Camera 101: A Quick Guide

One of the first things students are taught in film school is the basic types of camera shots. This common language is essential for writers, directors, camera operators, and cinematographers to effectively communicate visual elements of a shot, particularly the size of a subject—often a person—within the frame. Provided here is a list of the essential shot types and camera movements that you need to know, along with a brief description.

Shots indicating subject size

There are many ways in which you can frame your subject, from seeing their entire body to only their eyes. Generally speaking, we can break this down into three main shot sizes: Long, Medium, and Close. Long shots (also commonly called Wide shots) show the subject from a distance, emphasizing place and location, while Close shots reveal details of the subject and highlight emotions of a character. Medium shots fall somewhere in between, putting emphasis on the subject while still showing some of the surrounding environment.

It’s important to note that the following shot types only relate to subject size within the frame, and don’t directly indicate what type of lens is used to capture the scene. The choice of lens—and, thus, the distance of the camera from the subject—remains an artistic decision for the Director and/or Director of Photography.

Extreme Long Shot (aka Extreme Wide Shot)

Used to show the subject from a distance, or the area in which the scene is taking place. This type of shot is particularly useful for establishing a scene (see Establishing Shot later in the article) in terms of time and place, as well as a character’s physical or emotional relationship to the environment and elements within it. The character doesn’t necessarily have to be viewable in this shot.

Long Shot (aka Wide Shot)

Shows the subject from top to bottom; for a person, this would be head to toes, though not necessarily filling the frame. The character becomes more of a focus than an Extreme Long Shot, but the shot tends to still be dominated by the scenery. This shot often sets the scene and our character’s place in it. This can also serve as an Establishing Shot, in lieu of an Extreme Long Shot.

Full Shot

Frames character from head to toes, with the subject roughly filling the frame. The emphasis tends to be more on action and movement rather than a character’s emotional state.

Medium Long Shot (aka 3/4 Shot)

Intermediate between Full Shot and Medium Shot. Shows subject from the knees up.

Cowboy Shot (aka American Shot)

A variation of a Medium Shot, this gets its name from Western films from the 1930s and 1940s, which would frame the subject from mid-thighs up to fit the character’s gun holsters into the shot.

Medium Shot

Shows part of the subject in more detail. For a person, a medium shot typically frames them from about waist up. This is one of the most common shots seen in films, as it focuses on a character (or characters) in a scene while still showing some environment.

Medium Close-Up

Falls between a Medium Shot and a Close-Up, generally framing the subject from chest or shoulder up.

Close-Up

Fills the screen with part of the subject, such as a person’s head/face. Framed this tightly, the emotions and reaction of a character dominate the scene.

Choker

A variant of a Close-Up, this shot frames the subject’s face from above the eyebrows to below the mouth

Extreme Close Up

Emphasizes a small area or detail of the subject, such as the eye(s) or mouth. An Extreme Close Up of just the eyes is sometimes called an Italian Shot, getting its name from Sergio Leone’s Italian-Western films that popularized it.

Shots indicating camera angle/placement

In addition to subject size within a frame, shot types can also indicate where a camera is placed in relation to the subject. Here are some commonly used terms:

Eye Level

Shot taken with the camera approximately at human eye level, resulting in a neutral effect on the audience.

High Angle

Subject is photographed from above eye level. This can have the effect of making the subject seem vulnerable, weak, or frightened.

Low Angle

Subject is photographed from below eye level. This can have the effect of making the subject look powerful, heroic, or dangerous.

Dutch Angle/Tilt

Shot in which the camera is set at an angle on its roll axis so that the horizon line is not level. It is often used to show a disoriented or uneasy psychological state.

Over-the-Shoulder Shot

A popular shot where a subject is shot from behind the shoulder of another, framing the subject anywhere from a Medium to Close-Up. The shoulder, neck, and/or back of the head of the subject facing away from the camera remains viewable, making the shot useful for showing reactions during conversations. It tends to place more of an emphasis on the connection between two speakers rather than the detachment or isolation that results from single shots.

Bird’s-Eye View (aka Top Shot)

A high-angle shot that’s taken from directly overhead and from a distance. The shot gives the audience a wider view and is useful for showing direction and that the subject is moving, to highlight special relations, or reveal to the audience elements outside the boundaries of the character’s awareness. The shot is often taken from on a crane or helicopter.

Other common shot types

Cut-In

Similar to a Cutaway, but shows a Close-Up shot of something visible in the main scene.

Cutaway

A shot of something other than the subject and away from the main scene. It is usually followed by a cut back to the first shot and is useful for avoiding a jump cut when editing down a section of dialogue, or editing together two separate takes.

Establishing Shot

Usually the first shot of a scene, this is used to establish the location and environment. It can also be used to establish mood and give the audience visual clues regarding the time (night/day, year) and the general situation. Because they need to provide a great deal of information, Establishing Shots are usually Extreme Long Shots or Long Shots.

Master Shot

Term given to a single, uninterrupted shot of a scene. This shot can be the only shot used by a director to cover a scene, or edited together with additional shots. While it’s commonly a Long or Full Shot, a Master Shot can be a closer shot, or consist of multiple shot types if the camera is moving throughout the scene.

Point of View Shot (POV)

Shot intended to mimic what a particular character in a scene is seeing. This puts the audience directly into the head of the character, letting them experience their emotional state. Common examples are of a character waking up, drifting into unconsciousness, or looking through a scope or binoculars.

Reaction Shot

Shows a character’s reaction to the shot that has preceded it.

Reverse Angle Shot

A shot taken from an angle roughly 180 degrees opposite of the previous shot. The term is commonly used during conversation, indicating a reverse Over-the-Shoulder Shot, for example.

Two Shot  A shot in which two subjects appear in the frame.

Camera movements

Tilt shot

It’s as easy as it sounds, but the best way to turn this simple technique into an elegant shot is to carefully coordinate the careful upward or downward camera movement with some action within the scene. It can be used as an establishing shot of a wide-angle view or for slowly revealing something at the end of the shot.

Panning shot

The horizontal equivalent of the tilt shot. They can be used simply to show the surroundings, but you can achieve truly professional results with it by keeping the panning smooth and accurate (make sure to use a gimbal stabilizer or something similar), especially when there’s action and a carefully composed final frame involved. Remember, such movements should be well-executed to look very natural and almost unnoticeable so as not to distract the viewers from the story.

Zoom shot

This type of shot has evolved over time — from being jerky, fast, and cheesy to being a lot slower and smoother to create a more natural zoom effect that doesn’t distract viewers. Needless to say, it increases the focus on a scene, an object, or a character.

You can also try the dolly zoom shot, which creates a dizzying “vertigo effect” that can be perfect for suspense films. It works by smoothly zooming out with the lens while the camera (and dolly) moves closer to the subject in perfect coordination.

Crane shot

This shot captures vertical translational motion by moving the camera up or down by a couple of feet. It used to be achieved with huge and expensive cranes, but it can now be replicated with drone cameras. Fortunately, it’s a shot that doesn’t always have to be in every film, but it’s a great shot that will add production value to your work.

Tracking shot

This type of shot can be achieved with a dolly, which is basically a wheeled cart that moves along a rail track, or a Steadicam and other innovative motion control gear. You may even use a drone—specifically one with a tracking flight mode like the DJI Mavic Pro, which comes with an ActiveTrack mode that allows you to choose a subject (whether a person, a vehicle, or even an animal) for the aircraft to follow.

With a dolly track, you can create smoother movements and follow your subject as it leaves the frame, or simply add dynamism to an otherwise static camera shot. You can even combine the tracking shot with an over-the-shoulder shot or use any other (out-of-focus) object in the foreground to add depth and enhance the 3D illusion in your shot.

Want to get those expensive-looking tracking shots with inexpensive gear? This tutorial is for you. And we like Kino-esque catch-phrase at the end – “Make films, not excuses!”

Point-of-view (POV)

For this shot, your camera can either be steady or moving along its axis, as long as it shows how and where viewers should look at or scan the scene and make them feel like they’re in the movie. It can also be accomplished by fitting your subject with a camera mount, similar to the GoPro footage above. It’s not the most aesthetically-pleasing shot and can sometimes be dizzying for viewers, but it’s one of the best ways to make your film all the more immersive and engaging.