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Blocking: Placing People and Cameras

The technical term for positioning actors and cameras is “blocking.” It’s the choreography of placing elements within the frame to create an image. Just as we can adjust the position of an actor, we can adjust the position, movement, framing, and focus of a camera.

Three terms that we use constantly in blocking are “foreground,” that which is closest to the camera; “background,” that which is furthest from the camera; and “mid-ground,” that which is between the foreground and background.

Look at the image in Figure 2.21 of two women having a conversation. The camera is placed evenly between them—what I call a “center shot”—so that the audience can watch both of them. In fact, it’s hard to tell, from this shot, who’s the subject of this photo; both faces are equal size and somewhat in profile. The eye isn’t sure who to look at first.

FIGURE 2.21

FIGURE 2.21 In this image, the two women have equal “weight.” Both are the same size and seen in half-profile because the camera is centered between them. (Image Credit: Fauxels / pexels.com)

Figure 2.22 illustrates another concept: “eye line.” The eyes of both women are focused on the phone. Our eyes follow where their eyes are looking—as though there is a “line” connecting their eyes to where they are looking—leading us to see something specific in the image.

FIGURE 2.22

FIGURE 2.22 Moving the camera to one side allows us to see one person more fully so we can focus on them. Also, our eyes follow their eye line to go from their faces to the phone. (Image Credit: Anastasiya Gepp / pexels.com)

Compare Figure 2.21 with Figure 2.22. Look at what happens as we move the camera to the side to look over the shoulder of one of the women. The couple is still talking, still engaged in a conversation, but now the audience is given a much clearer clue as to whom the scene is about. The audience concentrates on the face it can see. In Figure 2.21, we are shown where everyone is located, but it’s emotionally neutral. The emotion gets a big boost by moving the camera to the side and moving in—called “going tighter”—for a closer, clearer shot.

The 180° Rule

Determining the position of the camera in relation to the talent—that is, the people or objects being photographed—is such an important part of photography that it has its own name: the “180° Rule.”

The 180° Rule (Figure 2.23) illustrates where to put cameras to get the best wide shots and close-ups. For example, if you connect the noses of two people talking, the best close-ups come when the camera is placed close to the line, over the shoulder of the person opposite to speaker. When shooting video, the rule further states that, to avoid confusing the audience, all cameras must be on the same side of the line.

FIGURE 2.23

FIGURE 2.23 An illustration of the 180° Rule.

As we move the camera to the side, our ability to read faces quickly improves the image. The center of interest for that shot becomes much more obvious. There’s a lesson here. Get out of the center and move to the edge. Your images will improve.

Figure 2.24 illustrates this. The camera on the left shoots the close-up of the woman on the right. The camera on the right shoots the close-up of the man on the left. The center camera provides the wide shot so we can keep track of everyone in the shot.

FIGURE 2.24

FIGURE 2.24 An example of the 180° Rule in action in video. (Images courtesy of 2ReelGuys.com)

When shooting stills, the key benefit of the 180° Rule is determining where to get good close-ups. When we get to video, however, this rule assumes a whole new level of importance, which we’ll cover in later chapters.

In Figure 2.25, everyone is the same size. Each is equally remote from the camera. The eye doesn’t know where to look first, except you probably looked at the computer in the foreground first, because it’s the biggest subject in the frame. This is truly a boring shot.

FIGURE 2.25

FIGURE 2.25 Notice how boring this center wide shot is. (Image Credit: Fox / pexels.com)

Walking Toward the Camera

Another note about blocking. It is inherently more interesting to have a subject walk to or from the camera than to walk from one side to another, as you can see by comparing the two shots in Figure 2.26.

FIGURE 2.26

FIGURE 2.26 Walking to or from the camera (left) is much more visually interesting than walking from one side to another (right). (Image Credits: Just Name / pexels.com (left), Clem Onojeghuo / pexels.com (right))

If a subject is walking to the camera, they are also walking into a close-up, which boosts the emotional content of the shot. If they are walking away, they are moving into a wide shot, which, though it minimizes the subject, maximizes our understanding of their relationship to the environment.

Also, in Figure 2.26, we see the woman in the black jacket first because she is different and big. She is also in the center of the frame. However, notice how quickly your eye gets bored and starts looking elsewhere in the frame for something else to look at. We’ll talk about this more in a couple of pages when we discuss symmetry versus balance.

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