Opname: Don't be Square about Framing

Michael Reff | October 2009


For an image to be exciting, it has to move! Right? Things need to be constantly changing and adjusting. Pictures flying in and out, angles adjusting and tilting, edits happening left and right. There is nothing still about our art. Or is there?

Art - to many people this word conjures up visions of long dimly-lit hallways, filled with soft murmuring whispers, echoing between some very square, very frumpy patrons, shuffling the catacombs of a dusty old museum. 

Small groups of stiffs standing and staring at a boring, motionless, flat-framed piece of work for hours, discussing how exciting the art is and how much movement it has. Why doesn't this happen when I show my video, you might ask? What could possibly be so exciting about a static image, anyway? It just sits there. 

For an image to be exciting, it has to move! Right? Things need to be constantly changing and adjusting. Pictures flying in and out, angles adjusting and tilting, edits happening left and right. There is nothing still about our art. Or is there?


How many times have you used a well-framed image in one of your projects, or just held a pretty angle for longer than usual in an edit, and you could actually feel the motion and excitement? Maybe it was a feeling of curiosity that came over you, which made you look deeper into the video again and again, until the image felt like it had a 3D quality. Even though it wasn't panning or zooming, did the image feel like it was moving? How can a still image move someone to look further into the frame, when it has no zoom or edit in for detail? Well, the answer is all about the framing.

Yes, my Di-rec-tor friends, in order for your videos to move, you need to think about the framing of the static image, not the moving image. The best movies are merely one beautifully-framed static image transitioned into another one. Professional camera operators have learned that every image, no mater how short, tells a story, asks a question or gives a clue. Taking your time in framing your shot determines what you want your viewers to remember or the feeling you want your viewers to have. So how can you make a shot that doesn't zoom or swish or zip be exciting? Well, let's call the answer to that question The Rule of Thirds .

Very Vertical

Many of you may be aware that a well-framed image is often not a centered shot. Placing an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid, or rule of thirds, as it is better known in the industry, over your viewfinder, divides the frame into three equal parts, both horizontally and vertically. These lines, and the areas of the frame they intersect, according to numerous studies, are more pleasing to the eye. Putting your key subject over one of those lines draws a viewer's attention to it, thereby increasing interest.

Try this test. Place two subjects in your frame: let's say a boy and an ice cream sundae, but it can be anything of interest. Let's place them in a diner next to the counter. Start by placing the boy in the center of your frame with the ice cream in his hand. What do you think? It's a boy with his sundae. End of story. Now place the boy on a stool on the right vertical line of your imaginary tic-tac-toe grid and the sundae on the counter on the left vertical line. What do you think? What questions come to mind when the boy looks at the ice cream? Is it his? Will he steal it? Will someone else come and sit down and finish it? Who will that person be? You will prompt all these questions and more from just by putting your subjects on the lines, thereby leaving a large enough space between them. Bring them closer inside the lines and it will look like the boy still owns the ice cream, and the image has less impact. More important, though, is the way your eye travels back and forth between the boy and his ice cream when the two are farther apart. This eye movement keeps the viewer's mind interested for much longer. Even when you flash the image before the viewer, the mind retains the image and still asks all those same questions. You see, it's not the movement - it's the framing. 

Power Points

In the last point, I mentioned the areas of the frame that intersect. We call these areas power points, and you use their location to make subjects pop. More than the lines, these points are attention-getting areas. Some say it is because you have both the vertical motion and the horizontal motion colliding at that point. I also believe that they add balance or discord, if that is what you want. In either case, having a subject on that point draws a viewer's attention to it over and over. Even more than having a subject on the lines, a power point adds emphasis.

Try it using the same scenario as the last time. This time, however, put a clock on the upper left power point. You may need to tilt up a little to make it work. Now look at the image. Do you find yourself looking at the clock? Drawn to it maybe? Asking yourself questions about the boy and how long it will be before the sundae melts or before he will have to leave? Or maybe how much longer he will wait before he steals it? If you think it is because you have just added a clock, try putting it over the boy's left shoulder on the right side of the frame and keep it off the right power point. Notice how the clock has less importance there. It might even be bothersome, making the picture seem cluttered on the right. You might even feel like framing it out. Whatever the most important part of the frame, put it on the points, and you'll be amazed at how much better your image feels. A side note here: when I am doing an interview, I like putting the eyes of my interviewee on the horizontal line and upper power points. No matter how tight I get, I still hold that line, because I believe that the eyes are the most emotional part of the guest. I will even chop off the top of the head when I zoom in close to keep it that way. Try it sometime and see if you agree.

To Sea or Not to Sea

We've talked about the vertical rule of third lines - now let's talk about the horizontal lines. Have you ever shot a sunset at the beach and were unsure where to put the horizon? Most people put it right through the middle of the frame. However, a much better place to put the horizon is on the lower third of your frame on the imaginary bottom horizontal line. The reason for this is weighting. A properly-weighted image tells the viewer which subject to look at. Not giving direction confuses the viewers and distracts them away from what you're trying to point out. Ask yourself this question every time you have a strong horizontal image in your shot: "Which is the most important, the top image or the bottom?" Whichever is the more important, that should be the most dominant on the screen - i.e., is it the ocean or the sunset that is the most important? Usually it is the sunset, and therefore the line will be low. But there will come a time when you want to express the daunting size of the ocean, which then becomes more important than the sunset, and that is when you shift your horizon to the top line.

Another example: a car on a lonely desert road. The vertical vanishing point is centered, which you might think violates the rule of thirds idea, but the horizontal placement of the car is not smack-dab in the center. If we place the car on the lower third line of the grid, it appears the car has a long way to go before it finishes its journey. However, if we place it on the upper third of the grid, we might imagine that it has traveled a long distance already. The grid placement decides the emotional tug to the image.

Lose the Square - Try the Triangle

The triangle typically represents depth. By placing objects deeper in the frame or positioning yourself so that long objects push back into the frame, you create a triangle and a tremendous amount of depth and movement within the frame. Try this with all your shots.

Here is an example: next time you shoot people standing next to a fence row, do not shoot them flat at a direct perpendicular angle to the camera (i.e., if the people moved from left to right, they would not get bigger or smaller). Instead, position yourself right next to the fence, and let it drift off into the horizon. Frame your fence to start on the horizontal line and then end on the other horizontal line or power point. Have the people stand at the end of the fence, or better yet, have the people move towards you, starting small and growing bigger as they move up the triangle you have created visually with your fence row. Not only will the image draw your eyes immediately to the people when the shot starts, but your eyes will stay glued to them throughout the shot. The triangle framing pushes your attention towards the end of the fence and the people there. Your eyes actually trace the triangle again and again, giving your shot a feeling of depth and more realism. Even without the people moving, the way you scan the image with your eyes creates motion within the frame. Compared to a flat-framed shot, the triangle blows it away.

Using Backgrounds

You can also use the triangle framing in a subtler way in a simple interview. Try placing something of importance to your interviewee in the background, in such a way that you feel the triangle. Maybe the desk pushes back to an award your guest won, or you place a family picture on an end table at the end of the couch. In all cases, be sure to build the visual triangle by moving your camera to get the angle first, and then place your subjects. It will work much more easily that way.

How many times do you see someone taking a picture of a companion on vacation, and the photographer places the subject right next to or under a street sign, iconic landmark or doorway? These are flat-framed photos. By pulling the companion away from the landmark, even as little as 6 feet, you give the framing more depth and interest.

The Diagonal Dutch

No this is not about people who live in Holland, but, once you have mastered image placement on the lines and points, it's time to start leaning no matter where you are. Leaning, canting or dutching the camera, as it is better known in the professional world, is when you tilt the framing of the horizon diagonally in your viewfinder. This gives the image in your frame an added sense of speed or motion. Try shooting a parked car normally. Then try dutching the shot. Which has more power? Which framing makes you feel the sense of varoom? See, it works! Even a static object can have motion. Now try it with a bicycle zooming through the frame. Now that framing has energy!

Make a Transition

So now that you've got the gist of it, all you have to do is transition the shots. Maybe you start tight on a well-framed shot and then slowly zoom out to reveal an even more beautiful framing. Maybe it will be a macro shot framed on a power point that you rack-focus transition to something on the other power point diagonally across from it. Just keep remembering to start and end with awesome framing, and the transition will take care of itself. And if a producer tells you to center the shot, tell him he's just being square.

Michael Reff is Director of Photography for Turner Broadcasting