Shot Composition

Shot Composition

Approximate 11 minute read

An often discussed topic among church video tech people is the matter of shot composition.  How much headroom is appropriate? Do the Rule of Thirds apply for all shots in all situations? Is shot composition solely a matter of individually and aesthetically pleasing shots strung together sequentially … or should the production team be cognizant and therefore make composition decisions contingent on shots directly preceding or setting up those shots which will follow? How much nose room is appropriate? How tight of a shot is too tight?

Rather than offer my personal opinions regarding these topics a more academic and empirical approach may be to look for common trends found on high production value secular and religious programming, identifying commonalities and thereby determining industry standards and best practices.

Any discussion of shot composition should begin with defining of our terms. Shot composition refers to the image’s frame and how the elements of a scene appear within it. Shot composition is equally impacted by a lens’ field of view as the placement of the subject – our point of interest – within the frame.  Lastly but equally important, well composed shots are created by operators who are intentional regarding what foreground or background objects are included or excluded in the frame as well as the positioning of these objects.

Field of View, abbreviated “FoV,” is the total observable area a camera operator allows into a frame for the audience to perceive. Focal length, the vertical and horizontal angles by which a lens captures light combined with a given subject-to-camera distance determines our field of view.

Fields of view have industry-accepted terms and abbreviations associated with them. Before we get started on shot composition, let’s review FoV basics:

ECU / XCU / Extreme Closeup

Extreme Closeup shot (abbreviated “ECU” or “XCU”): A field of view typically smaller than the vertical height of someone’s head. ECU’s are sometimes used for talent, or to highlight a prop or product the talent may be holding or referring to. In a church service context examples of ECUs may be shots of a congregant’s or worship leader’s raised hand.


CloseUp / CU / Headshot

Closeup shot (abbreviated “CU”): A field of view typically about 12″ vertically in height, also referred to as a head shot. CU’s are sometimes used for lead vocalist or solo instrumentalist shots, reaction shots, or highlighting a prop or product.


Medium Closeup / MCU / Bust Shot

Medium Closeup shot (abbreviated “MCU”): A field of view typically about 18″ in height vertically, also sometimes referred to as a bust shot. Both Medium Closeup and Medium shots are the primary fields of view used for the presenter / teacher / preacher, lead vocalists and musicians, announcements and testimonials. MCUs allow viewers to clearly see the subject’s eyes and facial expressions while also being wide enough to capture some environment or objects a subject may be holding.


Medium / MED / Waist Shot

Medium shot (abbreviated “MED”): A field of view typically about 30″ in height vertically, also referred to as a waist shot, from the top of the subject’s head to the subject’s belt-line. Like Medium Closeup shots, Medium shots are the primary fields of view used for presenters / teachers / preachers, lead vocalists and musicians, or during announcements or testimonials. Medium shots, (like MCUs) allow viewers to clearly see the subject’s eyes and facial expressions while being wide enough to capture the environment or to allow the presenter to move around a bit laterally before leaving the frame.


Medium Wide Shot / MWS / Head-to-Knees

Medium Wide shot (abbreviated “MWS”): A field of view typically about 48-54″ in height vertically, also referred to as a head to knees shot. Medium Wide shots are the primary FoV for two people positioned very close to each other, or for a presenter who may have a large on-camera prop – such as an on-stage “teacher’s TV” screen. Medium Wide shots are not as effective for communicating facial expression as tight-follow MEDs and MCUs, however that negative may be offset by the advantage gained from the audience being able to see a presenter’s on-stage speaker-support graphics. Medium Wide (and Wide) loose-follow shots are also commonly used when a presenter is moving around the stage.


Wide / WS / Head to Toe

Wide shot (abbreviated “WS”): A field of view typically about six to seven feet in height vertically, also sometimes referred to as a head to toe shot. A WS is tighter or closer-in than a Extreme Wide shot. Wide shots and Medium Wide shots are the primary “loose-follow” cover views for presenters / teachers / preachers. Wide shots communicate body language well and also include an ample view of the presenters environment, especially upstage of the presenter. Depending on the height of the stage, if any, wide shots may also offer the added benefit of allowing viewers to see the spatial relationship between the presenter and the live audience.


Extreme Wide / EWS / XWS

Extreme Wide shot (abbreviated “EWS” or “XWS”): A field of view typically at (or near) the optical extreme wide angle focal length the camera’s lens may deliver. Where a WS is typically that FoV necessary to accommodate a standing human, a EWS is that field of view necessary to accommodate or establish the relevant environment.


Medium Two Shot

Medium Two Shot (abbreviated “MEDx2” or “MED2S”): Similar to a MED, a Medium Two shot is a field of view typically about 30″ (or so) in height vertically, from the top of the tallest subject’s heads to the tallest subject’s belt-line.


Medium Wide Two Shot

Medium Wide Two Shot (abbreviated “MWSx2” or “MW2S”): Similar to a MWS, a Medium Wide Two shot is a field of view from the top of the tallest subject’s head to the tallest subject’s knees.


Wide Two Shot

Wide Two Shot (abbreviated “WSx2” or “W2S”): Similar to a WS, a Wide Two shot is a field of view from the top of the tallest subject’s head to the bottom of the tallest subject’s feet.


Extreme Wide Two Shot

Extreme Wide Two Shot (abbreviated “EWSx2” or “EW2S”): Similar to a EWS, a Extreme Wide Two shot is a field of view typically at (or near) the optical extreme wide angle focal length the camera’s lens may deliver. Where a WSx2 is typically that FoV necessary to accommodate two standing humans, a EWSx2 is that field of view necessary to accommodate or establish two standing humans and the relevant environment.


The need for a common understanding regarding these terms becomes apparent when there is a group of people on stage.

For example, if the video director asks a camera operator for “a Medium of ‘pockets and bag,'” he/she is asking for a shot of the first two people on the (camera) left, framed from the top of the male’s (person #1) head to their belt line. To achieve that frame part of “flat-top” (person #3) may wind up in the shot.  Whereas if the director requests “a two-shot of ‘pockets and bag, only,” then the implication is to crop out Mr. Flat-top by decreasing the field of view as may be required while still framing the first two people.

[Note: the use of identifying nick-names, especially when the entire production team may not be familiar with a group of talent’s given names is often much quicker than asking a cameraman to count and then shoot say person #6.  This becomes especially relevant when the group is moving around on stage as often occurs during a musical performance.  Once the production team is familiar with the technique of using nick-names: for example “pockets,” “bag,” “flat-top,” “glasses,” “earrings,” “Minaj hair,” and “fedora hat;” the team can maintain a faster pace as well as participate in a process that can be entertaining while alleviating stress.]

Practical Examples

Now that we have the basics down, let’s look at some practical real world examples of live multi-camera production shot composition.

Shot composition, particularly as it pertains to the rule of thirdsand nose room, is very much dependent on where the camera is located in the room and thus the camera’s role in the production.  In this regard it’s helpful to categorize our cameras as “primary” or “secondary.”

Primary cameras, whether at concerts, televised entertainment specials or for religious broadcasts typically serve in a “tight-follow” and “loose-follow” role.  If you are unfamiliar with the “tight-follow” / “loose-follow” concept, I suggest reviewing the controlbooth.tv article, Camera Locations.

Tight-follow and loose-follow cameras are the fundamental shots utilized for principle talent (the preacher, teacher, lead-vocalist, host, etc.) in a production.  The tight-follow and loose-follow cameras are always positioned at eye-level to the subject and perpendicular to the subject’s shoulder-line.  Many times this requires primary cameras to be placed along the center-line of the venue.  The most common tight-follow fields of view are the MCU (Medium Closeup) and MED (Medium Shot).  Typical loose-follow fields of view include MWS (Medium Wide) and WS (Wide Shots).

Tight Follow

Tight Follow – Medium Close up

Here we see Andy Stanley.  North Point Community Church’s tight-follow shot composition is typically a MCU (Medium Close up) shot.  When Andy is drawing attention to his on-stage video monitor the camera shot and field of view changes to a loose-follow MWS (Medium Wide).  However when Andy is not referencing his on-stage video monitor the shot is his tight-follow framed as a MED or MCU (Medium to Medium Close up) … or a “split” between these two framings.

Note that the camera is located perpendicular to the subject’s shoulder-line and is at eye-level.  The subject is framed center with approximately 6% headroom.  The shot does not follow “rule of thirds” theory – the prescription to frame the subject along one of the vertical 1/3rd graticule lines, with the subject’s eyes placed on the top horizontal graticule.  Primary camera tight-follow (and loose-follow) shots are instead always symmetrically balanced and centered horizontally.  The vertical placement (the headroom amount) is generally subject to the field of view of the frame,  meaning the tighter the shot the less headroom is given.

Here we see another tight-follow MCU (Medium Close up) example, this time Steven Furtick from Elevation Church.

Just like the Andy Stanley example above, the camera is perpendicular to the subject’s shoulder-line and is at eye-level.  The subject is framed center with 6% headroom.

Next we see comedian Donald Glover.  The shot is captured from Comedy Central’s tight-follow camera and the framing is a MCU (Medium Close up).

Like the Andy Stanley and Steven Furtick examples, the camera is perpendicular to the subject’s shoulder-line and is at eye-level.  The subject is framed center with about 6% headroom.

What if the principle is not someone speaking but is instead a singer?  Here is Rihanna from the Global Citizen Festival which airs on MSNBC.

As we see, all the same principles noted previously apply. The MCU is centered, the camera is at eye-level and the shot has about 6% headroom.

Let’s move on to MED (Medium) tight-follow shots:

Here we see a tight-follow MED (Medium) FoV with Greg Laurie, Harvest Christian Fellowship.

The MED is centered, eye-level and in this case has about 6.5% headroom.

Here is another Greg Laurie MED (Medium) shot.

In this case the headroom is about 8%. As FoV becomes wider, headroom increases slightly.

Loose Follow

As mentioned above, When Andy Stanley references his teaching video monitor, North Point’s video director cuts to Andy’s loose-follow shot, a MWS (Medium Wide).

This is for all practical purposes “a two-shot” with the screen and the talent. One may assume the reason they use a MWS (Medium Wide) versus a WS (Wide) shot is the tighter framing of the MWS allows content on the teaching monitor to be the largest and most legible possible on Imag projection screens within the auditorium and for the viewer at home (some who may be viewing on small mobile devices) while still maintaining Andy’s presence in the frame.

Here are examples of other loose-follow MWS (Medium Wide) shots.  This one with Steven Furtick.

And here is a loose-follow MWS with Greg Laurie.

The other typical loose-follow framing is a WS (Wide) shot.  Here we see Comedy central’s Donald Glover’s loose-follow WS (Wide) shot:

And here is Elevation Church’s Steven Furtick’s loose-follow WS (Wide) shot:

Note that the vertical positioning of a WS (Wide) shot is often subject to what is being prioritized aside from the subject.  In the Furtick WS example the speaker’s relationship to the congregation is prioritized.  In other cases upstage scenic elements including content that may appear on upstage projection screens is prioritized instead requiring the camera operator to tilt up vertically.

Tight-Follow / Loose-Follow Exceptions

What are some examples of tight-follow / loose-follow framing exceptions?  Here is Nathan Lane accepting an award at the Tony’s:

Note the intentionally excessive headroom on this MED (Medium) shot.  While Nathan is only 5’5″ tall, the framing is not due to his stature but rather the fact that the upstage portrait-perspective video monitors contain the name of the play for which he was winning the award. 

After showing Lane in a MED with the excessive headroom the television director then cuts to loose-follow WS and back to the tight-follow MED, now reframed for normal headroom.

Tight-follow MED / MCU split, framed for correct headroom

Secondary Cameras

Essentially, all cameras other than the tight-follow and loose-follow can be considered “secondary cameras.”  Since the tight-follow and loose-follow cameras cover (nearly) all fields of view occuring on center-line, secondary cameras are often positioned well off the venue’s center, as for example high/wide establishing shots, “slash cameras” (approximately 30-60 degrees off center-line), low angle downstage lip cameras, high angle, off-stage profile perspectives of the talent and upstage reversals or audience shots.

Here we have a EWS (Extreme Wide) shot from U2’s performance on the Grammy Awards (CBS).  Note that the composition balances the frame not only for the two foreground subjects (Bono and Edge, both near rule of thirds graticule lines) but also between the two featured upstage objects, the Statue of Liberty and the LED wall.

Here is a EWS (Extreme Wide) shot from Elevation Church.  Note that unlike the U2 EWS the Elevation EWS has only one principle subject – Furtick – framed on the left vertical graticule, while the framing also features the large upstage projection screen and the congregation / audience.  EWS shots not only establish the viewer regarding the environment but also can effectively communicate credibility if displaying a packed audience (“hey, many hundreds of people got up this morning to go listen to him, maybe I should too?”).

Here is a EWS (Extreme Wide) shot from the Golden Globes Award show.  Unlike the Elevation example, here the priority is only the host and the audience (not the set or screens).

This EWS also illustrates another interesting point.  “The story” at all award shows is the emotive reactions given by award winners, nominees and their friends and associates.  To get these reaction shots it is often necessary to put handheld cameras in the house.  Can you count how many crew members are in this EWS?

I count ten TV crew members and two still photographers!  Will the viewers at home notice?  This screen grab illustrates the value of having crew “in blacks” and minimizing their movement while wider shots are on line.

Next we see a “slash angle” MWS (medium wide) two-shot from PBS’ Great Performances.  Note that the shot has about 9% headroom and (due to the position of the camera well off both the center-line and the talent’s shoulder line) there is ample nose room framed despite the fact that the nose room creates “negative” space (there is no featured subject or lit background elements downstage of the microphones in the frame).

Here we see a MCU from a profile angle, again from PBS’ Great Performances.  Note that Chris Botti is framed further left than the slash angle in the example above with even greater nose / negative space than the Moody Blues example.  This is because the camera’s off-center-line location and off-perpendicular relative to the talent’s shoulder line position is greater than the slash caera’s location above.

Summary

• It is important to be intentional not only regarding where the subject is positioned in the frame, but also headroom, nose room and what foreground and background objects are included or excluded from the shot’s composition.

• When a camera is located on-center line (e.g.: tight or loose follow positions), compositions are typically center balanced, meaning the subject is framed horizontally center.  If the talent turns their shoulders away from perpendicular to the camera the shot’s composition should be adjusted for added nose room.  If the talent is in motion walking off-stage, the shot’s composition should include lead-room in the direction the talent is facing / moving.

• When a camera is located off-center line (e.g.: secondary cameras in slash, profile or reversal positions), compositions typically put the subject – our point of interest – off center in the frame with nose room in the direction the talent is looking.  The amount of nose room is commensurate to how much off-centerline the camera is located and how far off-perpendicular the talent’s shoulders are. Further away from center-line typically entails greater nose or lead room.  Closer to center-line typically means less nose or lead room.

• Tight-follow and loose-follow shots, therefore primary cameras tend to be vertically positioned at eye level for the talent.  Secondary shots have more flexibility regarding the camera’s vertical positioning.  Low angle (the camera is below eye-line) shots tend to communicate the subject is in a position of power / authority / importance whereas high angle shots (the camera is above eye-line) may communicate the subject is vulnerable, weak or disadvantaged.

• Especially when transitioning to or from a secondary off-centerline cameras, consider placing the subject’s position in the frame – our point of interest – in the negative space left from the previous shot’s field of view on-line.  When transitioning from a secondary camera angle to another secondary camera angle, avoid having the point of interest in the same framing location shot to shot.

• The amount of headroom to be used is roughly commensurate to the field of view.  Tighter shots have less headroom.  Wider shots may have greater headroom.  MCU (Medium close up) shots generally have about 6% headroom, roughly equivalent to an apple above the subject’s hairline.  MED (Medium) shots tend to have 7-8% headroom.  CU shots will often have the top of the frame on or near the hair line. ECU shots (of a face) may have the top of the frame cutting across the forehead.

Title photo attribution – Geir Tønnessen

The original version of this post was published August 23, 2018.

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