Composition III - Storytelling

Siwa Vetvik-Ellefsen

Your camera has to capture a feeling, a message, and compositional storytelling is your tool.

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Play Composition III Storytelling.mp4

Part 1 and Part 2 of this little series, cover the technicalities of composition. How to make the image something of order and intent, as opposed to a visual mess. It revolves around respecting the viewer’s eye. The third part of composition is story, and that’s where you respect the viewer’s mind. This is where your creativity comes in, and the actual fun begins. It’s your chance to use a visual medium for what it’s worth.

Sure, you’ve lead the viewer’s eye to your subject successfully. But, what are you saying about her purely through how she’s arranged in the shot? What emotional cues are the audience supposed to pick up through your composition?

 She’s in shadow: “Ooooh, maybe she’s a villain?”

 She’s small in a big landscape: “I think that woman feels vulnerable.”

 She’s big and centered. “Wow, she’s probably powerful.”

The audience asks their why’s. So, you should have your answers straight: 

  • Why is the camera moving?
  • Why is it stationary?
  • Why are there diagonal lines?
  • Why is there a reflection?
  • Why is the subject placed so close to the edge of frame?

All of this is juicy storytelling territory, and it can be explored in depth. Which is exactly what's done in Lewis Criswell's video on Composition In Storytelling. (Highly recommend it).

But as the possibilities are endless on how you can layer your story with composition, it can also be overwhelming. Plus, audience interpretation is not a black and white thing. Different people will read into shots differently. This is where theory gets abstract after all. To avoid confusion, let’s take ten steps back and simplify what we're saying:

How you compose your shot will affect how the audience interprets its story.

Your job then, is to know exactly what that story is, so you can choose what elements to include and how, giving the audience a clear idea of your intended direction.