SHOT SIZES: Telling What They See

What really differentiates movies from plays is the way filmmakers manipulate the audience’s field of view. With plays, the audience is in a wide shot, always looking at entire stage and all the actors on it. In cinema, the filmmaker directs what the public sees and how. While a long shot can show a sweeping vista of Mount Everest, an extreme close-up can show the silent despair of child learning that his mother has passed away.

On Purpose

Besides the obvious purpose of showing different elements of the mise-en-scène, shot sizes are also important for variety. If the audience were always looking at, say, a close-up shot, they could get bored of that unchanging frame. But because shot sizes are always different within a scene, spectators often have something new on the frame to study.

Cinematographers should know by heart how the relationship between focal length (types of lenses) and camera-subject distance affects framing, and thus creates the different shot sizes. A true filmmaker, aside from understanding these basic technical concepts, must also comprehend the emotion, purpose, and meaning behind each type of shot.



Wide/Long Shotlong shot

Long shots are used to emphasize a vast location around the subject. Oftentimes, a wide shot comprises of sweeping land or cityscape.

Long shot and wide shot can be used interchangeably.

The frame to the right is from Gone with the Wind (1939). A long shot is employed to emphasize 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*.

For the Sake of Clarity

Long shots and establishing shots (which we will go ever next) can sometimes be similar in nature. The main difference between the two is that establishing shots will be wide enough to show all the characters and object necessary for the drama, while a wide shot will be wider than that, focusing more on the environment. Compare the frame from Gone With The Wind above to the frame from Little Miss Sunshine below, and try to guess how far the camera is from the action.


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.

establishing shotAn 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.

EDITING CONNECTION: Why Would a Director Opt to No Cuts?

I can already hear some of you asking that question. There are several purposes why that may be the case. For starters, a scene without cuts or edits keeps the viewing distraction-free, which can be great for tense scenes.

Have you seen Hitchcocks’ Rope. That film is in my opinion one of Hitchcock’s finest pieces. In Rope, there are two obvious cuts throughout the film. The other cuts are hidden in smooth transitions. This technique does wonders for the most suspenseful scenes in the movie by locking the audience to specific camera setups, which is not what we as movie-watchers are used to.

Another reason for that choice is budget constraints. If planned ahead of time, fewer cuts could translate to fewer camera setups, which could translate to fewer days of principal photography, which is amazing for the budget.

Sling Blade (1996, Billy Bob Thornton) comes to mind.  This film, which was reportedly shot for 1 million dollars ( pocket change for Hollywood standards), uses a lot of lengthy master shots to show the action of a scene. And if you think that fewer shots means a poor movie, think again. Sling Blade went on to gross almost 25 million dollars and earn an Oscar f0r Thornton’s screenplay.


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.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

During the first years of cinema, the most common type of shot was the long shot. Back in the 19th century, when cinema was still young, there were no filmmakers; there were only camera operators. These operators were interested in landscapes and locations because that’s what the audience wanted – to be transported elsewhere and see something new. The camera (then called the cinamatographe) was traveling to distant countries and capturing exotic images around the globe. Close-ups were rare.

The great train robbery

When impresarios (arguably the first filmmakers) decided to use the cinematographe to record scripted stories, establishing shots became common. Establishing shots were preferred because the camera would record scenes with a similar vantage point as theater audiences have in plays. In those times, the film grammar, which incorporates, among other things, editing and shot variety, hadn’t been developed yet.

It wasn’t until D. W. Griffith came along that medium shots, close-ups, and insert shots were understood and used effectively. D. W. Griffith changed the game because his films abound with shot variety, as he knew the different purposes of the shot sizes.

 Full Shot (FS)

A full shfull shotot 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, authormedium shots 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.

Close-Up (CU)

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: close up

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. extreme close up

For close-ups and extreme close-ups, telephoto lens* are more appropriate.

Insert Shots

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.

insert shot

Reaction Shots

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.

reaction shot

Why are reaction shots important?

1. For Story

As the name implies, a reaction shot contains someone’s reaction, which is a quick emotional beat. Above you have a reaction shot from L.A. Confidential. Without the context, you can tell that Russell Crowe is not happy. Quite the opposite actually; he looks angry and frustrated. This quick reaction shot is enough to convey his feelings. If you watch it in context, that shot will make even more sense and thus more powerful.

2. For Editors

The reason why reaction shots are needed is because they allow the editor to cut away from the main action, thus allowing some flexibility on the assembly of shots.

Suppose that the camera operator captured two takes of an actor’s speech that lasted 1 minute long. Now imagine that the first half of the actor’s speech is more powerful in the first take, while the second half is better in the second take. Without the reaction shot, the editor only has two choices: take 1 or take 2. However, with the reaction shot of a secondary character, the editor has a third choice: he can bridge the first take and the second take by cutting away to the reaction shot during the transition from one take to the other.

3. For Performance

Imagine if there was a device that allowed you to point to a person a know what they are feeling at an specific moment. Well, with reaction shots, the camera is such device. When you point it to someone responding to something, you can get a glimpse of what they are feeling. And this puts the actor’s in a great position to showcase his performance, which also advances the story.

* 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.

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