It’s easy to mix up the different types of camera shots out there. But if you’re a creative, it’s important to have a firm understanding of the several types of shots.
Today, we’ll break down all the camera shots you need to know, and some of their best uses in film. Brush up on the fundamentals of camera shots to enhance your visual vocabulary, and prepare to be inspired along the way.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CAMERA SHOTS
Shot Size Overview
Shot Size Overview
How you choose to frame your subject will have a specific impact. How close or far your subject is to your camera — your shot size — will underscore how the audience should feel about it (or them).
Your subject will appear smallest in a long shot (or wide shot). They will be larger in a medium shot and largest in a close-up shot.
Think about familiarity when you consider your subject’s size in your camera shots. It’s like meeting someone for the first time. You might shake hands or talk about the weather, but odds are you’ll stay at a relative distance. That’s because you haven’t built any familiarity yet. Camera shots work in the same way.
Specific camera movements matter too. Are you going to rack focus while completing a dolly move? Or maybe it’s just a traditional two shot on sticks?
You want to capture all these details when shot listing. We cover a lot of shot specs in this post, but don't worry. You don't need to memorize everything in this post.
If you use StudioBinder when shot listing, all these specs are listed as checkboxes for easy selection.
This allows you to refocus on the creative versus racking your brain trying to recall shot jargon or retyping the same acronyms 5000 times. Here's a peak:
Okay, onto shot sizes!
It all starts with an establishing shot...
An establishing shot is a shot at the head of a scene that clearly shows us the location of the action. This shot often follows an aerial shot and is used to show where everything will happen.
Consider the following examples.
Extreme Long Shot (ELS)
An extreme long shot (or extreme wide shot) make your subject appear small against their location.
You can use an extreme long shot to make your subject feel distant or unfamiliar. It can also make your subject feel overwhelmed by its location.
The opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a great example of an extreme long shot.
It’s appropriate that the subject of these camera shots is a yellow VW Bug because it’s tiny. The shot favors the open plains, mountains, cliffs and jagged trees that surround the Bug. This underscores the treacherous, isolating world the car is heading towards.
An extreme long shot can have the same effect as a high angle shot.
Where a high angle shot looks down on a subject to make them feel inferior, an extreme long uses their surroundings to do the same.
Of all the camera shots, consider the extreme long shot when you need to emphasize the location.
Long Shot (LS) / Wide Shot (WS)
The long shot (also known as a wide shot abbreviated “WS”) is the same idea, but a bit closer. If your subject is a person then his or her whole body will be in view -- but not filling the shot.
In other words, there should be a good deal of space above and below your subject. Use a long shot to keep your subject in plain view amidst grander surroundings.
Consider this scene from Interstellar.
The crew of the Endurance space vessel land on a mysterious planet. Then a large tidal wave appears out of nowhere.
Director Christopher Nolan and DP Hoyte van Hoytema used a long shot here.
The long shot emphasizes the mounting danger of the approaching wave. At the same time, it keeps the subject from being too overwhelmed by it.
Of the many camera shots, a long shot builds up distance and the location.
Full Shot (FS)
Now let's talk about camera shots that let your subject fill the frame -- while keeping emphasis on scenery.
In a full shot, the camera is usually close enough to capture your subject’s basic appearance.
Consider this scene from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
The first shot in this scene is a full shot of two subjects in their prison cells.
By using a full shot, Anderson emphasizes that the subjects share the same trappings. It also underscores their opposite reactions -- a theme explored throughout the film.
Medium Long Shot (MLS) / Medium Wide Shot (MWS)
A medium long shot frames your subject from roughly the knees up. It splits the difference between a full shot and a medium shot.
If framed in a low angle shot (i.e. looking up from the ground) you can make one formidable villain.
A variation on this is the Cowboy Shot, which frames the subject from roughly mid-thighs up. It’s called a “cowboy shot” because it is used in Westerns to frame a gunslinger’s gun or holster on his hip.
Medium Shot (MS)
Next let's move onto camera shots that reveal your subject in more detail.
The medium shot is like the cowboy shot above, but frames from roughly the waist up. So it emphasizes more of your subject and keeps their surroundings visible.
This scene from Fight Club favors the medium shot to keep the characters distant from each other. It’s wide enough to show the boisterous crowd who fuel the fight. It’s also over-the-shoulder (OTS) to convey opposition.
It’s a great choice for a fight scene.
Medium Close Up (MCU)
The medium close-up frames your subject from roughly the chest up. So it typically favors the face, but still keeps the subject somewhat distant.
This scene from No Country For Old Men is mostly medium close-ups. It keeps the characters eerily distant during their face-to-face conversation.
Close Up (CU)
Next, let's talk about camera shots that get up close and personal with your subject.
You know it’s time for a close-up when you want to reveal a subject’s emotions and reactions. The close-up is where you fill your frame with a part of your subject. If your subject is a person, it is often their face.
This emotional scene from “Blade Runner” features a lot of close-ups:
Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is a “replicant” about to expire. He tells his enemy Deckard (Harrison Ford) why he wants to live longer. His facial gestures are key here, as is a crucial teardrop as he talks.
Close-ups are great camera shots for capturing monologues like this. They let the audience get close to your character to see their facial gestures in detail.
Extreme Close Up (ECU)
An extreme close-up is the most you can fill a frame with your subject. It often shows eyes, mouth and gun triggers. In extreme close-up shots, smaller objects get great detail and are the focal point.
Use this to emphasize a specific feature of your subject.
Visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky uses extreme close-ups consistently in his work. His 2010 film Black Swan is about a ballerina named Nina who is cast as the dual lead in “Swan Lake.” She’s got the innocent White Swan character down but needs to transform into the Black Swan too.
In this extreme close-up, we see that her transformation happens quite literally. Aronofsky uses an extreme close up shot here to show feathers growing out a sore in Nina’s back.
Combining shot size with other specs
Shot size is the building block for choosing camera shots.
But you’ll also need to consider how framing, focus and movement can add deeper meaning to your shots.
Read on to explore creative shot combinations.
- Get the ultimate guide to shot listing →
- Learn how to shot list like an adventure filmmaker →
- See a shot list from Creed →
- Master shot lists with Rian Johnson →
- Study pro examples of the medium shot →
- Start creating your shot list here →
- Find out how to rack focus →
- Bring in your audience with the dolly shot →
- Everything you need to know about close up shots →
- Learn how to make a shot list with StudioBinder →
- List your shots like Alejandro González Inarritu →
- Auteur shot list study: Andrei Tarkovsky →
- How to make a lined script and build a shot list →
WORKING WITH SUBJECTS IN THE FRAME
Camera Framing Overview
Camera framing is the art and science of placing subjects in your shots. Shots are all about composition. Rather than pointing the camera at the subject, you need to compose an image.
For filmmakers and videographers, a major consideration for framing is the number of subjects you feature in your shots, and their physical relationship to each other and the camera.
Based on how you plan to position your subjects, you'll need to adjust your camerawork. You'll want to capture your framing details on a shot list well before you arrive on set. That way you have a clear idea for the scene and can communicate your vision with ease.
That's not to say that things may not change the day of the shoot. But, having a shot list at the ready showcases that the director and DP have done their homework and are well prepared.
Now, onto framing options!
When your shot captures one subject it’s known as a single shot.
A two-shot is the same concept, but with two people in the frame at once.
You guessed it: a three-shot fits three characters into the frame.
Over-The-Shoulder (OTS) Shot
Another element of camera shots to consider is the perspective of the shot. An over-the-shoulder shot shows your subject from behind the shoulder of another character. Because it emulates perspective, it’s common in conversation scenes.
Point of View (POV) Shot
Now let's talk about choosing camera shots that show the point-of-view (or POV) of one of your characters.
A POV reveals to the audience exactly what that character sees and does. This transports the audience into that character, as is done in Being John Malkovich.
This technique can also invoke terror, as seen in the classic opener of Halloween.
A POV shot is generally sandwiched between two other shots: a shot of a character looking at something, and then a shot showing the character's reaction to whatever he or she is looking at.
And smack in the middle of these? In between the shots of the character looking and the character reacting? That's where we get the POV shot.
We see exactly what the character sees.
We understand what's generating the character's reaction.
- Spielberg the subversive: point of view vs. point of thought →
- Learn how Mr. Robot uses framing to build drama →
- Build your shot list like the pros right now →
- See creative examples of the over the shoulder shot →
- Find out everything you need to know about the two shot →
- FREE Download: Shot List Template →
THE VIEWER'S POINT OF ATTENTION
Camera Focus Overview
Cinema and television give the director an uncanny ability to control the audience's vision. You can shift and change points of view as people learn new information, move locations, or switch perspectives.
This kind of power is achieved through the ability to adjust focus.
Plan focus changes on your shot list
Filmmakers often want to direct attention around different parts of the scene. To do this, you need to decide on the angle of shot, camera movements, and any special equipment needed to pull it off.
That can be a lot to remember, but we've made shotlisting easy. You're only a few clicks away from setting up your shot, and planning your focus.
Rack Focus / Focus Pull
Manipulating focus is another way of communicating with your camera shots. A rack focus shot is when the camera changes focal length mid-shot to create emphasis. The first assistant cameraman (or “First AC”) usually does it.
In shallow focus shots, your subject is in crisp focus while the other scenery out of focus. This limits your depth of field to create emphasis on your subject.
In a deep focus shot, everything in your frame is in focus. This is great when you need your audience to feel the scenery or particular scene elements.
A tilt-shift lens rotates perspective within the lens and emulates selective focus. It can make parts of your image appear in sharp focus while others are out of focus.
ADJUSTING CAMERA HEIGHT FOR IMPACT
Camera Angle Overview
It's not enough to just understand shots. The angle, and degree or severity of that angle, can totally change the meaning of a shot. In this section we'll cover every type of camera angle you can imagine with plenty of examples.
Once you know the angle you're going to shoot, capture it on your shot list, like this:
Directors and DPs often work closely during pre-production to create their shot lists. However, that doesn't mean the plans may not change once everyone arrives on set. But showing up prepared is half the battle.
As the saying goes...
If you fail to plan, then you're planning to fail.
Now let's explore the various camera angles that can add tremendous impact to your shots.
Eye Level Shot
First, consider the most common height: the eye level shot. When your subject is at eye-level they’re in a neutral perspective (not superior or inferior). This mimics how we see people in real life -- our eye line connecting with theirs.
Low Angle Shot
This shot frames your subject from a low camera height. These dramatic camera shots most often emphasize power dynamics between characters.
A superior character with the upper hand is often framed from down low. This makes an inferior feel like they are looking up to them.
High Angle Shot
In a high angle shot, the camera points down at your subject. It usually creates a feeling of inferiority, or “looking down” on your subject.
But, as the video below shows, there are creative expressions of this...
Hip Level Shot
This is when your camera is roughly waist-high.
Knee Level Shot
This is when your camera height is about as low as your subject’s knees. They can emphasize a character’s superiority if paired with a low angle.
Ground Level Shot
This is when your camera’s height is on ground level with your subject. Needless to say, this shot captures what’s going on the ground your subject stands on.
Shoulder Level Shot
This is when your camera is roughly as high as your subject’s shoulders. A shoulder level shot can maximize the feeling of superiority when paired with a low angle.
In the dutch (or “canted”) angle, the camera is slanted to one side. With the horizon lines tilted in this way, you can create a sense of disorientation.
Bird’s Eye View Shot / Overhead
This shot is from way up high, looking down on your subject and a good amount of the scenery surrounding him or her. This can create a great sense of scale and movement.
Aerial Shot – Helicopter Shot
Whether taken from a helicopter or drone, this is a shot from way up high. It establishes a large expanse of scenery. The opening shots of Blade Runner use them to establish futuristic cityscapes.
Affordable drones have made aerial photography more accessible to filmmakers. Once considered a big-budget luxury or stock-footage mainstay, original aerial photography is now within reach of almost any production.
All thanks to the "rise" of drones.
MEANING THROUGH MOTION
Camera Movement Overview
The way a camera moves can give meaning to what's happening on screen. You can burst into a room, drone over from on high, pan with a head turn, and dolly-zoom for any revelation.
Camera moves set directors out from the pack and wind up defining their visual style. But how can you plan all these camera movements so your story stays consistent from scene to scene?
Shotlist and Storyboard camera moves
So, you’ve set up a scene where you want to move the camera between two crucial subjects? What do you do now? You need to put together a shot list so your DP can anticipate and prep. Therefore, you may want to get coverage of each shot, in case the movement doesn’t work out in the edit.
Where you put the camera also matters. You want to capture all these crucial details in your shot list. With StudioBinder, these details are already listed as options, so you only need to check their boxes. This allows you to create creative combinations that make your movie come to life.
As an example, travel filmmaker Matt Komo used StudioBinder's shot list feature to plan out the critical shots and camera setups he needed for the day.
Let's check out all the possible camera movements!
Static / Fixed Shot
When there’s no movement (i.e. locked camera aim) it’s called a static shot. These camera shots emphasize the appearance and movement of your subject against its environment.
Static shots work well in comedy because the actor’s performance trumps the camera moves.
These camera shots are when the camera zooms in or out mid-shot. When it zooms in, it can make sudden -- and sometimes comical -- emphasis on a character or object. When it zooms out it usually reveals objects or characters.
Pans move the camera side to side on a horizontal axis. This can reveal something to your viewer or allow them to follow an action.
Tilting is when you move your camera up and down on a vertical axis. So it’s exactly like a pan, only vertical.
Swish Pan or Whip Pan
This is when you pan the camera from one shot to another, creating a motion blur.
The swish tilt is the same idea as a swish pan, only vertical.
A tracking shot moves with your subject. Sometimes it follows behind or beside them on a dolly, Steadicam or a gimbal.
The crab shot is basically a dolly shot that moves horizontally like a crab.
These camera shots find the camera circling a subject to reveal it from different angles.
UNDERSTANDING GEAR REQUIREMENTS
Camera Mechanisms Overview
Camera mechanisms is a fancy way of saying camera equipment.
Want your camera to glide along a slider? Pushed on a dolly?
Swooping with a jib arm? Hovering with a gimbal?
Depending on the gear you use, the feeling of a shot can dramatically change. This is why you'll need to give the mechanism some thought when shot listing.
Camera mechanisms don't just affect the look and feel of a shot...
They also affect your budget, and prep time on set.
Technocranes don't come cheap. And setup time could put your set in a holding pattern if you don't schedule carefully.
So choose your camera mechanisms carefully when you shot list.
Sticks / Tripod Shot
Now let’s consider the different mechanisms that will dictate the movement in your camera shots.
The most common mechanism is the tripod, or “sticks”, used for static shots and simple pans and tilts.
A slider is a piece of equipment that “slides” your camera on a vertical or horizontal axis. It’s sort of like a dolly mounted on a tripod that creates smooth, sweeping camera moves.
You can also use a slider with a tripod head to mimic a jib shot.
Handheld shots are held and moved by a camera operator. They aren’t stabilized and are often shaky. They can add a gritty, docu-realistic feel to a shot.
A Steadicam is a camera stabilizing device that attaches to the camera operator. It uses a counterbalancing system for smooth and stable camera moves.
Gimbals are another camera stabilizing device that use motorized gyroscopes to reduce friction. It is more compact than a Steadicam and completely handheld. This allows it to fit through tight spaces.
A shot from a robotic crane often sweeps up and over a scene. It is a great first or final shot for a film.
A jib is a crane device that sweeps the camera up and over a setting. A jib is similar a crane, but with more limited range and movement. It's compact and utilizes counter-weights which makes it ideal for smaller-budget shoots.
These camera shots attach to a drone to fly over or alongside your subject. They're often used for aerial shots.
Drones are way cheaper than helicopters and can operate in spaces helicopters can’t.
In this shot, the camera moves on a cable or wire to for deliberate, smooth moves. Like drones, wires get much closer to the action than helicopters. So they’re are often used in live concerts and sporting events.
How to create a professional shot list
Having knowledge of the types of shots in film, and why they’re used, is the building block to good storytelling. Each shot is a brushstroke for painting a vision. Be informed and intentional when you select your shots.
And remember to always look to the great filmmakers.
Good artists copy; great artists steal.
Up next, we'll walk you through the process of shot listing like a pro. Everything from selecting the right camera specs, to properly estimating prep and setup times. We'll also provide a free shot list template to get you started.
As always, let us know in the comments below if you liked the article, or if there’s anything we missed!