Cinematography 101: Frame Composition – Beyond the Rule of Thirds

Image: Chaky

By Danny F. Santos (doddleNEWS)

Designing your framing is one of the most important aspects of cinematography. How you place your subjects will have a huge impact on the audience even if the audience doesn’t know why. The most well known composition tool is known as the rule of thirds. Many DSLRs actually have a rule of thirds option that you can turn on and off, but it isn’t the only way to frame your shot.

To illustrate these cinematography concepts, I’m going to borrow from one of my favorite films, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The cinematography was by Freddie Young, who won an Academy Award for the picture, so it’s a pretty good primer on these concepts.


Rule of Thirds

We might as well start with the basics of cinematography! The rule of thirds simply breaks your frame down into a three-by-three grid. This gives you nine equal parts to compose your frame with and the lines are where you place your prominent elements in the shot. Usually the lower third of the image is used as a horizon line, while the primary focus will sit on an intersect point.

Lower third horizon line


Lawrence’s right eye is the focal point where two lines intersect


Golden Spiral

This one will be a strange tool to use with Lawrence of Arabia, because it was shot in Super Panavision 70. The golden spiral has an approximately 1.6:1 ratio, and doesn’t really fit the 2.20:1 edge-to-edge of Super Panavision. However, if you place it inside the the frame, you can still create some great images by just centering it.

I won’t get into the math or the ancient greek history of the spiral, but it’s seen everywhere in nature, from seashells to galaxies, which is what makes it pleasing to the human eye; we’re hardwired to notice it subconsciously. The focal point will roughly be where the spiral starts, and then corkscrews away from.

Golden spiral



This is fairly similar to to the rule of thirds, but instead of breaking your frame down to a three-by-three grid, you split it in half along the vertical, and half along the horizontal. This type of framing will give you a bit more of a split-screen-like framing than you would get out of the rule of thirds.




Up to this point, we’ve been using mostly parallel and perpendicular lines which makes for fairly rigid framing in cinematography. With diagonals you can separate foreground and background in a very striking way especially if you juxtapose it in editing with any of the previous tools.

To split your frame into a diagonal, you generally start at one corner of the frame and then move at an angle near the opposing corner. Rarely will both these corners touch meaning you can split the image into more than four parts.



The Center

One of the trends you may have noticed in this cinematography how-to is that the center of the frame has been avoided. However, that doesn’t mean it always has to be avoided and sometimes it will help quite a bit. Almost all of Mad Max: Fury Road was center framed so that even with the extremely quick cuts in the action the eye doesn’t have to wander and try to make sense of the action– that’s why the geography of the action in that film work so well.



The Edges and Unbalancing the Frame

With all of those compositional rules, you can now start playing around with pushing elements to the edges. I picked this film specifically because Young used this technique to make the scenes in the film appear to be enormous. Using your standard rule of thirds grid, just push the horizon line (in blue) down near the bottom edge of the frame. In this example it makes the sky look incredibly vast compared to the subject in the frame. You’ll also notice that Young purposefully avoided placing Lawrence on any of the regular rule of thirds lines nor directly in the center of the frame. This unbalancing of the image makes it appear as if the sky goes on beyond the limits of the frame.

Edges and unbalancing


Mix and Match

There many different types of compositions you could use when framing but never forget that you can combine them as well. If we go back to the image that demonstrates quadrants, you’ll notice that it uses more than just that composition. In fact it uses at least three different tools to create the image with the red lines showing how quadrants create a horizon through the middle of the frame.

Mix and match

Apply the rule of thirds with green lines, and you can see how the frame is actually split into three columns with the center devoid of anything interesting to look at. You’ll also notice that neither character in the foreground is located on a rule of thirds line, but rather in the center of their respective columns.

The two characters in the frame are actually pushed to the edges (represented with the yellow line) to create a much wider space between them and makes the desert look immense.


Now you probably notice that we can even take this even further: the image is actually two mirrored (the dividing line in yellow) rule of thirds (in purple) images in the same frame.


The point is that frame composition rules are actually not as strict as they first appear as long as there is a sense to the structure– even if you’re unbalancing the image. Understanding all of these rules will help you break them and adapt them to your own needs.

About doddle 16507 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.