Most students watch Netflix, movies or television and don’t consider that there is a ton of thought behind every single shot. There’s an intellectual barrier that needs to be broken to realize that everything we watch is created and crafted. Students typically just point the camera at something and film it, hoping for comprehensive coverage of a scene. Begin to turn students into cinematographers with this lesson on framing.


The frame is our canvas. The beginning of film composition starts with getting to know our frame.

First off, how are frames typically laid out? Consider how smartphone videos are shot vertically instead of horizontally. Consider the square photos of Instagram, the vertical videos of Snapchat, or the horizontal videos of movie screens. Canvasses are measured in inches or distance. Our frames and screens are measured in pixels, little dots of color information. The resolution of a video is expressed like this: 1920x1080.

The 1920 is the horizontal number of pixels across a screen. The 1080 is the vertical pixels. The typical television show right now is shot in this resolution. That means we have 2,073,600 pixels to work with on our canvas. Like a painter, we want to make the most of them. The higher percentage of pixels that are used to achieve the objective of the shot, the better.

When taking pictures, students tend to default to centering whatever’s most important (if it’s a person, it’s usually the head). They also tend to zoom out pretty far, oftentimes placing feet at the bottom and the head in the center. Show how that’s not using as many pixels as possible to achieve the objective of the shot. Show how placing the tip of a head at the top of the screen “maximizes” more pixels. Zooming in, or inserting well-placed background scenery, does even better.

To drive this home, have the students search for images of Barack Obama and analyze which percentage of the pixels serve a purpose, and how he is framed. Like this one:


Barack fills a high percentage of the screen, and his appearance is maximized from the flag pin to his well-groomed suit. The flag on the left makes even more pixels relevant, and the out-of-focus flowers accentuate Barack (contrasting his being in focus) and gives additional elegance to the shot.


Find a scene of a show you like. As you’re going to go into painstaking detail analyzing each shot of the film, pick a short scene. Analyze every single shot. Consider the following questions when analyzing:

Why this camera angle? What emotion does the director want the viewer to feel? What emotion does the character seem to be feeling, because of the camera angle? What is the purpose of the scene? How does the cinematography contribute to the effect of the video?

Have the students screen the videos to the class, and answer these questions.

Project Tie-In

The first shot of a video is extremely important—it sets the tone for the remainder of the video. Have students plan out the first frame of their conversation project. By writing or drawing, plan out the shot’s composition—how much of the screen will the actors take up? Where should it take place? What background elements—props, scenery—should there be, and how should they be arranged? How will they frame the shot to “maximize” the number of pixels?