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Thirty-Four Suggestions for Composing the Frame

This is a list I put together for my film students. These are guidelines for composing a frame in a shot, but they are useful, as well, for graphic designers and painters and choreographers and other visual artists. If you have suggestions for additions to these, please comment, below!

  1. Use filled-frame close-ups. They make the viewer focus on something he or she might not ordinarily see and can be quite powerful.
  2. Make sure that the composition has a single point of primary focus. There should be one thing to which the eye is most compellingly drawn. Focus can be achieved by a great variety of means. Some powerful ones: silhouette the object of primary focus against a monochromatic or blurred background or foreground; use contrasting value, hue, or saturation for the object of primary focus; lead the eye to the object of primary focus; place the object of primary focus at the furthest vertex of an imaginary triangle containing secondary foci at the other vertices.
  3. In addition to the primary focus, you can have two secondary foci, but these should be weak enough not to compete with the primary focus.
  4. Be careful using horizontal, vertical, or diagonal symmetry. Don’t, for example, place two objects of equal focus on either side of a line of symmetry, as in a bad wedding photograph, for this causes the viewer’s eye to be “torn” between looking at one or the other, and that’s not good.
  5. Use asymmetrical balance across vertical, horizontal, or diagonal planes.
  6. Avoid distracting foreground/background overlaps.
  7. Include lead and head room; don’t crowd the edge.
  8. Follow the Rule of Odd Numbers. That is, don’t place 2, 4, or 6 objects (2 raindrops, billiard balls, birds, or whatever) in the frame; 1, 3, or 5 will be more powerful.
  9. Avoid lining a group of objects up horizontally or vertically. Doing this makes for a composition that is too static or unreal; place objects on a diagonal, even if it’s a slight one.
  10. If the scale of your subject is not clear, include objects that by reference indicate its scale.
  11. Play with scale: small cat, big mouse.
  12. Use an element of the composition (such as an architectural element or the leaves of trees) to frame the whole.
  13. Don’t unintentionally introduce unreal or unnatural elements.
  14. Avoid crowding or clipping objects unintentionally; avoid crashes (objects shoved up against one another).
  15. Keep it simple.
  16. Unclutter the foreground and background.
  17. Lead the eye to the focus: e.g., footprints in snow leading from bottom, foreground, to subject (focus) in background).
  18. Use negative space, or mu.
  19. Put the horizon line high or low, but NOT in the middle. Placing the horizon line in the middle is disconcerting because it causes the viewer’s attention to be torn in two ways.
  20. Use the Rule of Thirds; that is, divide the frame, using imaginary lines, into three parts horizontally and three parts vertically, and place the primary focus at one of the cross lines.
  21. Use the Golden Ratio.
  22. Use the Golden Triangle.
  23. Picture the subject from an interesting angle, high or low, but not straight on.
  24. Arrange things geometrically, especially in triangles.
  25. Use color symbolically.
  26. If there are people or animals in the composition, use the viewer’s natural inclination to “follow the eyes” to focus attention.
  27. Align things, but not overly obviously.
  28. Include items that suggest a history, a narrative, a story (the violin-maker’s chisel and some shavings on the bench).
  29. Include items whose patina and wear show depth, character, and use. The last of these is particularly important and interesting because it suggests narrative and backstory–a chisel and some wood shavings on a table.
  30. Strive for grace.
  31. Strive for freedom; movement.
  32. Make judicious use of basic elements: hue, light, saturation, tone, value, resolution, shape, volume, pattern, and texture; keep it simple by making ONE of these the primary communicative mode of the composition.
  33. Use varying planes to create depth.
  34. Use the angle on the subject to convey empowerment (viewing angle on subject: up) or weakness (viewing angle on subject: down).