Television Production Handbook 
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1980-2009 Roger Inman & Greg Smith. All rights reserved.

Composition and Camera Movement

Composition exists in a context.  That context is the frame, which is itself an element of picture composition. In 1894 Thomas Edison introduced the Kinetoscope motion picture format, with an aspect ratio (ratio of picture width to height) of four units wide to three units high, or 1.33 to 1.  For the next fifty years most film used the 1.33 aspect ratio.  Sixteen millimeter, eight and “super eight” millimeter film formats and NTSC, PAL, and SECAM television standards all share the 1.33 ratio.

 Venice canal 4x3 format
4 x 3 or 1.33 Aspect Ratio

From an optical standpoint, the most efficient rectangular format would be square, since it would use as much of the lens area as possible.  So why don’t we have square pictures?

Artists and mathematicians from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians have focused on the “golden rectangle” as the perfect shape.  The aspect ratio of the golden rectangle is 1.618.  One might presume (although I’ve found no evidence so far) that the 1.33 aspect ratio is a compromise between the most efficient ratio and the most esthetically pleasing.

Over the years a number of standard sizes with different aspect ratios became popular.  The 8x10 photograph  (1.25), the 4x6 photograph (1.5), and the 35mm slide (1.5) are a few examples.  Film evolved, too.  Cinerama (2.5 - 3.0), Cinemascope (2.55), and Panavision (1.78 – 2.4) are a few standards among many.  High definition television has an aspect ratio of 16 by 9, or 1.78.  The shape of the frame is the first consideration in composition.

 Framing Venice 16 x 9 format
16 x 9 or 1.78 Aspect Ratio

Ideally, every shot in a television program should be composed as carefully as a still photograph. While this is not often possible, some general rules of composition should be kept in mind.

 The face of the typical television screen has been surrounded by a frame called a shadow mask, which hides about five per cent of the picture..  The composition of the same image will be different with and without the shadow mask.  The presence of the shadow mask has always caused a problem for films transferred to video because they were generally composed to be shown “edge to edge.”  Now the same problem occurs when images are composed using a digital (LCD) monitor without taking the shadow mask into consideration.

Composition safe area

The red border around the frame represents the shadow mask.  It is unlikely the viewer will see anything in this area.  The gold and green areas combined are referred to as the safe action area.  Anything that takes place here is likely to be visible to the viewer.  The green area is known as the safe title area.  It is virtually certain that any text in the green area will be visible to the viewer.
Notice the difference in "head room" in the pictures below this text.  If you are using a camera with a monitor that shows the entire picture, be sure to allow for the shadow mask when you are composing your shots.  Some viewfinders have "safe area" masks or lines to help you.

Framing full screen

Framing with shadow mask

 Unless your subject is perfectly symmetrical, the screen should never be divided exactly in half by strong horizontal or vertical lines. Instead, it should be divided approximately into thirds. For example, the horizon (if you're shooting a corn field) should be either a third of the way from the bottom of the screen or a third of the way from the top. With the exception of titles, composition should not be perfectly symmetrical, but should rather balance positive and negative (filled and empty) space.

Rule of thirds
Intelligent use of composition can be used to draw the viewer's eye to important parts of the picture.
Too High   Framing too high
Framing too low Too Low

When framing people, there are several additional concerns. By placing someone too high or too low in the frame, the individual can be made to seem taller or shorter than he actually is. The tendency is to place people too low.

Framing close up
When the screen is filled with a face, the critical part of the face includes the eyes, mouth, and chin. The picture should be framed to include those, allowing hair or ears to fall outside the frame.

When shooting a profile (side view) of a person, it's important to allow empty space in the direction the subject is looking. This extra space is called "nose room."  

Insufficient nose room Framing nose room okay
Insufficient Nose Room   Good Nose Room
Nose room applies not only to people, but to anyone or anything pointing or moving.  There should be relatively more empty space in the direction of the pointing or movement.

The kind of framing a writer or director wants is usually described in terms of wide, medium, or close-up.
Wide shot

A wide shot includes the entire subject and important objects in the immediate surroundings. It's used to show where he is in his environment. If it's used at the beginning of a scene it's often called an "establishing" shot.
Medium shot A medium shot shows most of the subject, including all parts of the subject that are important to understanding what the subject is doing. A medium shot of a person sitting still might show his body from the waist up, letting hands and the lower half of his body fall outside the frame.

A medium shot of a person dancing or performing Tai Chi, on the other hand, would have to include his arms and hands, since these are generally important to understanding what he's doing. Medium shot Tai Chi


Jeff close up

A close-up is used to isolate the most important part of the subject. For a speaker, this is generally the head. For an entire football team, a close-up might be a shot of the quarterback only.
 An extreme close-up focuses on one important detail of the subject, perhaps the mouth alone, or just the eyes, if the subject is a person. The object is to focus on important detail either to increase the drama or impact on a situation or to allow the viewer to see necessary picture information more clearly.
In shooting a group of people, we have a few special terms. A "one shot" is a medium shot of a single person. A "two shot," would still be a medium shot, but the "subject" is made up of two people and the shot is framed tightly around those two. We also use terms such as "head shot," "head and shoulders shot," and "waist-up shot."

Camera Movement

In the age of hand-held camcorders it must seem odd that there's an elaborate vocabulary describing how a camera can be moved. If you can do it, the industry has a technical term for it.


The two camera movements you use routinely are the "pan" and "tilt." A pan is a turning of the camera to the left or right. A tilt involves tilting the camera up or down.
Pedestal up
Pedestal Up

The stand for a heavy studio television or film camera is called a "pedestal." That's why the term for raising the camera is "pedestal up," and the term for lowering the camera is "pedestal down." These terms have nothing to do with adjustments to the "pedestal," or setup of the black level of the picture, which is an electronic adjustment, not a camera movement.

 Truck right
Truck Right

In moving a camera from side to side you "truck right" or "truck left." To move the camera closer to the subject, you "dolly in." To move it farther away you "dolly out." Of course, whenever the camera-to-subject distance changes, the focus must be adjusted.
Dolly in
Dolly In

Purists will point out that dolly shots (in or out) are fundamentally different in effect from zooming in or out. They're right. But professionals will go to extreme lengths to get a smooth dolly shot, to the point of laying special tracks to roll the dolly on. People with more modest means have mounted cameras on bicycles, shopping carts and, of course, cars to get their dolly shots.

Finally, in situations where important parts of a scene are not the same distance from the camera, it's possible to change the emphasis of a shot from one part of the scene to another by changing focus alone.. The instruction to do this is "rack" focus "in" or "out" for a particular object in a scene. "Rack focus into the cup on the table," would be an example. Such instructions are rarely used and are generally given for artistic effect.

See the Compostition and Camera Movement forum at