What is Composition and Framing in Cinematography?

What is composition and framing in cinematography? And how do you compose well every simple time?

And also, the number one super secret tip to nail great composition every single time!

If you’re looking for a simple dictionary definition, then composition is just another word for arranging or rearranging things in the frame.

However, what you really want to know is how do you compose well? The best advice I’ve ever heard is from Edward Weston, who said:

“Good Composition is only the strongest way of seeing the subject.”

If you know how to see strongly, then you will compose more good images than bad. Once you reach a certain level, you will be incapable of composing a bad frame.

The personal way and the conventional way

Since cinema is more than a century old, we have some great conventions. Rules, people call them. Like the rule of thirds, and so on. These rules are solid by the way, that’s why they have lasted so long.

When you’re a beginner you are short of ideas and experience, so you’re better off following these conventions. You follow rules to please others. You need feedback, right? You’ll make average work at worst, and that’s perfectly fine at any stage in your career, let alone in the beginning.

But there’s another approach as well. And that is to take the personal way. For some watching this video you might wonder how egotistic of someone to take the personal approach! How dare they! How could they? In a subject like cinematography, there are many skills. Composition is just one skill. What I’ve noticed from personal experience is I was naturally pretty good at it. It’s maybe because I learned to draw and paint at a young age, or maybe it’s my engineering background. I always made good sketches and architectural drawings. So when I learned these conventions from books, after I began making short films, I realized this was something that came to me naturally. No one told me about the rule of thirds, but I was using it sometimes. I didn’t have a clue about headroom, but my close ups, mid shots and long shots had headroom always. It came so automatically to me that even today, when I see my friends and relatives incapable of composing a simple photograph during a birthday party or whatever, I surprises me. Of course, over the course of many years I’ve realized that if I was good at some skills automatically, I was also really bad at others.

Through learning and practice and experience we attempt to bring all the necessary skills up to a professional level. Bottom line is you can learn composition by convention or your own personal approach or a combination of both. In the personal approach you find your own reasons for things. E.g., why is this person not in the center?

And why is he not in the rule of thirds? As a composition it still works. It just came automatically to Siva, my DP and I while we were framing.

But what if you’re struggling to find a frame? Then there are a few conventions you can fall back on, like the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio, or the center framing technique Wes Anderson loves so much. You’ll find lots of videos and articles about these things online, so I’m not going to waste time talking about it. I’ve covered the rule of thirds in this video:

DSLR cameras have rule of thirds markers in case you want to learn how to compose using that technique. So if you want to follow convention, follow the rule of thirds. But be careful. If you’re trying to get better then think of the rule of thirds as those extra wheels on the bicycle when you’re learning. Sooner or later you have to take them off.

Why the display and aspect ratio is important

You need to take a big decision about the frame. The frame has two very important things you need to decide on because all your compositional decisions depend on it. The first is the size of the screen. The final size of the screen your audience is going to watch your movie on is important. If they are going to watch on a large screen, then smaller objects in the frame will be more noticeable. The face in a long shot will be clearer. If the same video is being seen on an iPhone then those details will just be pixels, and the expression on the face isn’t so noticeable. So, should you frame in a close up or mid shot or long shot? If you want the audience to see the face clearly, then you’d better think twice about taking a long shot. That’s why lots of television programming is still just mid shots and close ups, because people’s TV sets are far away, even if they are big. Size matters.

The shape also matters. The cinemascope widescreen offers a different playing field, and the 16:9 frame offers a different playing field. Which aspect ratio do you pick? Just like everything else you can go two ways: Personal or conventional. Conventional would be what your client or distributor says. What format is the audience more likely to see your work in? Choose that. E.g., if you’re showing on Netflix then it’s 16:9. But if you’re showing in theatres then it could be either 1.85 or 2.39:1. If the majority of theaters can’t project 2.39:1 because multiplex screens are shrinking every year, you might just stick to 1.85:1. The choice is made for you, by convention. Of you could just say you’re going to shoot in 2:1 because that’s what you like. Your choice.

Who can answer these questions but yourself? I make my choices, you make yours. Find your own reasons, or adopt somebody else’s. In today’s digital age, you are not restricted. If you’re making videos for the Internet, you can do whatever you like, even vertical video or circular video.

How do you get good composition?

The strongest way of seeing is the way you really see the world through the viewfinder. So how do you get good composition? You first select the viewfinder, and then look strongly. Oh, I’m sorry, were you expecting a secret recipe for composition? Okay, I have one of those. If you want the number one tip or secret technique to get great composition every time, here it is:

You feel it. If you don’t feel anything for your shot, then walk away. If you can’t walk away for whatever reason, then follow the rule of thirds.

I’ll leave you with Edward Weston’s entire quote, because the context, or frame, is everything:

“Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.

Good composition is only the strongest way of seeing the subject. It cannot be taught because, like all creative effort, it is a matter of personal growth.”

– Edward Weston (1943)