How To Learn Shot Composition

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

I do come across stories of directors who has no clue on the range of the lenses and even the basic shots compositions used in cinema to tell the story. Yes, some doesn't understand what's a medium shot and wide shot, and why some shots are edited in such a way. And I think it's a loss and a handicap for a director who doesn't understand or have basic knowledge of lens, camera and shots composition.

Film is after all a visual medium, you can't used it effectively if you don't understand how it works, it's the language of film. But how does one train oneself to be able to create great and effective compositions for your film? 

You see, unlike writers they work with the most convenient medium of all art form and story telling medium. Writers can just sit at home and start writing, and the more they write the better they are, at least to some extent.

For directors the best is still photography, you just need to get a affordable, point and shoot compact or even a smart-phone. Start shooting whenever you see interesting things or just set a day just to go out and shoot some photos.

I used to do this a lot even when I'm working with actual film rolls, it's expensive and I really have to think, frame before releasing the shutter button. And most of the time it'll still end up like shit. (no LCD screen, no preview)

I really learn more during the digital era, mainly with my first DSLR the Nikon D50. I started to shoot stuff for theater productions and film sets, most of the time for free. Just to learn to capture interesting moments on the sets, as most of the time everything are very spontaneous. You learn to see great composition in a short duration, if you missed it, it'll be gone. That's how you trained to have a good eye for interesting compositions.

Later onward I proceed to compact cameras and eventually smart-phones (personally I always preferred smaller cameras) as they're quite powerful these days.

But me myself have not been shooting a lot, except once in a while with my smart-phone mostly uploaded on Instagram. And recently when I traveled to Dongyang in China, I brought a long my latest point and shoot the Sony HX90V, mainly used for my vlogs.

And because during the trip we had a lot time for sight seeings, I shot quite a lot of photos and suddenly find that I do missed photography a lot. The craft is still there, but a little bit rusty. But still managed to get some interesting photos.

And when I'm on a film production set or during a location scouting trip, I have already a vision on how to block the scenes and how to frame a shot all happening in my mind. Even when I'm not operating the camera myself, working with a DP, I'll convey how I see the scenes and shots in these particular locations.

This is how and why some filmmakers can come out with a fabulous shots and framing in seconds, it's the practice of learning to see things differently by taking a lot of still photographs. This is also why sometimes I can work without storyboards. 

Storyboards are usually a reference for clients and also a must for action sequences or scenes involving VFX. Otherwise the framing and compositions are usually already in my mind naturally. And take note, some blocking in films are difficult to storyboard, especially those that involves hand held cameras or very long takes or a combination of both.

Finally as a filmmaker it's your job to take ordinary things/locations and make it interesting to the audiences.

Check out the full gallery of my trip on Flickr

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