#SciFund Challenge Class

Video storytelling made easy for scientists

Part 10: Lighting, Composition, and Framing

Now you have a list on what you want in your video, it’s time to decide how you’re going to shoot it. Here are four principles in cinematography that will help you produce engaging, and more professional looking content.

1. Lighting

Taking the time to think about lighting your images (moving or still) will make a big difference to their quality. As the saying goes; beginners worry about equipment and professionals worry about lighting. Before we get into how you can best use available light (we’re assuming you don’t have a 3-point lighting kit), we should first understand about the different types and qualities of light sources:

Direct light: When lighting a scene for a photo or video, light can be categorized into two main types; direct and indirect. Direct light lands on your subject from mostly one direction and source. Some examples of direct light sources are a bare light bulb, an open flame, and the sun. Generally, a direct light source is small (physically, or because it is far away, like the sun). Direct light makes hard shadows (defined edge, and dark), and increase contrast. High contrast lighting is fine for many things, but can make unflattering shadows on faces.

Soft light: Soft light is scattered and diffused. The light is landing on the subject from many different directions and has a tendency to fill shadows with a little light, making for softer shadows with less defined edges. A filmmaker can modify a direct light source into a softer, less contrasty one by increasing the surface area of the source. This can be done by bouncing a light off a white wall or ceiling, or by placing a diffusing material in front of the light (without creating a fire hazard). The larger the increase in surface area, the softer the light becomes. When clouds cover the sun, the cloud effectively becomes a new indirect light source, diffusing the sun’s powerful direct rays. Notice on a cloudy day, how there is generally less contrast, and that everything seems more evenly lit.

What does this mean for you? For taking video (or photos) of people, soft, large light sources are generally more flattering than direct light. If you need softer light on your subject, think of ways to increase the size of your light source, relative to your subject. You can bounce a lamp off the wall, or white poster-board. If you need to take any shots outside, these considerations will help you decide what weather might be best to shoot in. We can’t all wait around for the right weather conditions like Ansel Adams, but we can choose to shoot in open shade when we are forced to shoot on clear, sunny days. Also take the time of day into account. Early morning light, especially during winter months is extremely flattering and soft, due to the angle of the sun in the sky, and diffusing effects of the atmosphere. Notice that sunlight around 12-3pm on a clear day is not only uncomfortable to work in, but creates some unflattering, downward pointing shadows on people’s faces. Ultimately, we’re making non-fiction videos and a lot of interesting things happen in life with no thought to how good the lighting is. As always, content will trump technical quality every time, but if you have these ideas in mind you can plan to shoot with the best light available to you.

Here is a video we made, demonstrating the principles explained above:

2. Composition – The rule of thirds

Like most things in life, composition can’t be boiled down into one “rule” that fixes everything, but used in the right circumstances, “the rule of thirds” can sometimes bring some order to a cluttered shot, but it shouldn’t be slavishly adhered to. It’s also the one principle from composition that we have the time to apply as we record real things and real people.

The rule of thirds states that if you split your image into thirds horizontally and vertically (making 9 sections), and place your subject at the intersection of two of these lines, the composition will feel more intentional and perhaps be more aesthetically pleasing (see image below).

There is more to framing and composition than the rule of thirds, but as non- fiction video makers, we dont have the luxury of meticulously planning out our shots to the extent that Leonardo da Vinci did when planning his paintings, using arabesque curves and dynamic symmetry. Using the rule of thirds can be a quick and easy way to make our composition feel more intentional.

Top tip: You can apply the rule of thirds to almost any type of visual media. It could help improve your slide presentations or even figures and science visualizations.

Example of rule of thirds. This image is composed using the rule of thirds, as you can see when grid lines are overlaid over the image. Photo credit: Pir6mon. CLick image for larger version.

3. Framing

For the type and style of videos we want to make as part of this guide, careful framing (choosing what to include and what to exclude from a shot) will have a greater visual impact on your video than trying to apply fancy composition techniques. For this guide, framing will be broken down into 4 main sub-categories:

3a. Video is shot in landscape, not portrait…most of the time

Smartphone screens are changing the way people are watching and shooting videos. People make vertically oriented videos and upload them to social media all the time. For many of those videos, the place where they are primarily viewed is on another phone, vertically. As we're sure that you have noticed, when those videos make their way onto horizontal screens like televisions and computer monitors they have to be accompanied by black borders to fill out the rest of the screen. Not only does this look terrible, but it reduces the size of the subject on screen. In the very near future, and depending on your audience, you may well be best advised to make a vertically oriented video that will only be seen on smartphone screens. But for now, it is best to to follow in the footsteps of every other great director of the silver screen and record horizontally.

3b. Background

Ask yourself what setting would be most relevant to your story? If you want to use audio from a particular shot, you will also have to think about how noisy the area is. The background should be relevant if possible, but definitely not distracting. When you have found your setting, it’s not a crime to tidy a few things or move the frame in order help get your message across. If your subject is small in frame then the rest of the frame or background should provide context to where the subject is. If there isn’t any useful context, or the background is too distracting, then consider moving the camera closer to the subject and filling the frame more with your subject. If you can see the horizon in the background, or any vertical things like trees, buildings etc, make sure your frame is level

3c. Shot size

How close your subject is to the camera has a subtle effect on the meaning of the shot. Wider shots where the subject is smaller in the frame give more context and place the subject in the scene. It’s a visual way of saying ‘this is where the subject of this shot does the thing I’m talking about’, which is why the background should be relevant. On the other hand, close up shots where the subject fills most or all of the frame says ‘pay attention to this detail’. Most movies and television shows use a combination of wide and closer shots of some scenes to help progress the story. This doesn’t mean that you need to show a wide and close up of everything in your video, but it might be useful to have the other shot size recorded, in case you need it later. It would be a good idea to at least record your A-roll, your main story driving footage, at two different shot sizes. It is a luxury if you have more than one camera to record your A-roll, but you can cheat a little bit by recording a few takes in one shot size and then changing to a slightly wider shot and doing a few more takes of the same script. Bare in mind that a super close up of someone talking can be intense. Sometimes this is good for short a short time to emphasize something, but too intense to stay very close for a long period of time. The classic ‘head and shoulders’ frame size is a comfortable shot size to use when we see a person talking on screen and probably as close as you want to get.

3d. Shot Angle

The angle you choose to shoot from also influences the meaning of a shot. The most neutral angle to shoot from is at the eye level of your subject. This is also why the best photos of animals and children are taken when the photographer gets down to their level, rather than shooting from above. When there’s someone talking on screen, It easily engages the viewer because this is the angle most of us have when we engage and communicate with other people.

Due to the fact that most of us spend most our lives looking from a specific range of angles, you can add emphasis and punctuation to a visual story by radically changing the angle you shoot to an extreme low or high angle. When we shoot people from a high angle, looking down on them, it can be flattering for your subject, but can also make them appear vulnerable or small. It can make the audience feel like they’re watching from a position of power like from a security camera, or on top of a structure. Conversely, shooting up at someone from a low angle can make a person on screen appear important or powerful, and the audience less powerful. This is why sports stars and celebrities are shot from a low angle sometimes, but it’s not always too flattering for every subject. We realize that the Gorillapod isn’t tall enough to reach eye level and higher on its own, but it is certainly versatile enough to attach to the back of a chair, stick, cabinet, tree, light fixture, TV, or a friend’s tripod to get the phone to the height you need. Don’t let the limitations of the equipment dictate the mood of your video.

Here’s a video we made that demonstrates some principles in composition, framing, and shot sizes:

4. Action!

Film has been described as a mercurial and ephemeral art form because at its center lies the moving image. Wherever you can, think about how you can capture movement in your subject. If your subject doesn’t move, move the camera as you record. Try up/down, left/right, and forwards/back, slowly, to draw your audience’s attention towards inanimate subjects. If you do move the camera, don’t include all directions in one take, but feel free to experiment and figure out which direction of movement best suits your inanimate subject.

If your subject is an immovable object, like a volcano (that isn’t erupting), or if your subject moves very slowly, like a plant, consider making a timelapse. Some new models of phone cameras support a timelapse mode. Failing that, there may be a timelapse camera app you can download. You can also just record video for an extended period of time and speed it up in the editing software later.

Here’s a tutorial on shooting timelapses on the iPhone:

The final additions you should make to your worksheets now are “notes” which describe how you want to shoot the shots you have listed in each section. This is really useful when you go out to get your material to make sure that you capture your footage the way you envisioned during this script making stage. Here is the our example worksheet with the notes added:

Script: Step 4 (Final)


Exercise One: Creating Your Video Planning Document

Following the instructions above, complete your video planning document. It is difficult to give an estimate of how long this will take, because the amount of time it takes can vary widely.

  1. Start by writing down the top line message for each section of your story arc.
  2. For each section, write your script as well as the emotional response you hope to engender with that section.
  3. Decide on the shots you want for each section of your script and add notes on how you will shoot them (shot size, angle, etc.).

Exercise Two: Record Video and Audio

Following the instructions above, record the video clips that you outlined in your video planning document. As before, it is difficult to give an estimate of how long this will take, but it is likely to be time consuming.

  1. Your script. If you are planning on having a script for your video, record yourself speaking your script. If you are not planning on being on camera, you can record just the audio (or you can shoot yourself speaking - it really doesn't matter). If you’re planning to be in your video, definitely shoot yourself speaking (this will be your A-roll). Make sure you have at least 4 good takes of each section (two takes in two different shot sizes, one wider, one closer). Do note that these script readings don't need to be perfect. You can fix many problems in the editing phase of this operation. Additionally, once you start editing, you'll probably discover that some of your script needs to be modified.
  2. Shoot the other clips that you'll need for your video.