Visual content is nothing without some organizing principle or structure. Composition is mostly about setting boundaries and simplifying what we present, what we make visible to the others, so this principle becomes visible.

Aspiring photographers are urged to study the great masters of the trade to improve their composition, use of light and color, and capacity to convey emotions and ideas. You can learn something from people such as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry, Sebastião Salgado anytime.

But cinematography is also a great place to learn composition, storytelling and expression of mood and emotion. And some directors have perfected their composition to the point where movie stills could stand on their own, as great photographs. Akira Kurosawa is one of them.

Below, a ronin (samurai without a master) prepares for a fight. We do not see his opponent. The focus is on the samurai and his way of dealing with a situation. His posture indicates readiness and calm. The background is specific enough to indicate the context (rural Japan), but discreet enough not to intrude on what is happening front stage.

Image may contain: 1 person
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

The stage is set. There is dramatic tension created by the contrast between the calm and self-aware attitude of the samurai and his martial position. There is movement. The camera stays at the level of his head, reinforcing the sense of focus. Kurosawa puts him in the centre. All the rest, from the opponent to other characters and to props, is just helping to tell his story.

In this scene, the ronin manages to solve a difficult situation, using his intelligence rather than his fighting skills. A young guy who happened to watch the whole thing is so impressed with him that he insists on becoming his disciple.

The ronin replies:
“You embarrass me. You’re overestimating me. Listen, I’m not a man with any special skill, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that’s all I am. Drop such an idea for your own good.”

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