How to Use Medium Shots in Your Films

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Photo Source: “Succession” Credit: Claudette Barius/HBO

Everyone loves a close-up, and wide shots sure do show off. But what if you need a Goldilocks-esque focal length that’s in the middle and “just right”?

It sounds like you’re looking for a medium shot. While perhaps not as grandstanding as other types of shots in the playbook, the medium shot is an essential building block to crafting competent sequences in your film projects. Here’s what you should know.


What is a medium shot?

A medium shot captures the subject from a medium distance—which we can define as from the waist up—while also allowing the viewer to take in a good amount of their surroundings. The medium shot is versatile and omnifunctional; whether you’re showing one character in their home environment or multiple characters dealing with a new environment, the medium shot could be what you’re looking for.

Types of medium shots

Barbie movie - Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie“Barbie” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Alongside the classic medium shot are: 

Medium long-shot

Also referred to as a medium wide shot, three-quarters shot, or the cowboy shot, this type of medium shot frames your subject from the knees up instead of the waist, which is to say, three-quarters of your subject’s body. Think of how classic Westerns frame gunslingers so you can see their holstered weapon and their face—and you’ve got yourself a classic cowboy shot or medium long.

Medium close-up

In this shot, you frame your subject from around the middle of their torso to around the top of their head—thus, you’re not fully in a close-up (just a character’s face), but you’re not fully in a traditional medium shot, either. 

Stranger Things“Stranger Things” Courtesy Netflix

Over-the-shoulder shot

Framed on one character over another character’s shoulder or body, the over-the-shoulder shot features both characters in the frame, emphasizing their connection, or implying one character’s intrusion on another’s space.

The Last of Us

“The Last of Us” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Compare this to a two-shot, which places two characters side by side on the same plane, showing definitively and explicitly their physical relationship.

What is the purpose of a medium shot?

Steven Yeun in Beef “Beef” Credit: Andrew Cooper/Netflix

“A medium is one of the most utilitarian shots,” says director Jacob Reed (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”). “It’s great for when you want to be close enough to see an actor’s expression but wide enough to also see some of the environment around them—for example a location or key prop, or perhaps another actor. It can also be used to bridge a wide shot and close-up. It’s also great for dialogue and conversations.”

Cinematographer Dana Shihadah (“They Want Me Gone”) says, “Medium shots are often seen during dialogue with multiple actors, giving the audience a chance to see more than one person’s reactions and body language. This approach applies to single-subject shots as well, showing the audience the environment around the character without losing the physicality of the performer.”

To further elaborate, medium shots are great for: 

  • Illuminating character-environment relationship: Medium shots allow you to make a statement about your character as they relate to their environment, without sacrificing clarity of either—but without specifically focusing on either.
  • Capturing movement: Physical comedies, musicals, and action films all use medium shots (especially medium wides) to capture the entirety of where and how characters move with clarity, purpose, and dynamism. 
  • Establishing details: Medium shots are ideal for showing the audience details about your film’s costumes, production design, and settings. Those elements can quickly help set a scene and plant the viewer in your storyworld without unnecessary exposition.
  • Equality in the frame: Medium shots (especially medium close-ups and two-shots) can also be used as visual and emotional equalizers, as they present all of their characters and the environment surrounding them as being “on the same page” vis-à-vis an audience’s attention.

Medium shot tips and considerations

Transatlantic“Transatlantic” Credit: Anika Molnar

Story first

\When considering a medium shot, Reed asks himself: “How can I make the simplest kind of shot tell a story? And what else can I fit in the frame? If you’re using a medium shot, there’s a lot of room to add visual information.” 

Shihadah agrees that, first and foremost, you must consider what kind of story the medium shot is telling. In her feature film “They Want Me Gone,” “we had an important shot that involved our main actor climbing into frame and listening for an eerie sound, so we started by asking ourselves the purpose of the shot, which was to set the audience further on edge. We practiced having the camera handheld and the actor entering frame from below as she climbed a ladder, always keeping a large amount of headroom and following any spontaneous movement made by the actor. We found our rhythm and successfully captured the minute-long take on the first attempt.”

A “simple” medium makes other shots pop

Beyond its simplicity and capacity for story-driving information, forms of medium shots can be considered as “filler,” in the best and most useful connotation of the word. These types of shots can help keep a scene or sequence grounded and even-keeled, until the director and DP decide to shock the viewer by throwing in another type of shot. Without the previous base reality of medium wides-through-close-ups, another type of shot would not pop with as much finesse and bravado.

When crafting your shot list and thinking about your edit, the medium shot should be viewed in direct relationship to any and every other kind of shot you’re planning—perhaps more so than any other kind of shot, “which can help a scene feel less jarring,” says Shihadah. If you’re covering a scene and unsure where to place a camera, chances are you need this simple, reliable medium to help you get where you need to go. 

Avoid complacency

“You can get away with a boring medium shot,” warns Reed, “but it’s also a blank canvas to make interesting choices and fill the space.” Shihadah agrees, saying medium shots “should always be intentional, nothing is ever a throwaway shot. Although medium shots are extremely versatile they can also bog down a scene if they aren’t set up in an effective way.”

Medium shot examples from film and TV

“The Gold Rush” 

To properly show Charlie Chaplin’s infamous “potato dance,” the director-star and DP Roland Totheroh framed the physical gag in a medium shot, showing in its hilarious clarity the clash of contexts between this trampish behavior and the high status of his surroundings.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” 

In this infamous final duel, director Sergio Leone and DP Tonino Delli Colli heap medium shots throughout, especially (obviously) the cowboy shot. These are both functional and evocative—and make the stylish extreme close-ups pop even harder.


In the iconic diner conversation between Al Pacino and Robet De Niro, 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.


“The Coen brothers have great medium close-up shots,” says Reed, and in this clip from “Fargo” (with DP Roger Deakins), we see an entire conversation covered in medium close-ups (with a two-versus-one over-the-shoulder for good measure), allowing us to focus on how the characters feel while never losing the suspense of their public setting. 

“Lost in Translation” 

This scene, and much of the film, is covered primarily in a two-shot, sometimes shifting to over-the-shoulder medium close-ups. Director Sofia Coppola and DP Lance Acord use these kinds of shots to convey the beginnings of a connection between the two lead characters, though an awkward amount of space remains between them.

Macy’s, “Ditch the Drama”

In this branded spot directed by Reed with DP Eric Bader, Reed began by framing tough-looking men in close-ups, “then we pulled out to a medium to reveal more context showing that the guys were actually just being overly festive for the winter holidays,” he says. In the close-up, “the focus was the intensity of the actor’s performance, and you got just enough of a hint around them to make an assumption about their surroundings… When we snap to the medium shot you can see more context and the juxtaposition provides a comedic reveal.”

“Killing Eve,” Season 2, Episode 6: “Billie”

Shihadah believes the TV show “Killing Eve” reveals “how powerful and versatile medium shots can be and how many elements you can manipulate to move your audience.” In this scene, medium shots of various focal length, over-the-shoulders, and two-shots are used, conveying the ever-shifting, volatile status of the characters’ relationship.

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