Types of Shots Pieced Together: Unfolding the Story Before Your Eyes

Close-up of a man with a camera in his hands shoots directly into the frame

When watching a movie or streaming a show, one may notice certain details, feelings, or movements that stand out. Whether it's a clear emotion on an actor's face, a sweeping view of the landscape, or one of the British bakers crying again, these shots often mark the most crucial moments in stories told on video.

Shots convey details that advance the story, illuminate character, and enhance the viewer’s understanding of the creator’s intent. The different types of shots are thus a key part of the filmmaker’s craft.

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What is a camera shot?

A camera or film shot refers to the framing of the scene, or, in other words, what is visible on screen. The type of camera shot most often relates to the size or placement of the subject within the frame.  Filmmakers use different kinds of shots throughout a film to build the story or emphasize a particular character in the scene. Different film shots show the audience new perspectives, perhaps giving a glimpse of a certain character’s point of view, and making the film look more dynamic.

What are the basic types of camera shots?

  1. Close-up shot. In a close-up shot, the subject is shot from a close range and fills up most, if not all, of the frame. The benefit of this shot is that it allows the audience to pay close attention to the subject, often allowing for emotion or details to be conveyed clearly. For example, a director might use a close-up shot to fill the screen with a character’s face as they cry, emphasizing their total sorrow (Blue Is the Warmest Color, anyone?)   
  2. Extreme close-up shot. An extreme close-up, much like a close-up, focuses tightly on the subject in the frame. However, due to the extreme proximity of the camera to the subject, it often cuts off parts of the subject, forcing the viewer to focus on one small detail. This is often done to emphasize importance or to add texture to the environment. Examples of extreme close-ups shots might be a tear on a character's cheek or part of the text on the side of a book. 
  3. Medium shot. A medium shot captures the subject from a medium distance. This can also be referred to as a waist shot, as it typically frames characters from the waist up, allowing for the audience to see the character’s body language, or even see dialogue between two characters in the frame (when two subjects are framed this way it is known as a medium two-shot). Additionally, this distance allows for elements of the surrounding environment to be present in frame. 
  4. Cowboy shot. A cowboy shot is framed slightly wider than the medium shot, allowing for the character to be seen from just below the waist, either around the knees or mid-thigh. The term comes from Western films, where characters were often framed from this distance to include the gun holster, and is sometimes also known as an American shot.
  5. Full shot. A full shot falls somewhere between a medium shot and a wide shot. In this type of shot, the subject is shown in its entirety and also nearly fills the frame. Since multiple characters or subjects can be shown in a full shot, and it is a regularly used type of shot for featuring action.
  6. Long shot.  A long shot, sometimes called a wide shot, shows the subject entirely while also showing the surrounding environment. The subject, though in focus and in full view, will not fill the frame entirely. Long shots are frequently used for establishing shots, since they show a lot of the scene or environment.   
  7. Extreme wide shot. In a regular wide shot, the subject is small but still the focus, whereas in an extreme wide shot, the frame is even wider and shot from further away with the subject barely visible (if there're at all). This shifts the focus from the subject to overall the environment. This type of shot can also be used as an establishing shot. 

The importance of an establishing shot

An establishing shot does just what it sounds like: it establishes the location (and sometimes the time) where the story or scene takes place. This is usually done with a wide or an extreme wide shot, which clearly shows the environment and setting of the scene. 

Nearly every film starts with an establishing shot, as do many (though not all) scenes in a film. The establishing shot orients the viewer within the cinematic universe; by showing the location of the action to come, it helps to ground the narrative for the viewer and define the arc of the film or scene. 

What is the difference between camera shots and shot angles?

A camera shot refers to the framing of the subject within the overall scene, while the shot angle refers to the position of the camera in relation to the subject. For example, a wide shot can be captured from multiple camera angles. Below is an overview of the most common types of shot angles. 

What are the different angle shots in a film?

  1. High-angle shot. A high-angle shot is created by positioning the camera above the subject so that it is overhead or pointed down at the subject. This angle typically makes the subject feel smaller, making the audience feel superior to the subject.
  2. Low-angle shot. A filmmaker creates a low-angle shot by placing the camera below the subject. This causes the subject to feel larger than life, or looming over the audience with superiority.  
  3. Over-the-shoulder shot. ​​An over-the-shoulder shot is done by placing the camera over the shoulder of one of the characters, allowing the viewer to see the frame from the character's perspective and eyeline. An over-the-shoulder shot is often used in scenes with dialogue between two characters to show them talking to each other, and frequently features a medium or close-up shot. 
  4. Bird’s eyeshot. A bird's eye shot, sometimes called an overhead shot, refers to the camera position when it’s placed directly above the subject. In a bird’s eye or overhead, the camera is usually not placed too far above the subject or action but just enough to show the character and the surrounding scene (a medium sized shot should be big enough).
  5. Aerial shot. Similar to a bird’s eye, an aerial shot is also achieved by placing the camera overhead, but at a much greater distance and usually shot with a drone or helicopter, allowing for a much wider shot of the environment below and with little or no focus on the subject. Aerial shots are sometimes used to create establishing shots (how can anyone forget that iconic opening scene from The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews twirling in her skirt on top of an Alp with a helicopter capturing it all?)
  6. Dutch angle/tilt. A dutch angle or tilt refers to placing the camera at a tilted angle or in a diagonal position. This tilt on the camera's x-axis causes the frame to be askew and is generally used to alert the viewer that something is not right, whether to convey a character's state or simply to disorient the audience.

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