Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Composition for Project-Based Learning Videos

Few could have predicted a day like the present in which almost everyone owns a device that can capture video. Many of us have smart phones in our pockets right now that allow us to capture video of anything happening around us. If you don't own a smart phone, you may have a video camera, iPad or other devices that can capture video. Because of the proliferation of such devices, many teachers are turning to project based learning experiences in which students create videos. In a previous post, I have discussed what project based learning is.

The best videos, however, are the ones that follow the rules of good video composition. In my book, Educational Technology for Teachers, I discuss some of these rules as follows. Students and teachers who create video can practice good composition even with the most rudimentary video equipment. Composition refers to the way that items are placed in the video shot in order to make meaning. Some important guidelines with regard to composition will be presented here.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a video composition guideline that states that the image being recorded should be divided into nine equal parts using two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines. Then the main subjects in a scene should be placed on one of these “1⁄3 lines” for a more interesting composition (Spannaus, 2012). For instance, a landscape shot should not place the horizon line (one of the main subjects of the shot) right in the center of the image, but should instead place the horizon line on or near one of the horizontal 1⁄3 lines. A person standing in a shot should be placed on one of the vertical 1⁄3 lines. Following the rule of thirds leads to more interesting and satisfying video and photo compositions.

Nose Room

Nose room (or lead room) should be considered for video shots that feature a person or moving object. Nose room means giving adequate on-camera space in front of a person’s nose or in front of a moving object. For an on-camera person, the space in front of the person’s nose should be more than the space behind their head (Spannaus, 2012). For a moving object, the space in front of the moving object should be more than the space behind it. Adequate nose room in a shot gives the viewer a sense of satisfaction or direction, while a lack of nose room may make the viewer feel uneasy. The rule of thirds can help guide the placement of a person or object in a shot so that it has the right amount of nose room.

The 180 Degree Rule

Video professionals follow the 180 degree rule when shooting video of a conversation or other interaction between two people. If two people are in a scene, there is an imaginary line that connects and continues beyond them. The 180 degree rule tells us that the cameras that are shooting video of the two people must not cross this imaginary line. As long as the cameras stay on one side of the line the resulting shots will make the characters look like they are talking to each other and not away from each other. If the camera shoots elements of the scene from opposite sides of the imaginary line, then the result is disorienting for a viewer. The people look as if they are looking away from each other as they hold a conversation.

Head Room

Head room refers to the amount of room above a person’s head in a shot. Good video compositions leave little room above the head of people and other subjects. Amateur video producers often make the mistake of leaving a lot of room above people’s heads, which results in uninteresting compositions.

Camera Handling

Students and teachers who create video should also practice good camera handling techniques. Good camera handling means making sure that the camera is still or that it only moves in smooth, even motions. Placing the camera on a tripod will help to make sure it stays still or that its movement is even and smooth. Handheld shooting should be avoided because this type of camera handling produces unnecessarily shaky shots that can disorient viewers. These techniques also should be used even if the camera is a smartphone or tablet computer. When using a smartphone or tablet computer to shoot video, students and teachers should also hold the device “sideways” in a landscape direction rather than in a portrait direction for better composition.


Devices that can capture video are everywhere, but most people who shoot video don't do a good job of composing shots to make meaning. Most student-created videos are low quality and do a poor job of putting forth a clear message. These elements of video composition should be taught to students who create video so that they know how to make quality video projects.


Spannaus, T. (2012). Creating video for trainers and teachers: Producing professional video with amateur equipment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


  1. Don't forget one of the most important rules for those using the ubiquitous smartphones. Shoot horizontal, not vertical. Unfortunately, until smartphone manufacturers start making phones shoot horizontal even when the phones are held in the more comfortable vertical position, it is up to us to remember and remind others to say no to vertical videos.

  2. I totally agree. My students never seem to remember this even if I tell them to shoot horizontally. So now I have resorted to having them go out and shoot video, then I tell them they did it wrong. That seems to work.