Shot Composition

Shot Composition in Film [Ultimate Guide]

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Table of contents

Shot composition is one of the most fundamental aspects of filmmaking. Its purpose is not only to be visually appealing but to serve the narrative. After all, the ultimate goal is to engage viewers from beginning to end.

Cinema is an artful communication between the creator and the observer. So much can be expressed and felt within one frame.

In this article, we look at key terms, shot composition techniques, and ways to control every shot of your film. So without further ado, let’s dive right in.

What is Shot Composition?

Before getting started, let’s explain a few keywords. This way, you’ll have a clear understanding of everything ahead.

FrameA frame is one of the many still images that make a shot. You can think of a frame as the outside of a painting that hangs on your wall. It’s the outside of the composition, framing the picture.
Shota shot is a series of frames that runs for a period of time.
CompositionA composition is the arrangement of elements within the frame.
Shot Compositionshot composition is the arrangement of elements in a shot to create visual interest while delivering a message.

Why is Shot Composition Important?

Shot composition in film can infuse the viewer with several emotions at once. How we combine elements within the frame is an expressive skill as well as a technical one. 

When deciding how to arrange the elements of your frame, ask yourself… what am I trying to get the viewer to look at and why?

The how is achieved using the compositional scale, leading lines, geometry, angles, color, and lighting. We’ll get into the details of each principle later in the article.

Furthermore, establishing visual language allows for a reliable process to structure your ideas. It’s also a helpful way to plan your vision with a team. Consistency throughout your film makes for a smoother ride. 👍

Main Goals of Shot Composition in Film

First and foremost, principles in shot composition aren’t to be followed strictly. These are more like guides to achieving a great shot while progressing the story. Basically, it’s to ensure the following:

  • The viewer knows exactly where to look.
  • The action of the scene leads the eye effortlessly.
  • The shot has aesthetic qualities while serving the narrative.
  • One frame tells a mini-story.

14 Key Types of Shot Composition

As you develop your own personal cinematic look, you’ll naturally be drawn to one or more of the following shot composition guides.

1. Rule of Thirds

First off, we have the rule of thirds. This is the most popular tool for shot composition. If you don’t learn anything else, this is the one to hold onto.

This technique splits the frame into 9 equal sections using 4 lines. 2 horizontal and 2 vertical. The point of interest in your frame should fall on any of the four intersections. You could also imagine a Tic-Tac-Toe overlay on your image. Most mobile phones have this built-in.

Rule of Thirds composition

The most common place to put the eye line of your subject is along the top horizontal line. This comes across as natural and avoids unnecessary headroom.

For smooth edits, you can also align the eyes on the top horizontal line with wide, medium, and close-up shots.

Some would say that the rule of thirds is better for dialogue scenes while the golden ratio is better for landscapes.

2. The Golden Ratio

Next, we have the golden ratio, also known as the golden spiral or Fibonacci sequence.  This golden ratio can be found in nature such as seashells, plants, and even hurricanes.

It’s a mathematical sequence that creates an exponential spiral. It seems as though humans are hard-wired to be engaged by this pattern.

Golden Spiral diagram

Paul Thomas Anderson is a big user of the principle. See this great video essay about Paul Thomas Anderson in Numbers from There Will Be Blood (2007).

3. Golden Triangle

Now, rather than using vertical and horizontal lines, the golden triangle uses diagonals for symmetry. This is a popular tool in shot composition and is very useful once you grasp the concept.

Basically, you draw one leading line from one corner to the other. From there you draw two separate lines from the leading line to the remaining corners at a 90-degree angle.

Points of interest should live on the intersecting points. This is used widely in art and can help find balanced placement for subjects and wide shots. Also to note, the golden triangle can be used with a leading line drawn from either corner.

See below how Roger Deakins precisely places two points of interest in a shot from No Country for Old Men (2007).

Golden Triangle composition

4. Leading Lines

Next, we have leading lines. These are tried and true ways to direct attention to a visual element or create depth.

Some leading lines are artificial, such as roads, street lights, stairwells, hallways, sidewalks, and fence lines. Others are natural, such as rivers, mountain ridges, and horizons.

Leading Lines composition

In this shot from the end of Cast Away (2000), you can see that the main character is at a literal crossroads in his life.

Furthermore, leading lines can be invisible. Just seeing what characters look at, can lead the viewer’s eye. With precise choreography, your eye can be smoothly carried from one side of the frame to the other.

Whatever element in a frame you’re paying attention to, a leading line most likely brought you there.

5. Depth

Depth is very important in shot composition. For example, a frame showing a 3D space makes it more dynamic and interesting. Using leading lines to a vanishing point, or one-point perspective can evoke the feeling of going somewhere. Otherwise, the image will fall into the area of flat and boring.

There are a variety of ways to layer your subjects and elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background. One way is through depth of field.

6. Depth of Field

Another way to draw attention to your subject is by using what’s called depth of field. The ‘field’ is the area in your frame that is in acceptable focus. This can be a shallow field, which is a tight area of focus, or a deep field of focus, meaning most of the shot composition is sharp.

This technique is used to lead the eye to a focal point in a variety of ways. One of which is something called a rack focus. This is where you change one subject in focus to another within one shot.

7. Deep Space

In contrast to narrowing the focus, you have something called deep space composition. Often, you have a single focal point either in the foreground, middle, or background. In deep space composition, all of the planes are working together to tell the story.

This type of arrangement deals with elements in a scene that are both near and far from the camera. All of which can produce a visual conversation with each other.

Deep Space composition

Akira Kurosawa was great at presenting an emotional conversation between different planes of the frame. See how he uses this technique above from High and Low (1963).  

8. Angles

Moving on, let’s talk about angles. Angles can also be thought of as perspective. In fact, they can change the way we experience a story.

Perspective allows the viewer to relate to an unlikable character. For instance, for a viewer to feel empathetic towards the subject, you may choose to shoot at eye level. This produces a sense of neutrality, where we are one and the same. On the other hand, if you prefer to empower the subject, a lower shot angled upwards to the subject is the way to go.

9. Shapes

Just like reality, shot composition contains geometry with objects within it. When elements are arranged into shapes, there’s a sense of satisfaction.

Whether we realize it or not, shapes produce different feelings. Here is a quick breakdown.

Tension and power dynamicsSecurity and stabilityCalm and wholesomeness

10. Frame within a Frame

Shot composition in cinema is about eliminating and simplifying the focal point. One effective way to achieve this is using a frame within a frame. This is where you use elements within your environment to frame up your subject. There’s no mistake about where you should look. You’ve seen it with hallways, door frames, windows, curtains, and mirrors.

It’s a way to strengthen the focus of the shot. Creating a connection or a barrier to cross.

Frame within a frame composition

See how this is used in Drive (2011) where the main character is looking through the window.  It’s a visual metaphor for the duality within himself. Peering across the barrier from a kind hero to a brutal murderer.

11. Space

Next, we have space. It’s helpful to define positive and negative space.

Positive SpaceNegative space
Positive Space in a frame is the subject of focus.Negative space in a frame is all the space around the main subject.

Showing space can be used to emphasize a character’s place in their world. It can provide a visual for their internal state. These feelings could range anywhere from isolation, suffering, and loneliness to happiness, freedom, and connection.

See an example of inner feelings shown outwardly from American Beauty (2003).

Space composition in American Beauty

Pro Tip –  You can enhance the viewer’s sensibilities and direct attention by adding textures and patterns in your shot composition.

12. Scale

Alfred Hitchcock himself famously said, “The size of any object in your frame should be proportional to its importance to the story at that moment.”

It’s key to know who or what holds control in any given scene. Power dynamics are clearly communicated by establishing a visual hierarchy. See how the most important character is made clear in Seven Samurai (1954).

Scale composition in Seven Samurai

13. Symmetrical Balance

The mind is prone to making order wherever possible. An organized visual brings satisfaction that’s hard to put our finger on, but we feel it when we see it.

When you have a symmetrical balance, you don’t know where to look first. When visual elements have equal weight on either side of the horizontal or vertical line, it has an overwhelming effect, a sensory overload.

An iconic user of symmetry is Stanley Kubrick. By using symmetry and a one-point perspective, he enhances the power of the image. Even if something seemingly isn’t happening, tension builds and it plays with the viewer’s mind. See how in 2001 Space Odyssey (1968).

Symmetrical Balance composition

Also to note, when you place a subject at the center frame, it takes away from realism and makes them dominate the screen.

14. Asymmetrical Balance

On the other hand, you have an asymmetrical balance. This is where a shot composition with differing visual elements, achieves a sense of balance. People naturally compare and contrast when presented with juxtaposed subjects or objects.

Other times, negative and positive space is used for spatial asymmetry. This way you can create a sense of movement or anticipation of an action. 

[Pro Tip] If you’re going to have several subjects in a frame, odd numbers tend to balance the scales of visual balance. For instance, 5 individuals look more pleasing than 4.

One of the reasons shot composition in film is so exciting is because it’s so nuanced. You can also use contrasting colors tones, textures, and patterns to create a sense of equilibrium.

Break the Rules of Composition

Again, these aren’t rigid rules to follow. However, they can help frame ways to express your ideas. Ways to push the art form are waiting to be discovered.

For instance, the hit movie Fury Road (2015), breaks the rules completely. The entire movie was composed on the cross hairs of the frame. No matter the action, it was always on the nose. This made for a high-octane film with a very immersive experience. One helluva ride!

Break the Rules

Top Tips for Good Shot Composition

Here’s a rule you should follow… avoid cliches at all costs. Robert McKee, acclaimed author of the filmmaking book Story says this:

“More often than not, inspiration is the first idea picked off the top of your head, and sitting on top of your head is every film you’ve ever seen. Offering cliches to pluck. True inspiration comes from a deeper source. So let loose and experiment.”

In short, people tune out when they’ve seen something too many times. Avoid being dull and predictable. Dig deep and find original ways to tell a deeply personal story.

Most importantly, the goal is to engage viewers in the story, not confuse them. To help inform your shot composition, have clear intentions for your objectives. Improve your shot composition by asking yourself the following questions.

  • What does this shot composition say?
  • What are the key aspects of the frame?
  • Who or what holds the power in the scene?
  • What feelings need to be evoked?
  • What experience am I trying to create?
  • What are the motives of the character?
  • Would this character behave this way in this situation?
  • Am I being too cryptic and confusing the viewer?

Keep the guides alive in your mind. With repeated use, you’ll discover new ways to present complex feelings, characters, and scenes.

Blocking & Staging

Lastly, we must touch upon blocking and staging. These are essential to making scenes more dynamic as they work in tandem with shot composition.

positioning of characters in a scenearrangement of objects in a scene

Akira Kurosawa was a master at composing a scene. His attention to detail in shot composition, staging, and blocking inspired countless filmmakers. To get a glimpse into the depth of his craft, watch this brilliant breakdown from some of his key films.

Wrapping Up

In short, shot composition in film is a fundamental tool for cinematographers and directors. As these principles sink in, they’ll become a natural extension of your process.

Watch your favorite films and review the compositions. Figure out the methods they used to take you on a ride you can’t forget.

Always look for original ways to show the audience something without having to tell them. Soon enough, you’ll discover the path to your own trademark style.

Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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