Have you ever confused a medium long shot with a medium shot? What about a medium shot with a cowboy shot? You’re not alone. 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.
Before you re-enroll in film school, check out our quick refresher on shot types. We’ll break down all the camera shots you need to know, and some of their best uses in film.
Great cinematography is poetry in motion. Brush up on the fundamentals of camera shots to enhance your visual vocabulary, and prepare to be inspired along the way.
The easiest way to define “shot” is a single event you shoot.
Choosing how to select between the many types of shots boils down to a plethora of creative choices. Generally, you will want to follow the rule of thirds to achieve proper emphasis and balance.
But also think about how familiar your audience should feel to your subject. This is where shot size comes in.
The different types of camera shots
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.
The types of camera shots corresponding to a human subject.
More types of camera shots corresponding to a human subject.
And sometimes you will have more than one subject.
For example, a shot with two subjects is a “two-shot.”
Four subjects would be a “four shot.”
..You get the picture.
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.
A compilation of establishing shots.
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.
This extreme long shot in The Shining predicts the isolation to follow.
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.
Choose camera shots that frame your subject with necessary scene elements.
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 camera shots chosen for this scene emphasize two characters, The Master
The first shot in this scene is a full shot of two subjects in their prison cells.
A full shot generally fills the frame with your subject, while keeping their environment visible
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.
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.
The Cowboy shot variation of the medium long shot frames from the upper thighs up
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.
The first rule of medium shots is to frame from roughly the waist up.
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.
The medium shots in this scene make Javier Bardem’s performance even scarier.
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) has an emotional monologue in Blade Runner
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.
This uncut 2-min closeup showcases the subtlety of Kidman’s performance, Birth
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.
Now combine shot size with a few more parameters
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.
To start, consider framing. Framing is the art and science of fitting your subjects into your chosen camera shots. One element of framing is how many subjects will fill your frame.
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.
Being John Malkovich uses lots of point of view camera shots to enter John Malkovich’s mind.
This technique can also invoke terror, as seen in the classic opener of Halloween.
A POV through the mask of Michael Myers, Halloween
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.
Racks on racks on racks.
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.
A tilt-shift lens creates dreamy distortion in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
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, your camera points down at your subject. It creates a feeling of inferiority, or “looking down” on your subject.
A high angle in Citizen Kane
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.
A handy compilation of bird’s eye camera shots.
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.
The many dutch angles in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire
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.
Eye Level Shot
Let's move onto how changing the height of your camera shots can bring tremendous impact.
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.
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.
Static / Fixed Shot
Furthermore, let’s consider how movement can change the meaning of your camera shots.
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.
This scene from Step Brothers is composed almost entirely of static shots.
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.
The many zooms of Quentin Tarantino.
Stanley Kubrick often used zooms for subtle, slow reveals.
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.
In the first shot, a simple pan follows a character in La Luna
Tilting is when you move your camera up and down on a vertical axis. So it’s exactly like a pan, only vertical.
A compilation of establishing shots.
Swish Pan or Whip Pan
This is when you pan the camera from one shot to another, creating a motion blur.
Paul Thomas Anderson uses swish pans throughout his films.
Behind the scenes on a whip pan setup in La La Land
The swish tilt is the same idea as a swish pan, only vertical.
Wes Anderson uses the swish pans and tilts extensively in The Grand Budapest Hotel
A tracking shot moves with your subject. Sometimes it follows behind or beside them on a dolly, Steadicam or a gimbal.
Goodfellas has a particularly epic tracking shot filmed in one continuous take.
This reverse tracking shot from Paths of Glory follows a general through his trenches.
The crab shot is basically a dolly shot that moves horizontally like a crab.
A crab shot follows Oh Dae-Su as he fights his way through a crowd, Oldboy
These camera shots find the camera circling a subject to reveal it from different angles.
An arc shot captures all angles of this conversation in The Dark Knight
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.
Hand-held shots in Narc create a gritty and hyper-real foot chase.
A Steadicam is a camera stabilizing device that attaches to the camera operator. It uses a counterbalancing system for smooth and stable camera moves.
Steadicam shots capture intimate family moments in To The Wonder
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 crane or jib that often sweeps up and over a scene. It is a great first or final shot for a film.
The Player, about a Hollywood executive, begins with a classic crane shot.
A jib is a crane device that sweeps the camera up and over a setting. A jib is like a crane, but with limited movement.
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.
The aerial footage in the opening chase scene of Skyfall was captured by drones.
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.
Behind the scenes of a wire shot at Bumbershoot 2016
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.
For more techniques, check out this article on advanced types of camera shots and camera angle definitions.
And remember to always look to the great filmmakers. Borrow shot for shot to get started on your scenes. If you’re looking for a good tool to brainstorm your shots, make a shot list with this free shot list template.
As always, let us know in the comments below if you liked the article, or if there’s anything we missed!
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