Keeping it Reel

3 Rules Every Beginning Cinematographer Needs to Know

In the world of cinematography, there are no rules.

I know, it’s surprising to hear that with a title like “3 Rules Every Beginning Cinematographer Should Know,” but it is true. Just like you have probably experienced in science and math class, when a teacher says the word “rule,” what they really mean is “guideline.” They say rule because until you know your stuff, you should follow it.

Well, cinematography is know different. If you are just starting out as a filmmaker, you absolutely NEED to know these three rules. Learn them, memorize them, master them – and then break them. Here they are:



Rule 1: 180 Degree Rule

The 180-degree rule exists to maintain a consistent directional relationship between two or more characters on screen. Imagine that you’re filming a scene with two people. According to the 180-degree rule, you should draw a straight line between your two characters when you start filming. Once you place your camera on one side of that straight line, you should never cross it (there are exceptions).

Why? Crossing this line will confuse the audience. Take a look at the image below. If you cross the line, your audience will essentially see the images in the top corners of this picture.  One second they will see Character A on the left and Character B on the right, and the next second, they will see Character A on the right and Character B on the left. If you want to maintain a consistent viewing experience for your audience, you generally need to follow this rule.

One common exception to this rule is when you are filming a character who is disoriented or perhaps in a dreamlike state. Disorienting and confusing the audience by crossing the line is okay in this instance because you want your audience to understand how your character is feeling. This video points out a few other exceptions to the rule and ways around it, if you are interested in learning more.

Rule 2: The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is used in both photography and cinematography to make photos and shots more interesting. It works like this: Take an individual frame or photo and draw two evenly spaced vertical and horizontal lines on it (like a tic-tac-toe board). Once you have your lines, the object, space or character of most interest in your photo or frame should align with the points at which your horizontal and vertical lines intersect. Take the image below for example. The figure in this frame is not dead center. Instead, the cinematographer put the figure on one of the vertical lines with the head and knees placed at the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines.

Why adhere to this rule? Studies have shown that when people view images, their eyes naturally drift to these intersections rather than the center of the shot. The rule of thirds plays into this natural inclination. In cinematography, the rule of thirds allows filmmakers to create balance and to give context.


Rule 3: Head Room and Nose Room (aka Leading Room)

Alright, so this one isn’t so much a rule as it is a technical practice of shooting. When you are filming, you should always account for two things: head room (the space between your subjects head and the top of the frame) and nose room (the space between the subject’s nose and the frame where the subject is facing).

If you don’t account for enough head room, you can cut off the top of your subjects head or give the audience the feeling that your subject is slipping out of the frame. If you give too much, your subject can appear awkwardly small. A good practice for obtaining the perfect amount of head room is to align your subject’s eyes 2/3 of the way up the frame.

Nose room is important for a similar reason. The amount of nose room you give is related to the positioning you want your subject to have. Things like the subject’s focus or an anticipation of movement will directly affect how much nose room you have. Take the images below. In image 1, we get the impression that our subject is having a conversation with someone directly out of frame. There is enough space for this to feel natural. However, in image 2, our subject is pulled to the right of the frame, eliminating the context of conversation and making our subject appear somewhat awkward and unnatural.

Image 1                                                                                          Image 2

Rules are meant to be broken

As I said in my introduction, rules essentially don’t exist, guidelines do. Get to know these guidelines and when you understand them to their very cores, decide whether or not you should be breaking them and always have a reason for doing so.

Until that day comes, spend your time learning a few other things about the world of cinematography. For example, what types of careers are open to someone studying cinematography (you know, besides the basic answer of cinematographer)? You can download our Film Career Guide right now to find out, as well as explore the careers other film studies could lead to! Just click below to get started.

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