In cinematography, there are fundamental shot sizes like the close-up, the medium shot, and the wide shot. But what about everything in between? In this article, we’ll be taking a look at one of those inbetweeners — the medium full shot. While you may not have heard of it you have definitely seen it used in some of your favorite films. What is a medium long shot? Why would filmmakers opt for a medium long shot over a close up or regular medium shot? Let’s find out.

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What is a medium long shot?

Definition of medium long shot

The medium long shot (MLS) may sound confusing, but it is much more simple than one might imagine. It is, however, a very specific shot that frames a character in a specific way. Let’s start by taking a look at the definition of medium long shot before we dive into some uses and examples.


What is a medium long shot?

A medium long shot, also called medium full shot, is a shot that frames a character around the knees and up. This shot size falls between a normal medium shot and a full shot. The medium full shot is also referred to as a ¾ shot or a cowboy shot due to how often it is used to include their guns in the frame.

What is a medium long shot used for?

  • Capturing emotion and body language
  • Framing multiple subjects
  • Show character and setting

Medium Long Shot Meaning and Function

What is a medium long shot used for?

The medium long shot meaning derives from the use of a normal medium shot and a full shot (aka long shot). Medium shots are one of the most commonly used shot sizes in film because of their ability to capture character and other scene elements. 

The MLS is a type of medium shot that allows filmmakers to create a frame that is just a bit wider. Check out our analysis of the storytelling value of the medium shot in the video below. 

Medium Shot In Film  •  Subscribe on YouTube

These shots can be used in a variety of scenes and situations. To showcase this, we assembled a collection of medium full shots using StudioBinder's storyboard creator. Click the image below to explore the collection and you can even download a PDF for future reference.

Medium Shot In Film  •  Click to view full collection

The medium long shot is a shot that is typically used to capture two different shot elements at the same time. Here are a few reasons why an MLS could or should be used. 

1. Body Language and Emotion

Medium long shots are close enough that the audience can see a character’s emotions through their facial expressions. However, they are just wide enough for the audience to see the character’s body language and actions. 

In this medium long shot example, we can simultaneously see Wonder Woman’s intense facial expression as well as her body language that shows she is ready to fight. And thanks to the wide aspect ratio, we can also see the context around her — a war-torn landscape.

Wonder Woman — Medium long shot example

Wonder Woman  •  Medium long shot example

2. Setting and Character

Another reason why a filmmaker would opt for a medium long shot is to capture both a character and their setting. Of course, wide shots can do that as well. But medium long shots are close enough to capture the emotion of a character while also capturing their context.

In Spike Jonze’s HerTheodore finds himself lonely despite living in a massive city. Therefore, a medium long shot camera angle is used to capture both his loneliness as well as the city right outside his window.

Her — medium long shot example

Her  •  Medium full shot example

3. Framing Multiple Characters

Fitting multiple characters in the same frame is not an easy task. But when it is done effectively, a "two-shot" can help the audience see a relationship between two people. Medium full shots work incredibly well for framing multiple characters because they capture so many things at once.

In one MLS, a filmmaker can capture multiple characters' facial expressions, body language, as well as the setting around them. As a result, this can make a simple dialogue scene that much more engaging.

In this scene from When Harry Met Sallya medium full shot simultaneously captures their emotions, body language, and scenery in one shot. 

When Harry Met Sally — medium long shot example

When Harry Met Sally  •  Medium long shot example

These are only a few basic ways an MLS can benefit a film. One of the earliest uses of the medium full shot, however, was used for a very specific reason that led to the term “cowboy shot.”

Cowboy medium long shot meaning

The Cowboy Shot

The cowboy shot is one of the original uses of the medium long shot. Back in the era of Spaghetti Westerns, filmmakers needed a way to frame a cowboy in a medium shot to capture their intense facial expressions as well as their gun holster at their waist.

So, they created a rendition of the medium long shot — the cowboy shot.

Cowboy shot — medium long shot example

Cowboy shot  •  Medium long shot example

Although the Spaghetti Western is well past its hay day, the cowboy shot is still used for the same reason in modern westerns, Neo-westerns and action flicks. The cowboy shot can be seen throughout Django Unchained, one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films

In this medium full shot example, the shot size allows us to see Django’s gun holster. This allows us to see the full range of action of his draw without a cut or using a wide shot that might be too impersonal.

Django Unchained — Medium full shot example

Django Unchained  •  Medium full shot example

Even the Coen Brothers found use of the cowboy shot in their post-Civil War era anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The cowboy shot worked perfectly in this opening shootout scene to capture the same thing it did fifty years ago — gun slingin’ action.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs  •  Medium full shot example

Despite its value, the medium long shot is very much so a compromise shot. It is a jack of all trades, but master of none. It can capture facial expressions, body language, action, and setting all at once.

But it does not draw focus on any specific one. 

It doesn’t elicit as much emotion as a close-up nor can it capture a jaw-dropping setting like a wide shot. That being said, there is a time and a place for the MLS that can be found in nearly every film. 

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Creative Uses of the Medium Shot

Medium shots are the most common shot in cinema for their versatility. They can be used for funny moments, serious moments, or even action sequences. To learn how to use medium shots effectively, take a look at some of the best medium shots in cinema in our next article. 

Up Next: Creative Medium Shots →
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