Cinematography: Composition and framing

The use of the frame is pivotal to a good film. A frame cannot simply be a representation of what’s in front of you. It must have three-dimensionality. It’s got to mean much more than what is shown on screen.

When composing and framing a shot, ask yourself:

  • How can I make this image more poetic?
  • How can I say more about the emotional state of that character in this film?

For example, in the film ‘An Education’ there’s a scene in which a girl is being driven by an older man. She finds him very exciting. He stops the car, gets out and goes across the road and sees a black family. She’s observing all of this.


This could have been shot very conventionally. But instead, it is shot in a more poetic and simple way. The scene is really about her and what she’s reflecting on, who this man is and what he is doing. The scene cuts from outside the car and a view of the street to her in the car looking at the scene. The car window is closed. So, it’s just a reflection of the black family with the man reflected in the glass. She is just behind it, thinking about it, creating a superimposition.

It’s just a question of using the focus puller to create the poetry of the shot – looking one way, looking the other way, and back again. It’s all done in one image – simple, concise, effective.

It can happen through the choice of locations.

The trick is in finding ways of creating scenes that imply more than the scene itself.

You can over edit a scene – where you are telling the audience what you are thinking about, as opposed to leaving it and letting the viewer decide which part of the shot they want to look at – are they looking at the background? The foreground? What exactly is the character's emotion and who they are with?


List of references

John de Borman (2015) ‘Composing and Framing – Cinematography Masterclass’ CookeOpticsTV on 20 November 2018)

The quadrant system of composing a frame

What makes a film visually interesting? It’s not just the story or the actors, it’s in the frames themselves.

In his article ‘The quadrant system: a simple composition technique explained’, Justin Hayes (2015) refers to the film Drive (2011) and the way in which almost every shot has a compositional balance – between left and right, top and bottom – a quadrant.


At first this might seem restrictive. But it allows a director to take a conventional shot and do unconventional things.



In this scene, the driver enters in the top left quadrant. We assume the next shot will have another person in the top right quadrant. But instead, she is in the bottom right quadrant.

When the camera moves closer, we get two shots in which the characters are short sided with tons of space behind them.


By emphasising different quadrants, you can create shots that are both tightly composed and weirdly unpredictable.

Play around with quadrants – they are an old, simple tool. All you need are top, bottom, left and right – and the good sense in how to put them all together.


List of references

Heyes, Justin (2015) SLR Lounge on 16 November 2018)

Composition: The Rule of Thirds

Some examples of frames composed according to the rule of thirds, composition balanced between shots, the rule of thirds being broken, tension created by upsetting the balance and other distinct meanings suggested through visual balance.

I printed out screenshots, drew grids lines on the images and made notes on how the rules of composition and balance have been applied in the following films:

  • Breathless (1960)
  • Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2014)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2011)
  • Amelie (2001)
  • Manhattan (1979)
  • 12 Years A Slave (2014)

Logbook 2, pages 23-24


Logbook 2, pages 25-26


Logbook 2, pages 27-28


Logbook 2, pages 29-30


Logbook 2, pages 35-36


Logbook 2, pages 39-40


Logbook 2, pages 41-42


This was a fascinating exercise.  What was particularly revealing was how the apparently simple idea of dividing the frame into a grid can have such a profound effect upon the way in which I looked at the various shots. We take moving images so much for granted and are unaware of the principles underlying what we are looking at. But when viewed as canvases, divided into sections, their hidden beauty suddenly becomes evident.

Placing the shots from ‘Breathless’ alongside the shots from ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and ‘Manhattan’, for instance, was quite revealing. The differences in composition became so much more apparent when seen collectively than when looking at them in isolation.

This task has shown me that watching and re-watching films is a task that pays dividends in revealing how cinematographers go about composing their shots, and that looking at the way in which cinematographers use the rules of composition within their work is a vital part of my work as moving image practitioner.

Composition and balance help infuse an image with beauty. For me, this is an important element in making a moving image. However, I have often felt that the ‘beauty’ of a shot has eluded me. This exercise has gone some way in helping me solve that problem in my own practice. It has also shown me that most shots within a film are composed according to the rule of thirds, while others vary slightly from the rules, or break quite strikingly from the rules for more pronounced effects.

One particularly interesting example was composition balanced between shots. Maintaining the continuity of composition between shots in a dialogue scene is key to drawing the viewer into the scene and can add considerably to the intimacy of such scenes.

Coming from a documentary background, where there is often little or no time to consider the composition or balance of a shot before capturing footage of an event, I feel much more informed in how cinematographers compose their images so that significant objects, divisions and units of space correspond to the grid lines identified by the rule of thirds.

Composition and balance are important tools in the cinematographer’s toolbox. I shall be using what I have learnt here to plan new learning experiences, by incorporating the analysis of composition and balance into the planning of future moving images and by making study films with specific goals in mind for exploring specific techniques. For example, by making study films that practice basic techniques of composition and balance; by making study films that attempt to break the rules; and by attempting to replicate shots that inspire or intrigue me in the work of other practitioners.