Here are the ten types of shots every filmmaker should be using — and how these shots can help you tell your project’s story.
Filmmaking is storytelling. There are endless stories to tell — as well as ways to tell them. As an art form, filmmaking gives us a way to find our voices through images and sound. While there are many creative avenues to explore, today we’re going to explore the basics of camera angles. The angles and shots you choose, with how far or close your subject is, can change how viewers interpret your story, for better or worse.
The definition of your shot is determined by what fills your composition, and either camera placement or focal length controls. In some circumstances, it is defined by both. With a longer focal length, you will be able to fill the frame with the subject, and with a shorter focal length, you can obtain a wider field of view, capturing both your subject and the landscape.
Let’s dive into the essential shots and what each can add to your story.
In a sentence or two: an extreme close-up will frame a subject closely, capturing minute detail not seen in normal circumstances.
You’ll know when you see an extreme close-up shot. It’s usually something small (or a little feature on someone’s face) made huge. This type of shot is generally for directing attention to a specific object or motion. There’s no hidden meaning behind these shots, as the director tells the audience exactly what to look at. Whether that’s a specific marking on a character, or a small detail too tiny to notice otherwise, you won’t be able to miss it in extreme close-up as it will crowd the entire frame.
Typically this is what differentiates an extreme close-up between a standard close-up; all contents fill the entire frame. Whereas a close-up may still show some elements of the background.
Alternatively, if the subject is of an inanimate object, such as a newspaper, an extreme close-up would likely take us close enough so we could see the texture of the newspaper and ink.
If you had a wide-angle macro lens, you could, in theory, position your camera right up close to the subject to obtain an extreme closeup. However, if your subject is an actor, this will make for an uncomfortable experience as you would quite literally need the camera up in their face. Therefore we recommend you use a lens with the focal length of 50mm and above. The longer the focal length, the closer you can get into the actor’s face without the need to move your camera forward.
David Fincher has become a master of extreme close-ups, and you can see them use in this video essay.
In a sentence or two: A close-up is a shot taken at close range that displays greater detail to the viewer. While the image will be intimate, you should be able to recognize the imagery in the composition.
The close-up shot is your go-to move for any emotional, dramatic scene that needs to convey what the characters are thinking to the audience. These shots indicate to the audience that what they are seeing or hearing is important.
The question is, how do we know to move closer from a mid-shot or a mid-close-up? Usually, a good identifier is when the audience is cued in for a specific reaction from the character, and one of great importance that will deeply affect the plot.
A prime example is this shot from The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King. Gondor has called for assistance, and the King of Rohan must decide whether he will send his army to assist, despite having a somewhat lukewarm relationship with Gondor. The camera tracks forward from a mid-shot to a close-up and then cuts to several other close-ups of characters awaiting his response. It’s intense; it’s intimate and reactionary—the perfect use of a close-up.
The frame should be tight on the head and face — the top of the head should touch the top of the frame. You can pull off one of these shots using any lens with a 50mm and higher focal length. Anything less might create some lens barreling, which would distort the image ever so slightly.
In a sentence or two: A medium close-up is less intimate than a close-up, but closer than a mid-shot. It’s the perfect balance between intimacy while still giving the subject its own space.
If the close-up shot is from the lower neck to top of the head, the medium close-up shot is from the upper torso. This shot is perfect for capturing reactions. Think of it as an emotional payoff for your character and the audience. This framing is an excellent way to feel close to your character and subject, as there is not much room to move. It also helps bring the viewer into the scene that much more.
Filmmakers typically use medium close-ups toward the latter part of conversational scenes. The medium shot will invite us into the scene, but the medium close-up will bring us into it. No longer an outsider sitting on the table across from the characters, but part of the conversation.
There is no written rule stating you have to move into a medium close-up from a medium shot. However, when the conversation starts to have a sense of weight to it, it’s preferable to move forward toward your subject to emphasize the levity of the moment.
The 35mm is the standard focal length here, and it’s important not to drastically increase your focal length to punch into a mid-close-up as the compression of an increased focal length may alter the features of your subject.
The following scene from Michael Mann’s Heat is a great example of employing a medium close-up. You should notice that once they cut to a medium close-up, they never return to a medium shot.
In a sentence or two: A mid shot is the classic conversational shot. Friendly, informational, and you will be able to register all your subject’s details from the upper torso.
The medium shot is your standard, conversational, waist-up, framed shot. This will be your go-to shot when filming your actors. This shot represents the viewer’s perspective from a conversational distance. If you’re ever going to shoot an interview or dialogue scene, stick with the medium shot.
For example, take this sequence from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, shot by Wally Pfister. You can see that majority of the dialog is conveyed through a mid shot. It allows the audience to take part in the conversation, but also retain interest on the bustling background which is important to the story.
Like the medium close-up, a standard focal length is 35mm. However, you could push a little wider depending on the number of people within your frame. You could also use a longer focal length to compress the background and isolate the character, but it would result in you having to move the camera back.
While this shot is categorically a medium shot, I captured the image a dozen feet back on a 180mm lens.
It allowed me to compress the background for a more isolated medium shot. The compression of your background can also play a pivotal part in setting the tone for your scene. A more compressed mid shot suggests a more tense or private moment than a standard medium shot that will display several background elements.
In a sentence or two: The wide shot allows the audience to absorb all scene information in a single shot.
The wide shot, also known as a long shot, is perfect for any action scene. The whole purpose of a wide shot is to capture as much information as possible. You can show off your set — and locations — by using the wide shot to add production value and depth.
The wide shot is also equally important in setting the geography of the location. This includes where characters are in relation to one another, props, and light sources. Without a wide shot, your audience may sometimes get confused about how far apart characters are supposed to be from each other and their general positioning within the location. You would then utilize the other shots, such as a close-up, to further emphasize smaller details that could be missed.
There’s no specific rule as to what focal length you need to use. However, wide-angle lenses to 35mm are going to be your best bet, and not just because they can capture a wider field of view. If you shoot a wide shot with your camera further back and with an extended focal length, fewer objects will remain in focus throughout the composition due to the lens compression.
Extreme Wide/Long Shot
In a sentence or two: An extreme wide shot is all about your location. It minimizes your characters and lets the location do the speaking for them.
Take the wide shot and amplify it by ten. The extreme wide shot is meant to wow your audience, putting your visuals on an impressive display. Extreme wides can be aerials and tracking shots — just make sure your characters are the smallest part. It’s all about the scale and the scope of what’s happening in the story.
The extreme wide shot is to emphasize your location. Sweeping vistas, ancient castles, and heavenly plains are prime examples found time and time again in movies to be first introduced with an extreme wide shot. The EWS is the key to displaying your world in a single shot.
Due to the extravagant nature of superhero films, the ensemble cast, and worlds contrived from VFX, you’ll often see scenes filled with extreme wide shots to cram everything in. Perhaps the famous example is the excellent scene below from Avengers: End Game.
In a sentence: An establishing shot will establish a location, time, or season.
So, what’s the difference between an extreme wide shot and an establishing shot? In some circumstances, an establishing shot may be an extreme wide shot, especially if the location is massive in scale. However, an establishing shot could also a medium shot of an emergency vehicle on the side of the road or a wide shot of a phone booth. At its core, an establishing shot provides the audience with your film’s context through location and time.
You could have two identical wide shots of a suburban house, say one at 3 PM and the other at 10 PM, and use them to establish a shift in time for the interior shots.
They’re a brilliant way to set the scene, letting the audience know where your characters are and where they are taking place. The best part about pulling off a convincing establishing shot is that you don’t have to abide by the establishing shot. You can tell the audience your film takes place in a skyscraper while you shot the bulk of your apartment scenes. It’s just about setting the scene and adding to your script — without relying on exposition or dialogue.
Combining Basic Types of Shots for Impactful Video
While these are the core basics of the varying shots you can employ for your filmmaking, you can also couple them together to create new and exciting shots.
The Long Take
In a sentence or two: The long take is a single take that spans an entire scene.
The long take is exactly as titled. It’s a single take, longer than your typical variation, and because of its specialty and technical prowess, it will often film the entirety of a scene. The long take will often combine several of the shots listed above, as it moves from the establishing shot to a close-up. A prime example of this is from the James Bond film Spectre.
One of the best ways to fully immerse your audience into the world you’ve created is to use this shot. The long take can be a great way to showcase your camera work and put your actors’ talent on display. It’s essentially the closest film to the theater; a non-stop take that plays out in real time in its purest form. If you’ve seen movies like Children of Men and Birdman, you know exactly how much intensity and realism a long take can add to a scene. However, even in the James Bond example shown above, most long takes in cinema are rarely real long takes. The cuts are cleverly hidden between pans and foreground passes to allow the crew some breathing room.
If you’re on a budget, it’s likely you won’t have the finance to purchase wireless follow focus system and a focus puller. Instead, use an extreme wide-angle lens (16mm-20mm) and focus near infinity focus. As a result, near enough, everything one or two feet in front of you will remain in focus.
In a sentence or two: The crash zoom is an instantaneous zoom from an extreme wide or wide shot to a medium or close-up.
The Crash Zoom is a somewhat antiquated technique, but it still works well today if you use it correctly. It merely involves the camera operator rapidly extending the zoom onto the subject. However, you typically require a cine lens to perform this, as the lens needs to be parfocal. This means that despite changing focal lengths, the focus will remain the same. This isn’t something that you get with a typical still lens.
There’s nothing better than a good, well-timed crash zoom. Zooming in fast on your characters is a fun and effective way to bring attention to whatever you want to highlight. (There’s no looking away from whatever you decide to crash on.) Usually, this shot is for comedic effect. However, it’s also a prevalent technique for demonstrating the scale and cinéma vérité-esque camerawork.
As the name suggests, you’re going need a zoom lens, and preferably one that reaches from a standard to telephoto focal length like the 24mm-70mm as opposed to a wide-angle zoom.
While a master of many things, Quentin Tarantino often employs this technique with great success.
In a sentence or two: In a point of view shot, we see exactly what the character is seeing.
POV is an acronym for point of view. Most films, especially crime films, have a point of view from which the audience sees the story unfold—typically the lead detective. However, with camera terminology, POV has a different meaning. It’s where the camera directly replicates what the character is seeing. This could be from their direct POV (their eyes) as utilized in Hardcore Henry, or from the POV of their recording device such as a home video camera in Cloverfield. With this technique, we assimilate the character, and what they are directly seeing.
Now, point-of-view shots have been used repeatedly, especially with found footage films like The Blair Witch Project. This shot puts the camera in the audience’s hands — showing the world from your character’s perspective. They can feel and see everything the character sees, creating empathy for your protagonist. I recommend trying this one out. It’s hard to pull it off, but when it’s done right, nothing compares.
While the shots listed above somewhat lay the ground for a set of rules. you don’t specifically have to abide by them. I stated that by using a wide-angle lens on a close-up would give your close-up distortion, but filmmaker Terrance Mallick employs this often, and it works. But like Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Interested in the tracks we used to make this video?
- “Masters of Funk” by Olive Musique
- “Ascending the Mountain” by Sonny Lauderdale
- “In the Evergreens” by Symphonic Collective
- “Uptown Funk” by Reaktor Productions
- “Cosmic Crush” by Wolves
- “Don’t Forget” by Marc Walloch
Looking for more video tutorials? Check these out.
- How to Build Your Own Video Editing Computer
- Video Tutorial: Why You Need Lens Filters for your Drone
- Video Tutorial: How to Get Cinematic Lighting In Small Spaces
- How to Use Film Grains + FREE Film Grain Overlays
- How to Get the Best Slow Motion Results with Optical Flow
Cover image by Dr. Pixel.