The choice of shot will have a significant influence on the audience’s interpretation of the image. That is why photographers and cinematographers think incredibly carefully about where they position the camera and what to include in the frame.
Camera shots are usually defined by the size of the person (or object) within the frame and where the camera is placed in relation to this target. This guide will take you through thirteen of the most important shots and camera angles with great examples from the world of cinema.
Close Up (CU)
Let’s begin with the close-up. In this shot, only the person’s face or part of the object is revealed to the audience. By limiting the frame in this way, we are being asked to focus on the character’s facial features, expressions and reactions. This technique is a great way to convey their emotions and, perhaps, encourages the viewer to empathise with the character’s situation.
Consider the following example of Jack Nicolson in “The Shining”. In this scene, the protagonist has used a large axe to break through the bathroom so he can kill his wife. Very gruesome. Notice how there is very little distance between the actor’s maniacal face and the camera lens. This close-up is a deliberate attempt to create anxiety in the audience, so we feel we are being attacked by the character.
There are some important variations that are worth mentioning. For example, a choker shot frames the character from above their eyebrows to just below the mouth. With the facial expression dominating the screen, it is used to reveal the character’s intense emotions.
Also, if you have a profile image on social media or needed a picture of your face for your work ID, the image is probably a head shot. These are similar to a close-up, but they are usually for corporate and professional reasons rather than to create a sense of drama.
Extreme Close-up (ECU)
If the camera moves incredibly close to the subject, highlighting a specific detail of the body or object, this is known as an extreme close-up. The audience are now uncomfortably intimate with the subject and their heightened emotions. This shot is often used in horror films to convey the character’s absolute terror and pain, but the very limited framing was made popular by Sergio Leone’s and his westerns.
For example, in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, a story about three gunslingers who are searching for buried gold and, in the film’s climax, have a duel to the death, the director cuts between extreme close-ups of the men’s eyes and their revolvers. In the shot below, the ruthless mercenary, Angel Eyes, glances towards his adversaries.
By allowing the eyes to dominate the screen, the director draws the audience into the minds of the characters and the tension they feel before they draw their guns and shoot. It is a terrific scene and certainly worth studying in detail.
Medium Shot (MS)
The medium shot is one of the most common shots in television and film because it focuses our attention on the character while still showing some of the environment in the frame. Like the previous shots, it allows the audience to interpret the character’s facial expressions, but also enables us to read their body language and their physical reaction to the scene.
The following still is taken from “The Wolf of Wall Street”. While the camera remains close enough for the audience to see the arrogant confidence in Leonardo DiCaprio’s face, especially his tight-lipped smirk, we can also see the left hand casually hidden in his pocket while the right arm is raised with a pointed finger. Again, there is great arrogance in the body language with a suggestion of duplicity. However, the medium shot gives a sense of the character’s relationship with his immediate surroundings. Here, he looks in total control of the microphone and his audience.
Showing the connection between the characters and their environment is an important part of storytelling. The audience needs to see how characters act and react in a scene. That is why the medium is a great shot choice.
Since we have already mentioned Sergio Leone, it is worth pointing out another shot he made fashionable in cinematography – the American shot, or the “plan américain” in French criticism. It is a medium-long shot which frames the character from their thighs upwards. In the following example, the director uses the American shot to show the gunslinger’s holster and remind the audience of their deadly threat:
Long Shot (LS)
In a long shot, the character’s body will probably fill the frame, but the screen will be dominated by the scenery. While the shot shows the character in relation to their surroundings, the emphasis is now on action and movement rather than their emotions. The next still is taken from “The Exorcist” when the priest arrives at the house where a young girl is possessed by a demon. The audience will recognise the location and realise the light seems to command the character to the room upstairs to battle the evil presence. The audience does not need to know the thoughts and feelings of the priest. We just need to know he has arrived. The shot, however, looks fantastic.
Extreme Long Shot (ELS)
An extreme long shot creates a substantial distance between the camera and the main object, so the viewer concentrates on the setting. Also known as a wide shot, this technique is an effective way to establish the mood and tone of the scene. It is also ideal for showing a character’s isolation because they will appear quite insignificant in the frame.
A good example of this type of shot is the final moments from the original “The Planet of the Apes”. Here, the viewer is asked to focus on the beach and the half-submerged Statue of Liberty rather than the two characters and their horse because that is the crucial plot point.
The extreme long shot can help to define the time and place of a particular scene. When it is the first shot in the sequence, it is probably an establishing shot.
Television shows use establishing shots as a quick and efficient way to inform the viewer when and where the next part of the story takes place. If you remember “Friends” the first time around, or you have binge-watched it more recently, then you will recognise this apartment block. When the story was about to move to Monica’s or Chandler’s apartment, the scene would begin with an exterior shot of the building, either at night or the daytime, to give the audience a chance to locate themselves in that space.
Establishing shots can help avoid confusion when the story shifts from one place to another.
Point of View (POV)
A point of view shot allows the audience to see the world from the character’s perspective by positioning the camera from their viewpoint. Whatever the character is looking at, we can observe it too.
This type of shot can help clarify a simple beat in the narrative, such as a character reaching for their car keys, or it can reinforce a major plot point. In horror films and thrillers, the director might use a point of view shot of the killer hiding in the shadows and watching the movements of their unsuspecting victims. The following examples come from “Goodfellas” when Karen wakes up her adulterous husband and threatens to kill him. The shots emphasise the intense psychology of the scene and the emotional conflict between the two characters.
After about forty-five seconds into the scene, the director, Martin Scorsese, finally places the two characters in the same frame, suggesting Henry is beginning to soften his wife’s jealous rage. It is a wonderfully menacing moment in the story.
As the name suggests, a reaction shot shows the character’s emotional and physical reaction to the scene or another character’s dialogue. In this way, the audience learns a little more about the character’s personality or it can help position our interpretation of the moment.
In “Jurassic Park”, the camera tracks the paleontologist stumbling out of the car and starring at the dinosaurs for the first time. The reaction shot shows his immense shock and excitement. Steven Spielberg, the director, also uses the shot to build up suspense and delay the wonderful reveal of the dinosaurs. With the orchestral music rising, it is a great moment in cinema history and special effects because no one had ever seen such a spectacle on the big screen.
Over the Shoulder Shot
Over the shoulder shots are often used during a conversation. By positioning the camera behind the shoulder of one character, the audience can focus on the other character’s actions and reactions while maintaining a sense of their spatial and emotional connection because they remain in the same frame. It is a very common shot, especially in television.
In the following example, taken from “Schindler’s List”, it shows the power relationship between the two characters because Liam Neeson dominates the frame compared to Ben Kingsley’s character.
Impressively, Steven Spielberg sustains this visual element throughout the film until the end when the balance of power changes and Kingsley finally stands above a distraught Neeson.
By raising the camera above eye level and looking down at the person or object, it can make them seem weak or frightened. The higher the angle, the smaller and more insignificant the character will become. Look at this shot from the final battle between Harry Potter and Voldemort. It brilliantly conveys the protagonist’s vulnerability and the villain’s power. At this cliff-edge, the audience will certainly fear for the hero’s safety.
If a director wants to give an even wider view of the situation, they could use a crane or even a helicopter to film the scene. An extreme high angle shot, also known as the bird’s eye view, is a good way of revealing the character’s movement in the environment, especially in the action genre when the hero has to navigate their way through terrible dangers.
When a person is photographed from below eye level, they can appear to be taller and more powerful. The best example of this effect is the mythic shot. It uses a low angle with the sky spread out majestically behind the character, making them look heroic and even god-like. However, the following shot from “Thor” shows how the low angle can make the villain seem more menacing:
A good technique to show a character’s emotional turmoil and distress is to tilt the camera so the horizon line is no longer level. In the following example from “Twelve Monkeys”, the Dutch angle used to emphasise the character’s psychological collapse:
Time travelling to save the world from a lethal virus that is wiping out humanity is, of course, not good for your mental health.
If you want to completely disorientate the audience and provoke anxiety, then choose the oblique angle because the horizon becomes skewed and makes it very difficult for us focus on what is happening in the scene. This is particularly useful in a fight sequence. If this angle is used in a point of view shot, it can convey the character’s total confusion and fear.