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The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition Paperback – September 1, 2010

4.6 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Gustavo Mercado on The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition

Dear Amazon Readers,

Although there are other books out there that deal with the principles of visual composition, I always wanted to have a guide that specialized in the specific requirements that are inherent to the composition of shots intended for telling stories with moving images, also known as cinematic composition. The reason for the differentiation is simple: the composition of shots for movies has developed its own set of conventions, sometimes appropriating concepts from other art forms (like painting or still photography), but also creating its own aesthetic principles and visual language because of its unique characteristics (the fixed size of the frame, the movement of the subject and/or camera, the technology used to capture images, the way images are shown in conjunction with other images, etc.).

As you can probably guess, I never found such a guide, so I decided to write The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition to fill the gap in this critical area of filmmaking. This book combines, for the first time, a specialized, focused guide to the most common and basic shots of the film vocabulary, from the extreme close up to the extreme long shot (also including chapters on the over the shoulder, macro, establishing, and moving camera shots). The Filmmaker’s Eye examines the main aspects that make these shots work: the rules of cinematic composition used in their creation, the techniques and equipment necessary to implement them, and their most common narrative function as shown in examples from mainstream, independent, and world cinema. This approach allows you to understand not only why a particular shot type is usually composed in a certain way, but also how it is used to convey meaning and how to shoot it whether you are working on film or HD video.

It is my sincerest wish that this book will help deepen your understanding of cinematic composition, whether you are on a film shoot setting up your next shot, or just enjoying one of your favorite movies. Have fun!

--Gustavo Mercado

Amazon Exclusive: Top Ten Tips from Gustavo Mercado to Improve Your Cinematic Compositions
  • Use a director’s viewfinder, a still camera, or any other instrument that allows you to create a frame to see the world around you. Good compositions work not only because of what is included in the frame, but also because of what is left out of it. Using any device (even your hands) to create a frame will allow you to train your eye and better understand the visual relationships of the elements contained within it.
  • Know what your lenses can and cannot do. The lens you choose can radically alter the visual relationships between elements in your frame; understanding how different lenses affect space, the look of your subjects, and the amount of light you can work with is fundamental if you want to have complete control over your images.
  • Use depth of field as a creative element of your composition. Choosing what is in and out of focus is one of the most powerful ways to control the information contained in your frame, and therefore shape what an audience gets out of your compositions.
  • Have a clear understanding behind the narrative function of your composition. A good storyteller knows how to emphasize certain moments in a story and details in a frame. It is imperative that you understand the dramatic purpose behind the moment you are capturing so that you can arrange the visual elements within the frame accordingly. Ask yourself: what do I want the audience to get out of this particular shot and how can I make it express that?
  • Know the basic rules of composition and why they work. While this might seem obvious at first, the key here is not only to be familiar with the rules, but also to understand how and why they function, in essence, why did they become rules in the first place? Only when you know the concept behind the rule can you apply it in an expressive way.
  • Learn how to break the rules. Every rule was created by individuals not following the rules; somebody decided to place a camera really close to a subject one day and gave birth to the close up. Of course, breaking the rules intelligently only works after you learn them (see previous tip)!
  • Be familiar with the limitations and advantages of all your equipment. Creating visually compelling compositions requires not only your artistic insight, but also your technical skills. You may have an amazing composition in your mind’s eye that gets completely undone by the time you shoot it because you were unaware your camera could not run at a particular frame rate, or you did not have enough lights to get the look you wanted.
  • Keep in mind how each individual composition will function when juxtaposed with the rest of the images in your film, and be aware of how their interaction adds meaning as a whole. Whether you intend to or not, your story will have an image system at work, so you should have a plan for how every composition you create fits within this framework.
  • Make it a habit to scan the entire frame before you roll camera. Even experienced directors of photography fall into the trap of getting so caught up by a single aspect of a composition that they forget to look at every visual element in the frame, often ruining what would have been beautiful shots.
  • Do your research. I find it extremely helpful to create a portfolio of images in preparation for a project. It can include pictures taken from magazines, examples from still photography books, paintings, other films, and any other image that you feel captures the tone, mood, and visual palette you want to implement for your film.


"Gustavo Mercado's beautiful book reveals the inner workings of the basic shots that create the cinematic experience. He reveals how visuals communicate to an audience. If you're a novice filmmaker or a seasoned professional, this book will broaden your visual horizons." -Bruce Block, film producer, author of The Visual Story, and visual consultant whose credits include The Holiday, Something's Gotta Give, Stuart Little, and Pretty in Pink

"Mercado's book is a great resource for aspiring cinematographers. Using a brilliant selection of images, both classic and contemporary, he eloquently analyzes the conception and execution of a shot. Most important, he manages to explain how to achieve an aesthetically beautiful image, while giving equal weight to the powerful role of cinematography in portraying the characters and telling the story." - Florian Ballhaus, cinematographer whose credits include The Devil Wears Prada, Marley and Me, Flightplan

"From understanding shot types and how and why they work to visual rules, technical considerations, and when to break the rules, this packs in practical considerations that will prove key to any filmmaking collection." - Bookwatch

"While Mercado's book is perhaps more for people who are serious about filmmaking, it has helped me understand the importance of knowing all the different angles from which one might possibly frame the exact same moment of the story, and how to decide on the one that most perfectly aids the story." - Christianity Today

"This is one of those rare filmmaking books that delivers more than its title promises. The Filmmaker’s Eye is about a lot more than just ‘the rules of composition’: it’s a beautifully illustrated, systematic guide to the visual language of film." - Learn About Film (www.learnaboutfilm.com) 


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Focal Press; 1 edition (September 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0240812174
  • ISBN-13: 978-0240812175
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As a person who is passionate about cinema, quite often I love having discussions with other fellow cineaste about various shots. May it be the jumpshots from Jean-luc Godard, the powerful images from a Rossellini film, utilization of symmetry by Rohmer and Varda, extreme long shots of Resnais, the wideangle shot by Pontecorvo, visceral shots of Mallick, Jarmusch's two shot and just discussing shots that impress us.

For the budding filmmaker who is passionate about cinema, sometimes when you are working on your own short or independent film, it's good to have resources out there that show you how others deconstruct cinema, may it be classic books by Bazin, Eisenstein, etc. Great cinema books but one may want something a bit more modern for today's filmmaker that breaks down shots from these classic films to help us understand.

Not everyone goes to film school, nor do they have access to cinema aesthete. They are passionate about film, want to learn more about composition and shots. And if you want something easy to understand, didactic and straightforward, I can easily recommend "The Filmmaker's Eye" by Gustavo Mercado.

Just reading his book, I had a smile on my face because the way it's written, it's user-friendly, it's not cerebral or made to be academic, it's like having a cool film teacher and discussing films and breaking it down. Films that are easily accessible and what I love about this book is that it utilizes images from those films to drive a point on composition. Well-written and just pretty much making it easy enough for those just deciding they want to be involved in cinema in some sort of aspect, can easily enjoy, read and learn from.
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As a professional cinematographer and camera operator I find this book to be a great reference. What differentiates it from other cinematography/framing books is the fact that it brings the reader's attention to the logic behind framing rather than just teaching the "types" of frames like other texts. Although it teaches some basic rules such as the rule of thirds, Hitchcock's rule, and the 180-degree rule, it actually goes into further detail and explains the logic of how basic cinematography framing has its own recurring visual language and conventions. In the book, there are actual frame grabs from renowned cinematographers used to exemplify and support what it teaches and how to break the conventions. The book is an absolute must have for aspiring cinematographers and filmmakers. All the technical information found in the book is a good introduction to teaching people framing for cinematography. It gets you thinking about of the art of cinematography. The only downside is probably the fact that it lacks information about raw video formats. However, that isn't the point of the book and it is the most interesting and engaging framing/cinematography book I have read in a while. It actually makes you want to go out and shoot! The book also makes reference to current movies like The Matrix, Oldboy, Amelie, The Shawshank Redemption, Sid and Nancy, etc. All in all I give it four out of five stars.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
(EDIT):* I have altered my original 1 star rating to a 3 star rating. This negative review deals with the Kindle edition of the book only. I have no doubt that the printed version is a 5 star product, as reflected by all of the positive reviews it has received. If there was a way to review Kindle products only then I would still give it a low rating, however as this review is inseparable from the printed edition I have split the rating - hence 3 stars*.

I downloaded the Kindle for PC program so that I could download a number of textbooks relating to film production. I had never used a Kindle before, but presumed it would be something like a PDF on the PC.

While the reviews of the book itself are good, a lot of this has to do with the large images captured from movies that have been broken down to explain the composition. These are full page images in the printed book for the most part.

However in the Kindle edition the pictures are very small, and extremely compressed. This means that the text in the pictures (that explains the composition breakdown - the whole point of the book) is pixelated and shows serious artifacting. In other words the pictures are small, and the text is next to illegible.

Now, I understand that the Kindle was probably not designed for picture heavy books (it works just fine on the text) - in which case they should not bother selling books like this on Kindle.

The Kindle edition of this book has been a complete waste of time due to the inept transfer of the pictures - whoever was in charge of quality control ought to have a rethink of what they are doing. This book is of no value without decent pictures as that is the whole point of the book (to deconstruct the images)!

Perhaps Amazon could look into re-scanning the offending images and updating this book?
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Filmmaker's Eye is a fabulous book conceived for filmmakers. The concepts can be applied to photography as well.

This beautifully illustrated book is nearly a complete, self-contained course in cinematic composition. The author explains terminology used in the book to the extent that it is an excellent resource for learning the basics of cinematic and photographic principles. For instance the explanation of depth-of-field explains the concept very well and then continues to give several methods to change depth-of-field.

The concepts that are presented are accompanied by well-documented examples from highly regarded movies. A thorough examination of the scene reveals the reasons a scene was shot in a particular way ("why it works") and how shooting it in a different way would affect the final result.

You are shown many correct and time-honored ways to shoot a scene and then are taught why "breaking the rules" is not only permissible but essential in some cases to help you make your story more compelling. Just some of the shot types that are explored are.. establishing shot, medium shot, zoom shot, pan shot, tilt shot, tracking shot, Steadicam shot, crane shot, sequence shot, and others.

I cannot imagine how anyone reading this book could not walk away without a greatly increased understanding of cinematic composition. These concepts can be used by rank amateurs or hobbyists who use a basic camcorder as well as aspiring filmmakers. Many of these principles can be used by photographers. This book will help anyone working with Photography, Video or Film to tell more effective stories. It is an enjoyable learning experience and is an exceptionally well-written and engaging book.

I give this book my highest recommendation.
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