Back when cinema was at its infancy, films used to be shot on a tripod in a single type of shot. The camera never even moved. It was sort of like filming a play. The only moving thing would be the actors within the frame.
Think of films like A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery. If you watched either film you’ll know what I am talking about.
As cinema evolved, however, directors and cinematographers began to innovate. In 1925, Battleship Potemkin introduced a revolutionary concept of close-ups where the director would cut to a zoomed-in shot of an actor’s face to show their reaction. Therefore, creating what is probably the first known close-up
Why was this important? Well, it proved that there’s more to film that was yet unexplored, different ways to communicate information to the audience without the need for index cards on the screen.
Introduction to the Types of Shots in Film
The first thing that film students learn is the types of shots in film. That’s because they’re important.
Understanding what shots communicate which information and emotions is as essential to your filmmaking skills as learning sign language is for the hearing impaired. Simply put, without it, you can’t effectively tell a nuanced story or even a clear one.
Think back to your favorite movies. When they show you a scene from a certain angle and you understand the emotion of it just from the performance of the actor without any words being spoken.
That’s when a director’s prowess is shown. A great film could be understood by watching it without any dialogue.
The biggest mistake that filmmakers I see make is get these excellent 4K cameras and all the fancy filmmaking equipment but film each scene in a boring establishing shot then shot reverse shot.
Sometimes it’s worse, aspiring directors and cinematographers will just ignore most if not all rules of filmmaking and just film everything according to their whims. That leaves you with a boring and unengaging film.
So, for this guide, we’ll look at the types of basic shots in film and explain each of them. Hopefully, by the end of this guide, you’ll be able to avoid the aforementioned mistakes.
The Establishing Shot
This is probably the most famous one. You see it at the beginning of every movie trailer.
When you see New York captured from an aerial view in a trailer that’s an establishing shot. But that’s just the most common use. One thing to keep in mind as we dive further in the list is that some types of shots can be expressed in different ways.
The establishing shot, for example, is usually an exterior shot of the location where a story takes place.
Do you have two characters meeting in a bar? Show a wide shot of the exterior of the bar before you show the characters. That tells your audience where your characters are.
There are more creative ways of establishing your location. Some directors like Edgar Wright use a series of close-ups on signature items related to a place to establish.
For example, if you’re in a casino, show cards getting cut, poker chips being sorted, money being set on a craps table. That communicates to your audience that they’re in a casino due to the correlation our brain has with these images.
The close-up shot
These are probably the most widely used one. Sadly though, for all the wrong reasons. Close-ups are shots that focus on a certain person’s face from the shin all the way to the forehead.
They can also focus on objects. These can be very powerful.
Do you want to show a character’s emotion in a scene? Use a close-up as Michael Curtiz did in Casablanca to show Ingrid Bergman’s sadness at having to leave her former lover.
The master of close-ups is probably Sergio Leone. He was famous for using them in his spaghetti westerns.
One of the best examples is the final duel in Once Upon a Time in the West. Where he showed a close-up of Charles Bronson staring with fixed eyes at his enemy.
Meanwhile, the close-up on Henry showed his eyes rolling and moving in different directions. Therefore communicating that Fonda was uneasy while Bronson was calm and collected.
You can also be subtle with your close-ups like David Fincher is. He often saves his close-ups only for the most important moments in a scene. When a character realizes something or finds a new piece of information.
For instance, in Zodiac, he held off using a close-up in the scene where the killer attacks the couple in the park. Only using a close-up near the end of the scene to show that the killer’s gun clip was loaded with bullets.
It was a chilling reveal because up until that point we had no idea if he actually had any bullets. The close-up solidifies that he is a menace. So be selective and careful about when and why you should use your close-ups.
The extreme wide shot
This is considered a type of establishing shots. It’s all about showing the maximum amount of the landscape in one shot. It gives the audience a feel of the space and time where the movie takes place.
While you can use it as an establishing shot, it can be used for other more creative purposes.
David Lean used these a lot in Lawrence of Arabia. That movie is very famous for its gratuitous desert shots. But Lean does use the extreme wide shot very creatively at times.
In some scenes, he places a character in an extreme wide shot to show their insignificance against the might of the desert and how truly lost they are.
Extreme wide shots can also be used to show something grand or mighty. Do you wanna show an army that is huge in size. You use an extreme wide shot. This one is all about the space it gives and what you do with it.
The Wide shot
Another common type of shot is the wide shot. These are often used to show a character in relation to their environment or other characters.
You see the character from head to toe and the location of the shot or the other characters. A great example is from the final shot from The Searchers.
In the movie, John Wayne is seen heading out to the wilderness. He is framed through a door frame. The juxtaposition shows that Wayne is not part of the domestic life and that he is much more of a wilderness man.
Another great use is from the hit TV series Breaking Bad. In the final episode from the third season, Walter White is shown standing across from Gus Fring.
The symmetrical nature of this shot communicates that the men are rivals. They are equal to each other as they occupy equal space in the same shot. While the first example illustrates the relation between a character and their environment, the second exemplifies the relationship between a character and another.
The Medium Shot
The medium shot (or MS) is closer to a character than a wide shot but not as much as a close-up. It generally shows the character from the hip up.
The medium shot reveals information about characters but from a different angle. It’s more about body language and the direction a character faces. This shot is often used in dialogue scenes.
In Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Dicaprio’s character sits in a bar where a man insults his drink choice. We are given a medium shot to establish both characters in the same shot.
It also establishes an empty glass on the bar that Dicaprio will use to assault the man. Had Scorsese used a close-up or even a medium close-up we wouldn’t have seen all these details.
Another example from Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman. He shows plenty of scenes where Al Pacino’s character sits on tables with ice cream on the table. The man loves ice cream so what better way to establish it than showing it in medium shots.
This one falls somewhere between the close-up and the medium shot. It has the same purpose as the medium shot.
It reveals details about the character but with more emotion than the wide shot. It generally shows the actor from the shoulders up. This one is best used to emphasize certain moments of dialogue.
Fincher did this a lot in The Social Network. The movie was essentially people in rooms talking. But to add weight and drama to certain moments without going balls to the walls, Fincher employed shot changes.
In the classic opening scene, Mark is talking to his Girlfriend. When the conversation is amicable, Fincher only uses medium close-ups.
However, when Mark says something insulting, Fincher switches to a Medium to show the growing distance between the pairs.
When Rooney Mara’s character finally has enough, Fincher switches to a close-up as she breaks up with Mark. If you use all the types of shots you know effectively you can create resonating moments your audience won’t forget.
This type of shot focuses solely and tightly on an object or part of the body. You can even see the texture of the object being shown. These can be used in a variety of ways. They can make the audience uncomfortable.
For instance, Stanley Kubrick used it on Malcolm McDowell’s eyes in the infamous brainwashing scene from A Clockwork Orange to signal his inescapable torture to us. Another use is for dramatic reveal.
In Die Hard 3, there’s a scene where Bruce Willis is in an elevator with terrorists disguised as cops. One of them murdered his friend and took his badge.
As Bruce Willis glances at it and is hit with the realization that’s the moment where the audience goes “Oh crap!” Dramatic isn’t it?
Types of Shots in Film – Wrap Up
There are other types of shots that you can learn. However, as a start, mastering these first is a must for anyone who wants to take filmmaking seriously. Shot types are the tools in a filmmaker’s toolbox. You can’t carve a statue without the proper tools.
Similarly, you can’t tell a story without the right tools either. To learn how to use the shots, study the greats for guidance and example.
Then you’ll be able to use them as the language of film which you can use to communicate with your audience and ensure that they’ll understand your intent and feel what you want them to feel.
After all, isn’t that what filmmaking is all about?