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The Quadrant System: A Simple Composition Technique Explained

By Justin Heyes on February 7th 2015

If you know anything about composition, you may have heard of the Rule of Thirds. This grid divided into 9 segments can help with eye level, head space, converging lines and countless other uses; it is a simple reference tool to help create aesthetically pleasing shots time and time again. Inside the the Rule of Thirds grid, there are quadrants – Right, Left, Top, and Bottom – and when used unconventionally, help to make your scene come alive. In the following video, Every Frame a Painting, analyzes the use of quadrants in the 2011 film Drive.


In the video review, Tony Zhou discusses how director Nicolas Winding Refn creates scenes that tell two parallel stories without the use of exposition just by using simple composition. An example is a simple scene like the two leads walking down a hall. A shot like this can be take it or leave it, but Refn doesn’t waist film or use exposition. The shot establishes the relationship between the two lead characters. So much is being told in this scene that you are constantly engaged.


[REWIND:3 Tips For Video Composition | From Stills to Motion]

Using this technique can establish rivalries. By keeping the the two actors in the same quadrant they fight for dominance and try to control the scene. As the sequence plays out, we see that one actor remains while the other is visually diminished in the frame.

The Quadrant System

In the single frames of photography, we can use quadrants to tell two stores at once, though not as easily as film. We can show subtle emotions through the uses of body language; how people hold themselves as a person and in the frame. Think about your composition and your subjects. Do they dominate the frame?

For more about composition and Rule of Thirds check out Chapter 5 of our Photography 101 course.

[Via FstoppersEvery Frame A Painting / Images screen captures]

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Justin Heyes wants to live in a world where we have near misses and absolute hits; great love and small disasters. Starting his career as a gaffer, he has done work for QVC and The Rachel Ray Show, but quickly fell in love with photography. When he’s not building arcade machines, you can find him at local flea markets or attending car shows.

Explore his photographic endeavors here.

Website: Justin Heyes
Instagram: @jheyesphoto

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Aku Pöllänen

    Definitely an interesting article and video! I don’t personally shoot video but I think I can take something out from this to my still photography.

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    • Gareth Roughley

      Summed it up mate. Definitely some aspects to composition I had not considered before but definitely will in the future

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  2. Kayode Olorunfemi

    Tony Zhou is the man, if you want more breakdown of film principles you can check out his vimeo or youtube channel. Really love the simple way he explains the almost invisible art these filmmakers add to make their work exceptional.

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  3. Peter Nord

    Always interested in compositional techniques, my students liked this.

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  4. Chuck Eggen

    Great tips!

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    • Chuck Eggen

      After reviewing my photographs I find I’ve been doing this quite often. Interesting that something I was doing and has been criticized by a few peers is actually a technique gaining ground in video. Think I’ll stick with it.

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    • Kayode Olorunfemi

      @Chuck – Creatives will always have a difference of opinion, for instance am not a big fan of processing images as I am more of making thinks look natural (I guess its because I am primarily a filmmaker) but that does not discount the artistry some photographers use to do fantastic fantasy work. Its up to you to know why you are using those techniques as long as its either earning you a living or scratching a creative itch.

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  5. Brandon Dewey

    great video

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