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Media & Design Center - Labs, Software & Equipment: Video Concepts

Framing and Composition

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental strategies for composing well-balanced images. It's a guide for composition that divides the canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. You can use these guiding lines as a template for arranging elements within your composition.

Here are some examples:

An example of the rule of thirds         An example of the rule of thirds

In each of these images the rule of thirds is used to strategically place strong visual elements. In the first example, the figure in the foreground and the horizon in the background fall along the dividing lines, while in the second example the thirds help balance the image by using the water to frame the centered rock. Using the rule of thirds can help you create visually interesting images that are balanced and images that draw the viewer’s eye to the most significant elements within your composition.



Headroom is the amount of space between the top of the person’s head and the top of the frame. A lot of headroom will make the shot appear spacious, while no headroom will make the shot seem cramped. Generally, you should aim to leave some space between the top of your subject’s head and the frame, but not too much. A standard approach to headroom is to position the subject's eyes along the Rule of Thirds about 1/3 of the way down from the top of the image. Experimenting with different amounts of headroom can create feelings of isolation or claustrophobia for the viewer.

Here are some examples:

Very closeup headshot of a man Medium, well-positioned interview shot of a man Wide-frame shot of a man with lots of background visible

The photo on the left leaves no headroom or comfortable viewing space, while the photo on the right contains an excess of headroom that makes the subject appear small and isolated within the frame. The center photograph leaves an appropriate amount of headroom to create a balanced image and comfortable feeling.


Lead Room

Lead room is the open space within the frame that allows the viewer to follow the direction of the subject’s gaze or movement. In the examples below, you will notice a difference when lead room is created in the shot and when there is no lead room for the viewer’s eye to follow where the subject is looking or moving.

Here are some examples:

Cheetah running in a close-cropped frame                Cheetah running into empty frame space

Close-cropped photo of man shooting pictures                Man shooting photographs into empty space

The images on the left do not give enough lead room for the viewer to follow the subject's movement or gaze, while the images on the right allow enough lead room to see where the subject is moving or looking.

White Balance

What is white balance?

Sources of light vary in degrees of color temperature. For example, fluorescent lights are cooler and green, while incandescent lights are warmer and orange. The color of an object will reflect these cooler and warmer tones when viewed under different light sources. The chart below shows the color temperature of different light sources in degrees Kelvin (K).

Scale of light and temperatures

The human brain naturally processes these differences in color temperature to keep a “white” object appearing white to our eyes under different lighting conditions. However, digital cameras need to be told what “white” looks like under different sources of light. In the camera's white balance menu, you’ll find preset adjustments that add warmer or cooler tones to your image. Here is a list of some example presets and the types of tone they add to the image.

Descriptions of common camera white balance settings

Adjusting White Balance

You can use the camera’s preset options to adjust the color temperature of your image. For example, the images below move from a cooler tungsten preset, to a neutral automatic white balance setting, to a warmer preset.

The auto white balance setting gives a fairly accurate representation of how the color white should appear in the image. However, you may want to use manual settings to achieve the most accuracy, or to achieve a desired stylistic effect.

a picture of Portland, OR in cool white balancea picture of Portland, OR in neutral white balancea picture of Portland, OR in warm white balance


Three-point lighting

A three-point lighting setup can add greater depth and dimensionality to your image by using light and shadow to highlight your subject and make them stand out from the background. A good lighting setup can give a three-dimensional appearance to a two-dimensional image.


Light Sources

As the name suggests, three-point lighting setups comprise three important lights of different types: the key lightfill light, and back light. Although not every situation will require all three for adequate lighting, including each of the following lights will allow for the most consistency and flexibility. 


Key Light

This is the primary and brightest light cast on your subject. The key light is typically placed at the side of the camera at a 45-degree angle. You can achieve a variety of lighting styles by experimenting with the key light in different locations, angles, and heights.


Fill Light

This is typically 50-75% less bright than the key light. The fill light is typically placed on the opposite side of the camera from the key light and is used to fill in the shadow created by the key light on your subject. You can adjust how much light it throws by moving the light further from or closer to your subject. The fill light should not create a second shadow from your subject. If you see a second shadow, the fill light is too bright and needs to be adjusted.


Back Light

This is used to add definition and highlight the outline of your subject, creating a three-dimensional appearance within the two-dimensional surface of the image. The back light separates your subject from its background. It is typically placed behind and above your subject at a 45-degree angle.


Media & Design Center Staff

The Media & Design Center staff are available to answer your questions on using equipment, finding films, and creating posters or podcasts!  

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