Hi. I’m Jerome, a Brooklyn-based writer/director and cinematographer. Currently pursuing an MFA in Writing and Producing Television at Long Island University.
When I first started creating content I was fortunate enough to have several seasoned cinematographers willing to show me the ropes and critique my frames. This post contains just a few camera techniques I picked up from them and on my own over the years that might help you bring visual interest to your shot.
The most important thing to remember about all these techniques is to always be aware of how you’re using them. Like all parts of the process they’re tools that not only help you create visual interest, but tell a story.
Rule of Thirds
One quick way to improve your shot composition is to employ the rule of thirds. Used in visual design, you divide the frame into nine equal parts made from two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Using these lines and their intersections you can compose a more visually appealing shot than simply center-framing everything.
Normally when I’m composing a shot I’ll fall back on the rule of thirds heavily in terms of shooting coverage of dialogue. It’s an easy trick you can keep in your back pocket to tackle the tedium of the simple shot reverse-shot, by placing your actors faces on one of the four intersections of our dividing lines.
Recently, I saw this rule excellently used during an episode of Elementary.
Within the scene, the characters of Sherlock and Watson are at odds. Watson has been attempting to get Sherlock to talk to her about why he’s been skipping his NA meetings and Sherlock (per usual) is sidestepping his feelings until he’s been able to figure them out on his own. The characters find themselves on opposite sides of the frame, with their faces each occupying one of our intersection points in our imaginary lines.
As Watson gives up and turns to leave, Sherlock pursues her and the composition of our simple shot-reverse shot changes. Now instead we have Sherlock and Watson occupying the same intersection and the same side of the frame. He confesses that he’s disappointed in the routine of being a recovered addict. The cinematographer uses this for only a few shots of the conversation, but the message is clear. They connected for a moment.
The rule of thirds gives you an easily employed method to aid your storytelling in terms of a well-composed frame.
When you’re outside, the sun can force you into high-key lighting, which will give all of your images a soft edge wiping away all of their potential contrast. This lighting is often found in comedies or sitcoms, in both interior and exterior. The scenes are lit evenly, often using a three-point lighting setup to ensure that the shadows have been chased away.
The good side? If you’re lit high-key then you don’t have to do much adjustment of lights between set-ups. It makes for an easy shoot and can help you cut down on shoot time if that’s something you’re struggling with.
However, you also lose all contrast and you’ve sacrificed a part of the story that your frame could be telling. Nothing is in shadow to be revealed by one of the characters as they move through the scene.
The human eye is extremely sensitive to contrast. It gives definition to what we’re seeing and provides more visual interest. That’s where negative fill comes in.
Source: Indie Film Academy
What you need to employ this technique is duvetyne and something to hold it with. Use a crew member if you can’t get C-stands and set it up on one side of your subject. You’ll want to get it as close as possible without entering your frame and be prepared to play around a little bit to get the shadows exactly how you want them. The duvetyne will stop the light from creating soft wrap effect and instead cause shadows that bring a nice about of contrast to your shot.
Here is an example with negative fill and one without:
This technique is extremely simple. Instead of creating a level shot you tilt the frame thirty-five degrees to create an effect of unease. While there are specific pieces of technology created to help conform to the thirty-five degree angle you can also just tilt your frame until you achieve the desired effect. The story your frame should be telling is that something about the scene is off. You can find examples within horror films as well as the first Thor.
The main drawback is that dutch angles, while adding visual interest, would never be described as subtle. They’re direct signals to the audience which can often become distracting.
The Golden Ratio
Another way to divide the frame is to use the golden ratio in the form of a spiral. This technique is much more advanced than that of the rule of thirds, primarily because there is no specific place to set the spiral. In terms of composing by thirds, the frame is aways divided the same way. The point of it is to have nine boxes of equal size.
In fact, some argue that the rule of thirds is an oversimplificaiton of the golden ratio. Boiling down a rule that is hard to implement, but found in many works of arts considered masterpieces. If you have the extra time try it out.
Source: There Will Be Blood
The benefits lie in its use of a curve rather than straight lines. The curve helps draw the audiences eye around the image as it lands on the focal point. In the above image from There Will Be Blood we can see how the curve draws us from Daniel Day-Lewis to the oil well his character is observing. Composing images like this takes patience but creates a stronger appeal than simply using the rule of thirds.