Cinematography tips: Understanding shot sizes.
(Excerpt taken from my book "Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide" now available from Amazon. See end of post for link)
There are standard industry shot sizes that we can choose to help tell our story. This film grammar was established in Hollywood in the 1920s, in the early days of film. We have the main three:
● Wide / master
Wide / master:
The wide helps establish where we are: what is around us, where the characters are in relation to each other, and a sense of scale and place. The wide needn’t be the first shot in the edited sequence, but it should ideally come fairly near the front to set things up. Never underestimate the power of a wide / master shot. Sometimes directors fall into the trap of not showing it well, assuming the audience knows the surroundings. The orientation of the scene might be confusing on screen, but the director is unable to think beyond his or her memory of where everything was on filming day.
The medium allows us to get a little closer to our characters and objects. We see them in more detail, particularly their eyes, allowing us to identify with them while keeping a sense of place. Hand and arm gestures play well in a medium shot but might not do so in a wide without seeing the character’s eyes simultaneously. But they would be out of frame and lost in a close-up. The medium gives us a good sense of the background and shows us the character’s body language too.
Close-ups convey the emotional beats of a scene. Small nuances of performance can be seen wonderfully in a close-up. That tiny bite of a lip, the squint of an eye . . . a close-up should ideally be saved for the most emotional parts of a scene.
Sprinkled around those initial three shot sizes we also have:
The extreme wide conveys distance. Think of epic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). If someone was alone in a desert, a standard wide shot wouldn’t convey the size of the landscape or the distance around our character. But an extreme wide would tell us how far they have to walk or who or what is around them.
Cowboy (medium up from the mid-thigh):
The cowboy’s name is derived from the western genre. When filming a cowboy in the frame, a medium shot would cut off at the waist and not allow the camera to see the gun holster that our hero might be reaching for. Alternatively, a wide would be too far back and we might see the guns, but they might not be too clear in the frame.
The two shot features more than one actor and allows the audience to do the editing by choosing who to focus on. This shot lets the audience see reactions of the other characters immediately. A two shot also binds two characters together nicely, suggesting that there is a connection between them.
The medium close-up is fairly self-explanatory. It’s halfway between a medium and a close-up. Normally cutting the actor off mid-chest, it’s getting physically closer for those emotional beats.
The extreme close-up would crop the actor’s face above the eye and below the mouth. This is very close and not particularly flattering. A good guideline is the “arm’s-length rule.” If you were to face someone and hold your outstretched arm on their shoulder, this would keep you at a comfortable distance from them. To the eye, the other person would appear to you like a close-up shot would to the camera. Now, there are only a few reasons why you would venture in closer than this in everyday life. One is to get intimate with someone in an emotional encounter, or to confront them in a threatening manner. So you should have a good reason to go in this close.
Point of view:
A point-of-view shot or POV is when we see what the character sees. This can be any of the shot sizes listed above. Compositionally, you could place your object or subject more in the center of the frame than use the conventional Rule of Thirds. This way the audience has no doubt it’s seeing what the character is seeing.
Over-the-shoulder is the name given to shots where the camera is literally placed over the character’s shoulder so we see what they see. When you have characters talking to each other or looking at things, you can decide whether you shoot the angle “clean,” without the shoulder in frame, or as an OTS including a shoulder. OTS shots can add a few nice touches to your story. They give a sense of someone listening; we can literally see their ear, and it aids orientation by revealing how far away the other person is from our character.
So I hope that gives you some idea of what shot sizes to use and when. Close-ups do look good, but framing a little wider can help give the film a slightly more cinematic feel as the audience are treated to more of the surroundings and also given a good sense of place. Let your shot size be informed and reflected by the events on screen not just what looks good to the eye.
"Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide" is published by Michael Wiese Productions and is available to buy from Amazon here: