If you’re hoping to perfect your skills in cinematography but are too cheap for film school then look no further. Here are some basic principles you need to know about what kind of shots to use and when and why and how.
On my own film school, which essentially was a crash course in all things film we spent a week learning about visual storytelling, other film schools may spend an entire semester on the subject.
I’ll just be going over the main types of shot sizes, angles and movements, since it may be impossible to cover everything anyone has ever known about the art of camera.
Extreme Wide Shot / EWS. Also may be known as Very Wide Shot / VWS or Establishing Shot / ES.
This shot is usually a way to establish the scene, to gain perspective on what’s happening and where it’s taking place. The outside of a building or looking down onto a large Sokovian crowd about to face the inevitable.
Wide Shot / WS or Long Shot / LS
A shot showing the entire body of a person or group of people.
Another way to establish the scene but it’s clearer on what’s going on in the scene. This would be when Nick Fury is giving the rundown on his plans for The Avengers before a battle.
Medium Shot / Mid Shot / MS
From the waist up (If the camera is focussed on a person that is). Unlike wider shots we have a clearer view of what the director + camera operator actually wants us to see.
Now that we’ve established the scene we can come closer. The camera is the representative for the audience so once it starts moving in closer to the characters/subjects the more intimate it feels.
Medium Close Up / MCU / Marvel Cinematic Universe <- Just Kidding / JK
From about halfway up the torso to the top of the head. Once again, slightly more intimate. A pretty normal shot size when two people are having a conversation. It’s normally tight enough for one person.
Close Up / CU
Head/face (but not always the head or face). It can be a shot of anything really, close enough for us to fully understand what we’re looking at.
A close up mean business. If you feel anxious, afraid, in love, threatened or any other intense emotion like it then the close up did its job.
Extreme Close Up / ECU
A shot focussed on just the eyes, a certain part of the body or an object giving off the feeling as if you were only inches away. Closer than a Close Up. If it’s a person it’s ‘extremely’ intimate. If it’s anything else… it’s extremely intimate.
Your sole focus is on this one thing. It couldn’t be any clearer what the audience needs to look at in this very moment.
Usually from high up. Similar to an establishing shot, but from the angle of a bird perched on a … perch. Like when we first meet Hawkeye in Thor, or any view from Captain Marvel’s perspective.
An aerial view might make the subject look small. In the picture above, Thor is kneeling before Odin. Although Thor is a powerful hero, when he’s in front of his father, a king, he should seem small.
Birds Eye View
Directly from above, like if you were The Falcon. On a large scale like in the picture above it might make the audience feel just as scared as a character looking down at 20 stories of nothing between Hawkeye and piles of rubble.
If you’re a film student, this shot is usually seen within the first 30 seconds of your first short film where your character wakes up to start his ‘ordinary’ day, but he has no idea what’s coming. If you want to be super edgy, put the ceiling fan in the foreground.
Shot looking down on the subject.
This doesn’t have to be from up high, just higher than the subject looking down on them. It will usually make the subject feel inferior as though looking up at Thanos.
Shot looking up at the subject. Now Thanos is the subject. He is inevitable. Oh no.
Camera is at eye level. Pretty self explanatory.
Any other kind of level.
Ground level, waist level etc. Although I can’t think of many films where the camera is predominantly shot at waist level. Can you? Let me know in the comments.
Over The Shoulder / OTS
Shot from behind a person, shoulder is in the foreground while the main focus is on whatever is on the other side of it. Pretty much every conversation in every movie besides any Cohen Brothers film because they’re better than that.
Be careful not to bombard your audience with a big fat shoulder stealing the show. It’s meant to be subtle.
If there’s anything in the foreground of the shot, like a tree branch or a wall, it will give off the impression the subject is being spied on. Only be creepy intentionally or your audience will get the wrong impression. See also ‘Hand Held’ below.
Point of View / POV
Whatever the camera sees is the exact point of view of the subject. Normally a person doesn’t look directly at the camera, if they do then the audience suddenly becomes aware they’re watching a movie. I mean they’re aware, but now they’re AWARE.
A POV shot will naturally make the camera become the character. Make sure your POV’s are intentional because they can take the audience out of the story, which isn’t always something a director wants.
Right to left / vice versa.
The camera itself is stationary and it’s turning side to side like if you were watching Iron Man drive by in his new Audi.
Up and down.
Camera is still stationary but you’re looking up and down like when Carol Danvers looks at anyone or Thor leaving the scene.
Camera is positioned on a track and is therefore being moved forward/back/side to side or around the subject/s.
This is as if you’re Peter Parker chasing after Tony Stark as he drives off in his Audi because you realise he’s the only real father figure you’ve ever had. (Audi give me a car, please).
Also a moving shot, not normally smooth. Supposed to give an unstable yet realistic feel. Basically 90%of every Avengers battle/fight scene.
There you have it. A bumpy crash course into the world of cinematography.
For more filmmaking advice keep reading The Independent Initiative, then go do film school.