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Visual Composition Basics

An image contains more than content. Composition, blocking, and framing also play a role in how effectively an image communicates.

Changing Camera Angle: Wide vs. Close

Let’s start with something simple: the angle of a shot. Wide shots show geography, where people and objects are positioned in the frame. We use these to set the scene. As the camera moves closer—and remember, as you move the camera, you are moving the audience—we see more detail. However, and this is important, close-ups also magnify emotion. The closer you get, the more emotion the shot contains.

Clearly, the most emotion is concentrated in the face, but because close-ups magnify even the smallest details—a twitch of a half-covered finger, a shoe moving stealthily across a carpet, or a drop of water hitting a surface—all contain significant emotional impact, depending upon the story.

Figure 2.12 presents the environment where she is dancing, the sweep of her movement, and the reactions of the dancers behind her. The close-up in Figure 2.13, though, showcases the details in her costume and allows us to see the concentration and grace in her face.

FIGURE 2.12

FIGURE 2.12 Compare the emotional difference between this wide shot… (Image Credit: Robert Stokoe / pexels.com)

FIGURE 2.13

FIGURE 2.13 …and this close-up. The wide shot shows the sweep of her movements, while the close-up shows detail and emotion. (Image Credit: Robert Stokoe / pexels.com)

In addition, the camera angle itself conveys emotion. Look at the combination of wide and tight shots in Figure 2.14. The wide shot sets the scene of her isolation, while the close-up explains why. Neither of these shots is “better.” Rather, we need to understand their differences and decide which angle works best for our story.

FIGURE 2.14

FIGURE 2.14 The wide shot (left) emphasizes the isolation she feels, while the close-up (right) explains why. (Image Credit: pexels.com (left), Engin Akyurt / pexels.com (right))

Just as a story needs variations in pacing, so, too, do images. Generally, we tell a visual story by starting wide to show the audience where we are and then gradually move closer to amplify the detail and emotions in our story. Think of getting closer as an “emotional magnifier.” You don’t want to stay wide or tight all the time. The key is to shift position as your story evolves.

I also want to point out that getting extremely close to someone’s face emphasizes the emotions in the image to such an extent that the person appears unattractive. You’ll see extreme close-ups used a lot when we want to make someone seem out of control, out of touch, or generally unpleasant. Extreme close-ups are also often displayed in black-and-white to create a starker look. We’ll discuss color in Chapter 5, “Persuasive Colors.”

Changing Camera Position: High, Low, and Eye Level

Let’s continue moving the camera, but rather than moving it closer or farther from our subject, let’s move it vertically. Changing the height of the camera changes both where the eye goes first in the image and the emotional feeling of a shot.

The height of the camera can help control where the viewer’s eye goes first. For example, in Figure 2.15, the height of the camera shifts the viewer’s eye first to the background. Lowering the camera’s height, shown in Figure 2.16, shifts the viewer’s eye to the foreground first. Filmmakers use this trick often, starting with a low angle to identify the subject and then raising the camera to show us the environment they are moving through.

FIGURE 2.15

FIGURE 2.15 High angles emphasize elements in the background. Your eye goes to the background first. The brightness of the hidden sun also helps attract the eye to the background. (Image Credit: Trace Hudson / pexels.com)

FIGURE 2.16

FIGURE 2.16 While low angles emphasize elements in the foreground. Your eye goes to the foreground first. Here, the camera is about 2 feet off the ground. (Image Credit: pexels.com)

There’s another emotional component to the height of the camera. If you think about it, when we were small children, everything around us seemed very big. We were essentially powerless, overwhelmed by our surroundings. As we grew and gained strength, many things that used to tower over us became smaller as we became stronger and more able to take care of ourselves. Now, when we talk with a friend, we try to meet them eye to eye, on the same level as they are.

These emotional values that we experienced growing up translate into how we perceive images:

  • squ.jpg   When the camera is high, looking down, as in Figure 2.17, it diminishes the subject, making them appear small and weak.

    FIGURE 2.17

    FIGURE 2.17 The height of the camera, looking down, diminishes the man. (Image Credit: Gerd Altmann / pexels.com)

  • squ.jpg   When the camera is low, looking up, as in Figure 2.18, it makes the subject look heroic, bigger than life.

    FIGURE 2.18

    FIGURE 2.18 The hero shot. The camera is lower than the eyes of the two subjects to make these two normal men seem larger than life. The audience is “looking up” to them. (Image Credit: Shannon Fagan / 123RF)

  • squ.jpg   When the camera is at the same eye level, the subject seems like one of us, a peer (Figure 2.19).

    FIGURE 2.19

    FIGURE 2.19 Here the camera is at eye level with the subject. Notice how this makes both the subject and the audience seem to be peers, even though she is a CEO. (Image Credit: Rebrand Cities / pexels.com)

You’ll see these angles used constantly in commercials to guide our emotions because they are so ingrained in how we perceive the world.

A low angle looking up (Figure 2.18) is so popular, it even has its own name: the “hero shot.” Virtually every commercial or publicity photo uses this angle because it evokes feelings in the audience that we are not worthy to be associated with something so superior. “Yet,” the narrator intones, “for just a few dollars even you can associate with something this glorious.”

OK, maybe that’s a bit over the top. But this angle is powerful, and it works, reliably, every time. Watch for it—you’ll see it everywhere.

The emotions attached to the angle from which we view something also factor into sculptures of famous figures, like Julius Caesar in Figure 2.20. They are put on pedestals to force us to “look up to them.” (The fact that Julius Caesar is also carved larger than life doesn’t hurt either; it makes him bigger.)

FIGURE 2.20

FIGURE 2.20 A statue of Julius Caesar. (Image Credit: Skitterphoto / pexels.com)

Placing the camera at the same height as the eyes of the subject (Figure 2.19) makes both audience and subject peers. Newscasters use this angle constantly because they want to appear to be “one of the folks.” You’ll also see politicians and business CEOs use this angle. It says, “While I may have a lot of power, really, I’m just the same as you.”

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