What really differentiates movies from plays is the way filmmakers manipulate the audience’s field of view. In theater, the audience is in a “wide shot,” always looking at the entire stage and all the actors on it. They are free to look wherever they want. In cinema, however, the filmmaker directs what the public sees and how. While a long shot can show a vast vista of Mount Everest, an extreme close-up can show the silent despair of a child learning that his mother has passed away. These different shots make up the fabric of visual storytelling. Read on:
Long shots are used to emphasize a sweeping location around the subject.
Long shot and wide shot are interchangeable terms.
This frame from Gone with the Wind (1939) emphasizes the tragedy of the Civil War and its death toll. Can you find Scarlet O’Hara in the picture?
Wide shots are more easily captured with wide-angle lens*.
Establishing Shot and Master Shot
An establishing shot and a master shot are not the same per se. But they were combined under the same subheading because the framing and composition are usually the same for both of them.
An establishing shot introduces a new location – a church, a city street, a rooftop, a hospital room – from a vantage point that allows the audience to see all the relevant characters in the filmic space. A master shot would probably be recorded from the same position, with the same lens, also showing all the characters. The difference is the duration. A master shot records the entire action, a complete run-through from that same camera position. This way if a tighter shot is forgotten or messed up during coverage, the director knows her editor will have enough material to show the scene in its entirety by cutting back to the master shot. In most movies, an establishing shot will last a few seconds before the editor cuts to medium shots and close-ups. However, if for someone reason the director decides that the cuts are not good enough, he may use the master shot of a scene to show the action unfold, in which case there would few to no cuts in that scene, which can a be a pleasant style.
To a sense, master shots are usually part of cinematography terminology because they should be standard practice for every new scene. Establishing shots, in the other hand, refer more to the editing phase of the movie, when the editor selects one quick angle to reveal the location.
Also, note that an establishing shot doesn’t necessarily mean that we see the character’s full body. Basically, the establishing shot displays the elements needed for the scene to function.
Full Shot (FS)
A full shot displays the character from head to toe, without showing much of his surroundings (or else it would be considered a long shot). These shots were very popular in the beginning of cinema before filmmakers had understood the power of medium shots and close-ups.
A full shot distances the character from the viewer both physically and psychologically. They carry less emotional weight, and therefore they are not the best choice during emotional scenes.
Whenever the director wants to convey someone’s anger, fear, or joy, close-ups are way more effective. A full shot would be more appropriate during a character’s entrance or a foot pursuit, for instance.
Medium Shot (MS)
Medium shots are the most common types of shots in the movies. Showing most of the subject’s body, medium shots are halfway between long shots and close-ups; however, authors disagree on the definition. While some writers say that the medium shot shows the character from a little above the knees to the top of his head, others state that medium shots only go as low as a little above the waist. Regardless of the academic debate, a medium shot is by all definitions a happy medium between a full shot and a closeup. Also, composition guidelines suggest that frame lines shouldn’t cut the actors on the joints, so as long as operators avoid knees, waists, elbows, etc., the framing shouldn’t be a problem. In other words, just go a little higher or lower with the framing to avoid the joints.
The medium shot also includes two other famous shot types: The two-shot, with two actors facing the same screen direction, and the over-the-shoulder shot, showing a conversation in which the actors sit or stand across from each other:
To record medium shots, a normal lens* should be enough. Adjust distance accordingly.
In close-up shots, the subject occupies most of the frame, allowing very little observation on the environment. Close-ups are much more dramatic than long or medium shots. They are preferred when emphasizing someone’s emotion:
Extreme Close-Up (ECU)
Often labeled as a detail shot, extreme close-ups do exactly that: show a small detail that would otherwise be missed in a winder shot.
For close-ups and extreme close-ups, telephoto lens* are more appropriate.
Insert shots don’t focus on people. They are utilized to emphasize a relevant object, such as a letter, an envelope with money, or a gun that would otherwise be lost in the grand mise-en-scène. Insert shots are tight shots in which objects fill most of the frame. Even if inserts don’t reveal anything new, they are still welcome during the editing phase, as they smooth transitions between shots, often serving as a neutral shot that allows a breach of the 180 degree rule.
Simply put, reaction shots are a cutaway – usually a close-up – of an actor reacting to the main scene, like a conversation or an event, though it can be pretty much anything.The reaction may be conveyed by a sneer, furrowed browns, a grin, or any other gesture that conveys an emotion.
The logic of the reaction shot is that the emotional reaction of the actor depicted will move the story forward or reveal his traits.
* Further Reading: If you are confused by all the different types of lenses (i.e. wide-angle, telephoto, etc.) I mentioned on this page, then read our article about focal length here for further clarification. If questions persist, please don’t hesitate to contact me.