Framing the Shot: Concepts and Solutions for Camera Placement
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Class is back in session! A few notes before we begin today’s lesson: please be sure to read my previous guide, “Focal Points and Their Hierarchies”, before reading this guide. It introduces many terms and tools that you must know in order for this guide to make any good sense. Be warned: this will be a fairly hefty piece, and you must be able to distinguish between hard technical rules and loose guiding concepts. I’ll do my best to let you know when it’s mostly okay to experiment, and when you’re better off following the rules. I’ll also include a glossary of all the important terms found in this guide at the end, for your convenience. Let’s get right to it!
The Importance of Framing
You may remember that we previously defined composition as “a set of techniques that allows the artist to draw and direct attention.” Framing–that is, camera placement and focal length–is a subset of composition. Whereas the previous guide mostly focused on techniques for drawing attention, we will primarily be focusing on how to use framing to direct attention.
We do this with careful camera placement, capturing crucial details of our surroundings, while hiding or omitting less important, distracting aspects. This will help our photos flow more smoothly, ensuring that our stories get told effectively and efficiently. To achieve that end, we’ll learn about common compositional arrangements, how to use leading lines, and briefly touch upon focal length and perspective as they pertain to composition.
In the previous guide, we discussed how to set up a first read, second read, and so on. Now we’re adding a new element to the mix: not only must you set up a coherent read order, but you must also take care where those reads are placed. Ever heard of the “Rule of Thirds” or the “Golden Ratio”? These are two of the most common rulesets for arranging the elements of your image in an easy-to-read and pleasing manner.
The basic premise of any compositional arrangement is simple: if you draw invisible lines across your image in a certain way, the lines and their intersections will provide you with strong guiding points to place your story elements. That said, don’t get too caught up in exactly how to build these compositional arrangements. It’s better to use them as powerful tools, and to understand their underlying mechanisms. They exist only to give you strong starting points to either offset elements of your image, or to place elements for symmetrical weight.
If you’re not feeling confident, though, then it’s often better to follow the rules until you understand why to break them. Let’s examine some of the mechanisms behind common arrangements and why they work.
Offset and Centrality
Centrality can help convey strength and stability, but you must take care not to centralise too much. Bringing everything to the centre tends to make an image appear motionless and static. Perhaps you want this, but more often than not, we want to create the indication of motion in order to capture attention.
“Keeping things central can make your subject look extremely grounded and solid.”
Even if we’re not relying on dynamic action to power our shots, we don’t want everything too centred and too perfectly symmetrical. Remember, we’re trying to create symmetrical weight, not actual symmetry. More on this in the following section. For now, consider the role of the offset in the following photo:
“Note how I’ve offset the centre line of my body to the right, and my face to the top third.”
Offsetting from centre creates an interesting image by breaking up the unimportant background elements into different shapes on either side of our main subject(s). However, moving things away from centre will break the balance of weight within the image, so we have to begin considering how to create symmetrical weight.
This is an important theme in framing: symmetrical weight stabilises your photo while keeping it interesting. Do note, however, that we’re not usually looking to create absolute symmetry by placing the exact same shapes on both sides of an image. By definition, we only need to consider re-balancing when we’ve already made use of an offset framing. We want to balance reads so that we’re not piling up all our story elements on only one side of an image. Consider the balancing in this shot:
“The white-hot blade dominates the right half of this photo as the first read, so I’ve used my smiling face and the rest of my body to balance out the left half.”
We have three elements to consider when balancing for symmetrical weight: primary story elements, background elements, and something called negative space. In addition to balancing reads against each other, we also need to consider the “empty”, or negative, spaces in our photos. They’re not necessarily actually empty, but they’re spaces in which no important story elements reside. Keep in mind that background elements are not negative space. Negative space is any swathe that is either empty, or that has been made “empty” and pushed back with compositional clumping.
For example, the negative space in studio shots would be actually empty, being composed only of the solid coloured backdrop. However, out in the wild, your negative space will often be something like the forest canopy, or the ocean, or the desert sands, and so on. A lone mountain or a single tree is not negative space, even if it’s not in the foreground. This is especially true if it’s in a compositionally strong spot, functioning as a second or third read. A mountain range in the background or a dense thicket of trees, on the other hand, can be negative space.
We use negative space to give our other elements breathing room, and to introduce a degree of separation between elements. Without enough negative space in your image, things will look unbearably cluttered, and nothing will stand out.
Primary story elements and background elements are usually balanced through camera placement alone, keeping in mind compositional arrangements and the like. Negative space, however, is also balanced through location scouting and image cropping.
It’s difficult to have healthy amounts of negative space if you’re shooting your photos in a very cluttered environment. It can be done, but it requires a very delicate touch. If you’re just starting out, focus on trying to find shooting locations that offer solid negative space elements. As mentioned before, things like the ocean, the desert, uniform vegetation, relatively plain walls, and so on can work well.
“It’s rather difficult to see exactly what’s going on here, with the brick walls swallowing the important details.”
“It’s much easier to pick out the story elements when they’re framed against good negative space.”
However, you can also have too much negative space, in which case we turn to image cropping. If you find yourself with too much empty space on the edges of your piece, then just crop it out! Do take care not to crop too closely to your subject matter though–we want to preserve a little bit of space to pad the distance between our subjects and the edge of our image. This is called headspace. As the name implies, we’ll often only retain headspace above the head–there are many excellent shots that crop beyond the arms and feet of the subject. The idea of headspace also applies to shots involving non-human subjects, so don’t be too zealous with the crop tool.
“Not enough headspace! Note how the image feels a little cramped and over-cropped.”
“Too much headspace and negative space! Note how the subject feels small and distant.”
“The headspace here is just right. Note how the composition just ‘feels right’–often strong composition comes from trusting your gut.”
The next topic is focal length, and how it affects relative perspective. Focal length is an extremely technical and complicated subject, involving the physics of light and advanced mathematics…but we’re going to keep it in simple terms that we can easily remember and apply to our photography. Focal length (found in the gpose tools, right above the camera roll angle slider) will affect two major aspects of our shot:
- How much our camera can see while retaining the same zoom (aka field of view)
- How objects appear relative to each other in perspective
Generally, lowering your focal length will give you a larger field of view, but focal lengths below the default 100 will begin to cause some perspective warping. Conversely, raising your focal length will narrow your field of view, and closer objects will loom larger and eclipse distant objects.
“It’s right here!”
We can use these properties to our advantage when framing our shots. A portrait-type picture in which the attention should be focused on the primary subject would benefit most from a relatively high focal length, allowing the subject to better eclipse background objects and dominate the negative space around them.
On the other hand, an all-encompassing landscape shot would best fit a lower focal length, capturing a wider field of view and showcasing more of the geography. Experiment with different focal lengths and their effects! These are by no means hard-and-fast rules, so I highly encourage you to discover novel uses for all the focal lengths available to you. Do bear in mind, though, that you should almost always decide on the focal length of your shot before playing with the camera’s zoom.
“A comparison of how focal length affects the shot. I haven’t changed the zoom, camera placement, or lighting between these shots–only the focal length.”
Other Compositional Notes
Still with me? You’re doing great! There are just a few other compositional concepts that you should be familiar with moving forward. Let’s briefly break these down, and then I’ll let you off with examples of some common compositional arrangements.
Bad tangents occur when the edges of two objects line up in a confusing manner–that is, when two objects are in tangential contact. To avoid this problem, simply shift the camera angle slightly to either separate the two objects, or to more wholly eclipse one object with the other. It’s usually also considered a bad tangent to have the edge of an object touching the edge of the frame, or the edge of an object leading directly into the corner of the frame. And don’t be fooled, there are no good tangents–at least, none that I know of.
“My catalyst is at a bad tangent to the tuft of my hat, making it difficult and confusing to visually separate them at a glance.”
Bounding objects are objects placed on the corner or the edge of the shot and serve as a visual blockade. You can think of these as the vignette’s more concrete cousin. Both are tools that we use to prevent the viewer’s eyes from wandering out of frame. Bounding objects usually block off chunks of negative space, and they are often placed forward of the foreground, very near the camera.
“The hull of the skiff serves as a powerful bounding object here, preventing the viewer’s eyes from exiting the frame through the bottom.”
Upshots, Downshots, and Oblique Angles
Upshots and downshots occur when the camera is placed significantly lower or higher (respectively) than the primary subject, and the camera is pointed at or almost entirely focused on the subject. To clarify, a sweeping landscape shot with a small character tucked away as the second or third read would not be a downshot. Upshots (camera lower than subject) can make your subject feel larger, more threatening, in control, and so on. Downshots (camera above the subject) can have the opposite effect, diminishing your subject’s domination of the frame.
“Upshots tend to feel like they’re expanding your subject’s presence in the frame.”
“Downshots diminish the subject’s command of the frame, allowing you to create a variety of moods and effects opposite those of an upshot.”
An oblique angle or Dutch angle is created when we roll the camera to either side, causing the horizon to no longer be horizontal in the shot. While any amount of camera roll does destabilise the horizon line, I would personally define an oblique angle as being between ~10 degrees and ~70 degrees of roll. Most tilts below 10 degrees tend to look more like mistakes than deliberate camera manipulations, and most rolls over 70 degrees may as well be rolled 90 degrees. Oblique roll angles can serve many purposes: helping us better fit compositional arrangements, capturing more of the subject in the frame, conveying emotional instability in a shot, and many others. Be creative, but be sure not to overuse oblique angles just to be different. Sometimes a strongly grounded shot is much more effective–and sometimes it isn’t. Trust your gut.
“I’ve used an oblique angle here so that I can showcase more of the gun without awkwardly pushing the subject to the right. And yes, that’s Haurchefant with a gun.”
Lastly, I’m going to add more invisible lines to your ever-growing checklist of things to worry about in each photo: leading lines, or guiding lines. These are invisible lines that we can imply between our big reads, and they help lead the viewer’s eye through the shot. Often (but not always), your leading lines will coincide with the lines that define your intended compositional arrangement. This is especially common with the Golden Triangle arrangement, for example.
We can imply leading lines with any number of tools: linear or gently curved objects in the shot, a string of very similar objects, and even the implied direction of an action or motion. It’s also important to note that the direction of a character’s gaze can imply a very strong leading line. To a lesser extent, the orientation of a character’s body (particularly the hips, feet, and shoulders) can also imply a leading line. Our eyes love to see faces, and it’s a very natural reaction to look where someone else is looking if they’re not looking directly at you. Take care not to lead your viewers off the frame or into dead space!
“We can use secondary objects in our shot to point towards our primary subjects. Note the powerfully attractive tension created by eye contact between two characters.”
“The Rule of Thirds. By far the most common arrangement.”
“The Golden Triangle.”
“The Fibonacci Spiral, sometimes called the Golden Spiral.”
Glossary and Conclusion
Composition: A set of techniques that allows the artist to draw and direct attention.
Framing: Deliberate camera placement and use of focal length.
Compositional arrangement: Invisible lines (and their intersections) drawn across the image in certain patterns, providing the artist with strong guiding points to place story elements.
Offset: The deliberate breaking symmetry in an image in order to create interest.
Symmetrical weight: Created when reads are properly balanced on both sides of an image. It is not actual symmetry.
Negative space: Areas of an image that contribute very little or no information to the story, and serve as blank background noise.
Headspace: A healthy amount of room left above the subject’s head. Most often applies to portraits, but can apply to many other types of shots.
Focal length: A camera property that affects field of view and how objects appear relative to each other in perspective. This is not your camera zoom level.
Field of view: The maximum area visible to the camera at a given zoom level. This is determined by focal length.
Bad tangent: Tangential contact between the edges of two objects, or the edge of an object and the corner of the shot.
Bounding object: An object placed somewhere along the edges of a shot, preventing the viewer’s eye from exiting the frame.
Upshot/downshot: Types of shots created by placing the camera significantly below (upshot) or above (downshot) the subject.
Oblique angle/Dutch angle: Created by rolling the camera so that the horizon is no longer horizontal in the frame.
Leading line(s)/guiding line(s): Implied lines created by objects within the scene that lead toward the main story elements.
And there you have it! Thank you for sticking with me if you’ve made it all the way through. If you’re a beginner and you feel that you still don’t understand some concepts in this article, don’t worry! This guide will always be here for you to re-read and reference–and I’m not giving you any homework, either. Please do also refer back to any previous articles if you feel you haven’t quite mastered those tools yet. I’d like to thank you all once again for allowing me the opportunity to be of service, and I look forward to seeing all your wonderful photos. Catch you in the next one!
Art Fundamentals Article Index
Focal Points and Their Hierarchies: A Guide to Guiding the Eye (click me!)
Framing the Shot: Concepts and Solutions for Camera Placement (you’re here!)
Light and Dark: An Introduction to Contrast and Value (work in progress)
HSV and the Colour Wheel: How to Define and Arrange Colours (work in progress)
Warm and Cold: Injecting Meaning into Colours (work in progress)
Demonstration of Principles (work in progress)