The term “camera shot” indicates the space that viewers see in a frame or series of frames. Camera angles, transitions, movements, and cuts all affect the camera shot, but the shot type usually indicates the field size used to focus on subjects in a frame.
The shot list needed to create any given scene is called coverage. The cinematographer most directly impacts coverage, but they usually work with the director to determine which shots will best bring the director’s vision to life. The screenwriter might also propose that certain shot types be used.
There are nine major camera shot types when categorizing by field size. These are the establishing shot, the master shot, the tracking or dolly shot, the wide or long shot, the two shot, the over-the-shoulder shot, the medium shot, the close-up, and the extreme close-up.
1. Establishing shot
Remember the outside of Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite diner or the house on the hill in “Psycho”? Frequently used in ’90s sitcoms and classic films, the establishing shot is an extremely wide view—often an exterior—used to indicate the place, time, or concept of the scene that follows. While it may not contain any actors, character placement within the establishing shot can be a great tool for indicating relationships before the start of the scene.
- Example: Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” contains one of the most famous opening shots of all time. Set in the far future, this establishing shot shows Los Angeles from high above. The use of flying cars, dark imagery, and contrasting flames conveys to the audience that this isn’t a future we wanted or intended. It also sets the bleak tone for the noir detective story that follows. Watch this clip to see.
2. Master shot
The master shot differs from the establishing shot in that it covers all of the action of the scene, providing a wide view that will later be cut with tighter angles and close-ups. Since it is often the first shot to be filmed, actors help the director out by choosing a physical action that can be repeated take after take without hindering the creative process.
- Example: There’s a moving master shot in the opening of “Skyfall.” Pay attention to how it starts as a POV, becomes a close-up of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, and then shifts to a medium shot—all while giving the audience the most essential information.
3. Tracking shot (or dolly shot)
This complicated shot follows the movement of actors, objects, or vehicles in the frame by mounting the camera on a dolly or using a skilled Steadicam operator. Frequently used in action movies and episodic television—think gurneys wheeling through an ER or swift walks through the White House hallway—tracking shots require focus, precision, and patience from crew and actors alike.
- Example: Director Orson Welles and DP Gregg Toland cover this scene in “Citizen Kane” with a slow dolly in, capturing their subject’s power first with his ornate office, then with exacting detail on his face.
4. The wide shot (or long shot)
The wide shot gives the audience a sense of environment by showing an actor or actors from far away, generally framed from the top of their heads to the bottom of their feet. There is some room for movement within the frame, though wide shots are used sparingly and (usually) for only a small part of the scene.
- Example: Because of his hyper-stylized, diorama-esque style of filmmaking, Wes Anderson often uses wide shots to capture a character’s personality through their surroundings. In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” you learn vital details about each member of the ensemble’s personality from the spaces they occupy.
5. The two shot
The two shot is just what it sounds like: two subjects together in a semi-tight frame. It can take several forms, from a mostly still shot used to establish the relationship between two characters to an action shot with two actors in frame.
- Example: Two shots are used frequently in Sofia Coppola’s beautiful and poignant “Lost in Translation.” Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) appear in the same frame to emphasize their emotional closeness in the vastness of Tokyo.
6. The over-the-shoulder shot
This popular method for shooting two characters tightly focuses on one actor while framing the shot over the other actor’s back and shoulder. This helps the audience focus on one speaker at a time while framing them in the context of their conversation. Since the second actor is only seen from behind, major film and television sets occasionally substitute a stand-in or photo double for over-the-shoulder shots.
- Example: The technique was used extensively by Alfred Hitchcock throughout his filmic corpus, and it is used in nearly every conversation scene in “Psycho.” One over-the-shoulder shot example takes place in the scene when Norman Bates claims he’s “not capable of being fooled.” This exchange shows how uncomfortable Norman makes Detective Arbogast and Norman’s quickness to anger upon realizing Marion might have tricked him.
7. The medium shot
Generally defined as a semi-close shot that shows actors from the hips up, a medium shot is used to capture subtle facial expressions while still depicting body language and environment that might be lost with a tighter frame.
- Example: In the iconic diner conversation between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s characters in “Heat,” director Michael Mann and DP Dante Spinotti cover this simmering back-and-forth with a litany of medium shots, especially favoring over-the-shoulders and medium close-ups to communicate their relationship’s shifting interplay.
8. The close-up
There’s a reason Norma Desmond croons, “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!” The close-up shot is arguably the actor’s most important moment on set, and it requires a high level of focus and skillful subtlety. Close-ups are usually framed from the shoulders up and capture even the tiniest facial variations. Pro-tip: Actors can save their editors a major headache by avoiding overlapping dialogue in close-up scenes. It’s easy to manually add overlap when cutting close-ups together, but near impossible to remove it; for this reason, most directors prefer “clean dialogue” with a small space between each line.
- Example: The airport scene in “Casablanca” is one of the most famous examples. The camera moves through various shots, establishing different levels of intimacy, before settling in on the actors’ faces. Here, we get every detail of the emotions that director Michael Curtiz wants us to feel. Even the slightest nod of Ingrid Bergman’s head when she tells Humphrey Bogart, “I said I would never leave you,” pulls at your heartstrings.
9. The extreme close-up
The extreme close-up depicts intense emotion or fear by focusing very tightly on one small part of the actor’s face, such as a roving eye or tightening lip. Artistic, dramatic, and bold, this shot is used sparingly but effectively in high-tension films and television shows.
- Example: The defining example of an extreme close-up—three of them, actually, one after the other in quick succession—comes courtesy of director Sergio Leone in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”