I dream for a living.
       - Steven Spielberg

Shot Sizes

Home >> Cinematography >> Shot Sizes


What most differentiates movies from plays is the way filmmakers manipulate the audience’s field of view. With plays, the audience is in a long shot, always observant of the entire stage and all the actors. In cinema, the filmmaker directs what the public sees and how. Whereas 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.

The Filmmaker's Insight

Besides the obvious purpose of showing different elements of the mise-en-scène, shot sizes are important for variety. The audience would quickly get bored with a single type of shot, thus directors choose to employ these different shot sizes in almost every scene of every movie they make.

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 Shot

Long shots are used to emphasize the scenery or the location around the subject. Oftentimes, a wide shot comprises of sweeping land or cityscapes. A long shot of a family eating long shotat the dinner table would, perhaps, be recorded from the living room.

The picture to the right is a frame from Gone with the Wind (1939). A long shot is employed to emphasize the tragedy of the Civil War and its causalities. Can you find Scarlet O’Hara in the picture?

Wide shots require wide-angle lens to show a vast location.

Establishing Shot and Master Shot

An establishing shot and a master shot are not the same per se. But they were compiled as one distinct category because the framing and the composition is 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 fiestablishing shotlmic 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 length. A master shot records the entire action, a complete run-through from that camera position. That way if a tighter shot is forgotten 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. An establishing shot would not last more than ten seconds in the edited movie, while a master shot could last a few minutes.

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. An establishing shot of a man at a type writer would most likely show only him and the type writer.

The Film Historian's Insight

During the first years of cinema, the most common type of shot was the long shot. Back in 19th century, when cinema was still young, there were no filmmakers; there were only camera operators. These operators were interested in sceneries because that's what the audience wanted – to be transported to different locales. 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. They were preferred because the camera would record scenes with a similar vantage point as theater audiences would have. In that time, the film grammar, which incorporates, among other things, editing and shot variety, hadn't been developed.

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


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 phyfull shotsically and psychologically. They carry less emotional weight, and therefore they are not the best choice during emotive scenes.

Whenever the director wants to convey someone’s anger, fear, or joy, close-ups are way more effective. A full shot would be welcome if a character is having an epileptic seizure, 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 declare 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 debate, general composition rules demand that frame lines shouldn’t cut the actors on the joints, so as long as operators avoid knees, waists, and elbows the framing shouldn’t be a problem.

The medium shot also encompasses two other famous shot types: The two-shot, with two actors facing the same screen direction, and the over-the-shoulder, showing a conversation in which the actors sit or stand across from each other.

To record medium shots, a normal lens will suffice.

Close-Up (CU)

In close-up shots, the subject dominates most of the frame, allowing very little observation on the locale of the scene. Close-ups are much more dramatic than long or medium shots. They are preferred when conveying someone’s emotion: close up

Extreme Close-Up (ECU)

Often labeled as detail shot, extreme close-ups do exactly that: show a small detail of certain relevance that would otherwise be missed in a longer 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 employed 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

Reaction shots are often forgotten by camerapersons and incredibly needed by editors. They comprise of a cutaway – usually a close-up – of an actor reacting to something, like a conversation or a speech, though it can be pretty much anything. Reaction shots are customarily deprived of dialogue, but not always. The actor’s reaction may be a sneer, furrowed browns, a grin, or any other gesture that conveys an emotion; or just an expressionless stare.

reaction shot

The Filmmaker's Insight

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.


Related Readings:

Lessons on Screenwriting

Lessons on Directing:




Make Your Own Film
for Under $1000!



Sponsored Links


Have a question?
Ask us here.