occur at one-third or two-thirds of the way up (or across) the video frame. These points often work well for positioning objects in the frame.

If you’re framing a portrait-style shot, consider framing the shot so the eyes of the subject are placed at the left or right intersection. This is the most traditional framing for an interview because it easily allows for a weighted area of the screen to be empty of a subject and show the background. Of course, as with all rules, the rule of thirds can be broken. Just be sure you are consciously deciding to ignore or break the rule.

This diagram shows the 180 degree rule. If the camera moves beyond a 180 degree arc, the characters will appear to switch places on the screen.
From the Wikimedia Commons by grm_wnr with Inkscape. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

180 Degree Rule

When shooting two or more people in a scene (or even dominant objects), you need to be mindful of the 180 degree. This rule draws an imaginary line through the scene; one that should not be crossed. By keeping the camera on one side of the frame (essentially up to a 180-degree arc), eye lines remain constant. This lets the viewer feel more comfortable and makes the relationship between subjects clearer.

When you start a scene, try to draw a virtual line through the scene. It’s up to you to decide where to place the line originally, but you shouldn’t change it once you start rolling. If the camera physically crosses the line for a consecutive shot, the direction in which your subjects are looking or moving will seem to flip in the camera. This can be very disorienting to the audience and should generally be avoided.

Instead of shooting one long, continuous shot as my children explored the Swiss Family Treehouse, I took several shorter shots to create a more compelling story.

Sequencing Shots

Shooting video is much more than capturing the action in one long shot. Most finished videos will contain a collection of shorter shots edited together. These shots are intercut and switch every few seconds. There are several reasons for using this approach:

  • Visual interest. Most viewers have come to expect faster editing paces (just look at a film cut in the 1950s compared to a new release). The speed at which you switch angles and composition during an edit may be dictated by genre or personal tastes, but one wide shot just won’t work for most viewers.
  • Technical necessity. You may need to hide something in the scene with an edit. It might be an exposure change as you go from indoors to outdoors. Or perhaps you need to minimize a continuity error, such as your subject doing an on-camera demonstration slightly differently the second time through.
  • Emotional impact. Changing angles and composition has a profound effect on the viewer. Knowing when to go in for a close-up or cut to a reaction shot is a learned skill, but one that is essential to building an exciting video that’s enjoyable to watch.

Join us each Saturday for the next installment of this weekly series.

Once you get the hang of video, be sure to monetize it by becoming a contributor to Adobe Stock.

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