The Most Important Rules of Image Composition for Feature Films and Videos

video photo composition
2001: A Space Odyssey, Director of Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth | © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

There are rules for what the majority of us consider a “beautiful or interesting picture”. With the right image composition, not only your imagery becomes more attractive. You can also use it to tell your stories better.

In large-scale productions, image production is in the hands of the cameraman. Supported by dramaturgical inputs from the director, he determines what is to be seen where in the picture. In smaller productions, or when the director is directing the camera himself, the onus is on him to design the image. Find the most important rules about this.

You need to know

  • The design of photos and film images are not fundamentally different in their rules. Nevertheless, composition is more challenging with video because each shot has a beginning and an end and the frames in between are different from each other.
  • Proven means of image composition are the two-thirds rule, the orientation on the eye line, the setting of a focal point and the guidance of the viewer’s gaze through perspectives, focus zones and the setting of light.
  • Although symmetries contradict some well-known rules for the composition of pictures, they have an extremely powerful effect when used in combination with them.

Image composition for film and video from A to Z

In an ideal world, every single film frame is so expertly arranged that it could hang as a photograph in an art gallery. Admittedly, with 24 frames per second, this is no easy feat.

With the information, tips and tricks in this article, you will at least be one step closer to achieving this goal.

Basically, the rules of composing images for a photo shoot, film or video do not differ. However, the most striking difference between still and moving images are two factors that need to be taken into account:

1Aspect ratio

First, the aspect ratio of photo and video is different. While a photograph has a width to height ratio of 4 : 3, video footage is usually shot with an aspect ratio of 16 : 9.

2Movement

Secondly, the composition of a photograph does not need to pay attention to the movement. A photo, unlike a video image, has no beginning and no end. This makes the design of the photo easier.

You have to keep that in mind when composing the picture:

Two-thirds rule

One of the basic problems when you have people in the picture is the collision of the size of a person with the horizontally aligned film image. If you shoot for social media in portrait mode, you won’t have this problem. In all other cases, you have only two options:

Either you best crop for your composition so that the person is very small. That way you get her in your horizontal picture from head to toe. Or the cropping of the video image cuts off part of the person’s body.

That’s why if there’s one rule you need to know, it’s the two-thirds rule. It is easy to understand and use. It works as follows:

The image is mentally divided into three identical horizontal and vertical areas. The two-thirds rule now states that anything meaningful to the narrative or image must be covered by two of these three areas (i.e. 2/3).

Blade Runner 2-3 Rule
Blade Runner, Director of Photography: Jordan Cronenweth | © Warner Bros.

Most cinematographers around the world follow, consciously or unconsciously, the division of the film frame into nine areas and orient themselves by this.

Design principle Rule of Thirds Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey, Director of Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth | © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The principle of the two-thirds rule (Rule of Thirds) is based on the so-called golden ratio.

It is important to know that many laymen instinctively give the person in the picture too much headroom – meaning the area above the head. The 2/3 rule helps prevent this.

Eye line as a measure for image composition

If you want to show a person up close or with an attitude, you have to decide how to place your actor in front of the camera. You do this by going by the person’s eyes. There is a simple rule for this as well:

The upper part of the head may be cut. Conversely, the chin must always (!) be visible in the picture.

The film viewer perceives such a picture composition as natural, because in a dialogue with a real person he also orientates himself by the eye line.

image-design-2001-cubrick
2001: A Space Odyssey, Geoffrey Unsworth, Director of Photography | © Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Image focus and symmetry in image composition

Our brain checks every picture and every photograph for symmetries in a fraction of a second. At the same time, our eye tries to determine where the center of gravity (one could also say: the center) of an image has been placed in the composition.

One must not think of the image composition as a flat picture. The spatial depth, i.e. the perspectives, must also be included in this assessment.

design-principle-symmetry-kubrick
2001: A Space Odyssey, Director of Photography: Geoffrey Unsworth | © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

As an attentive reader, you have of course noticed that absolute symmetry in image composition and the two-thirds rule clash. However, if both design principles are used in a targeted manner, even in the same video, the effect is extremely powerful.

Note also that symmetries can be relative rather than absolute. The face of an actor on the left of the picture can be balanced on the right with a prop of equal dominance.

Other design elements that guide the viewer’s gaze

In film composition, the viewer’s eye can be guided not only by the two-thirds rule, an actor’s eye line, symmetries and focal points of the image.

Perspectives and so-called image alignments function like guard rails in image composition. As lines they lead the eye to a point in the picture. This happens reflexively and unconsciously due to the way the human brain understands images. For the director, this is a great opportunity to skilfully direct the viewer’s gaze dramaturgically to things that he apparently discovers on his own.

image design-2001-cubrick
2001: A Space Odyssey, Geoffrey Unsworth, Director of Photography | © Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The viewer’s gaze can also be guided and seduced by the composition of the image with zones of sharpness or targeted lighting. Blurred parts of the image are perceived as less important than clearly recognizable image information. If individual areas of the image are in darkness (the cameraman refers to this as “letting the image sink”), our perception weights the brighter parts as more important information.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

Carlo P. Olsson
About Carlo P. Olsson 139 Articles
Carlo P. Olsson begleitet die Herstellung von Filmen, Videos und TV-Serien im Auftrag von Unternehmen, Agenturen und Produktionsfirmen. In seiner Freizeit spielt er Eishockey und beschäftigt sich mit barocker Klangdramatik.

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