Have you dreamt of shooting your own feature film someday? There are a ton of things you’ll need to know to make your own film. One of which is to master the art of cinematography techniques that will aid your storytelling. Cinematographers decide how images on screen are most effectively relayed to an audience in the director’s vision. With this in mind, we’ve listed down some of the most widely used cinematography techniques in film and also explained how each shot can affect your scene.
41 Essential Film Techniques
1. Aerial shot
Also termed as a bird’s eye view shot, an aerial shot was traditionally taken from a higher vantage point like a bridge or a skyscraper. But, the advent of drones has made capturing this shot a lot easier. A bird’s eye view shot as the name suggests is used to provide audiences an overview of all that’s happening by placing a camera up above and capturing the action going on below. It’s generally used as an establishing shot to set up the location of the film. It can give viewers a wider view and draw attention to a character in motion and his/her relations to the environment.
2. Arc shot
This type of shot involves a camera circling around the subject in a semi-circle. They can be used to indicate transitions or add much-needed intensity to a scene. One of the most common examples of the arc shot is found in The Matrix. But, instead of a having a camera circling around the subject, this shot was painstakingly created by putting together snapshots from hundreds of cameras.
A lighting technique where the main source of light is placed behind the subject. It is typically used to delineate the subject from the background. But, backlighting can also be used to establish different moods by changing the position of the light source. Read how Roger Deakins masterfully lensed and lit Blade Runner 2049.
4. Bridging shot
True to its name, a bridging shot is used to connect two or more disparate moments in a story. They are integral to maintaining the pace of the film and can suggest a shift in time or place. The classic example of this shot is an animated line drawn across a map to denote a character traveling from one place to another.
5. Over-the-shoulder shot
A shot where the camera is placed behind the subject’s shoulder, usually during a conversation. It’s used to imply a connection between the characters seen talking. This is in stark contrast with a single shot that suggests distance. The opening of The Godfather employs this shot rather effectively to convey confrontation.
6. Low angle shot
The low angle is an obverse of the high angle shot, wherein the camera is positioned below the character’s eye-line. This gives the character a larger-than-life appearance and makes them look more powerful when compared to others in the scene.
7. High angle shot
The camera is placed high up so as to look down on a character or subject to convey essential information about a certain character. In a pivotal scene from Titanic, Cameron frames Kate Winslet from a high-angle against the vast ocean below making her look insignificant and not in control of her life as she debated jumping into the ocean.
8. Dutch angle/tilt
This technique involves tilting the camera to one side, creating a frame that is not level. A Dutch angle when done well can heighten dramatic tension, leaving viewers feeling slightly disoriented in the process. It can also be used to signify unrest in a character, evoking feelings of psychological distress. Christopher Nolan’s Inception makes use of this shot to suggest an element of uncertainty to the proceedings.
9. Close up
A type of shot where the subject fills almost the entire frame. This helps to register facial expressions better. While information about the surroundings is lost, a close up helps viewers immerse themselves in the character better. It may also be used to draw attention to a specific symbol or recurring motif that may be important to the plot.
10. Medium shot
A medium shot is when the subject is captured from the waist up. It’s commonly used to trace back and forth dialogue between two or more characters. A medium shot is also termed the ‘sweet spot’ shot as it allows viewers to look at both the characters engaged in conversation along with the backdrop in which it’s happening. It can thus audiences engage with characters on a personal level.
11. Long shot
A long shot/wide shot sets up the scene and establishes the character’s relation to it. It captures the full length of the subject along with some details of the background. The extensive use of long shots can sometimes denote a sense of separation from the film itself. A well-composed long shot can stand out in the minds of the viewer even after the end of the film.
12. Extreme close-up
This shot only frames the person’s facial features, often so much that portions of the subject are cut off by the edges of the frame. You can choose to show specific parts of the body like the face, or go even closer to show an actor’s eyes. Inanimate objects can also be framed using the extreme close-up shot. Think of a ticking bomb or a bullet shell ricocheting off against an object.
13. Extreme long shot
This is similar to a long shot but covers a wider area and the characters need not be visible in the frame. It works excellently to establish the location, like in the case of Quentin Tarantino’s opening frame in Inglourious Basterds.
14. Eye level
A camera angle where the point of view is set at the eye-level of the subject in question. It helps feel as if we were a part of the scene and bring us into the story. An eye-level close up can help humanize the central character of the story.
A shot where the camera moves to the left or right of the vertical axis
A shot where the camera moves up or down on its horizontal axis
17. Tracking, crane or dolly shot
This shot involves moving the camera throughout the scene for an extended period of time. They’re often used to follow traveling subjects like Butch when he decides to go back for his watch in Pulp Fiction. It makes us live the action as we’re acutely aware of how high the stakes are.
A zoom shot is an instance where the camera moves in and out of the frame by using a zoom lens instead of physically moving the camera. One can zoom into a character’s face or zoom out to reveal an element that was hidden from the frame until then.
19. Handheld/Random motion shot
A shot where the camera operator holds the camera during motion to create a frenetic, jerky feel. They are generally used to heighten the intensity of a scene, like in the case of Saving Private Ryan. There are a number of handheld shots in the jaw-dropping opening battle scene which manage to capture the inherent chaos of a war.
20. 360 Degree
A type of shot where the camera is made to revolve around the subject, hence the name. It was a technically demanding shot which has now been simplified due to the advent of drones. The Matrix uses 360-degree shot to create one of the most memorable sequences in movie history. The execution was extremely meticulous to a point where the film editors had the ability to adjust the speed and angle of the shot.
21. Compound motion
This is when multiple movements are combined to create a single cohesive shot. The two popular types are the dolly zoom and the single take.
A shot where the camera tracks forward towards a subject while simultaneously zooming out. This dizzying effect was first made use of in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Movies like Shaun of the Dead soon followed suit.
Here, multiple movements and camera angles are combined together to create one lengthened shot. When done right, a single take can successfully disorient the viewer as they’re getting used to a newer setting. 1917 and Birdman are some of the popular movies that utilize this technique to create a more immersive environment.
22. Full shot
A full shot is a type of camera shot that captures the character’s entire body from head to toe. It’s typically used to capture the character’s setting and context of the character. Wes Anderson uses the full shot frequently in all of his works. They serve to demonstrate the appearance of his idiosyncratic characters.
23. Cowboy shot
Framed from mid-thigh up, cowboy shot is called so because of its recurrent use in Westerns. The three-way standoff in the 1996 film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a great example.
Considered to be a variant of the close-up, a choker shot is usually framed at just above the eyes and just below the mouth.
25. Establishing shot
Used to set up the context for a scene ahead and informs the viewer what the kind of action that will be taking place. They can also be used to show the passage of time like the use of Hogwarts in Harry Potter to convey seasons changing, or movement of the school year.
A cutaway shot is an interruption of a continuous shot by moving away from the main scene. This is followed usually by cutting back to the first shot. These can either be done within the same scene, or as one continuous shot as the camera pans to cover something else. An editor’s secret weapon, a cutaway shot is used to adjust the pace of the scene or even shift to a voice-over.
Similar to a cutaway shot except that it features a close-up of an object seen in the main scene. It can either be used purely as an edit point, or to emphasize motion. For instance, hand movements can depict feelings of enthusiasm, agitation or nervousness.
28. Master shot
A master shot is the recording of a scene in its entirety. Also called as a long shot, it’s a key element of film production onto which additional scenes can be stitched together. It’s generally the first shot to be checked off during the shoot of a scene as it serves to eliminate gaps in the edit by providing coverage.
29. Point of view (PoV) shot
A shot that depicts the point of view of a character so that we see exactly what they see. They’re often used in horror movies to put us in the shoes of a killer, giving us a glimpse of their emotional state.
30. Deep focus
A type of camera angle that allows the cinematographer to keep everything in perspective without favoring foreground, mid-ground, or background. It helps to capture all the crucial details in a shot. Director-cinematographer duo Orson Welles-Gregg Toland made extensive use of the deep focus technique.
31. Locked down shot
A locked down shot refers to a camera shot in which the camera is immobile whilst something else happens on screen. This shot is particularly useful in creating suspense for the audience due to the lack of information on what’s happening in the scene.
32. Money shot
As the name suggests, this type of shot is deemed disproportionately expensive to produce. It’s meant to startle the viewer momentarily. Think of the White House blowing up in Independence Day.
33. Steadicam shot
A steadicam shot is a variant of the handheld shot, employing a special harness that smoothes out the bumps and jerkiness associated with a typical handheld style. Initiated by Garrett Brown in the 70s, directors like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón have taken a particular liking to it.
34. Two shot
A two shot features two characters within the same frame. Here, the subjects need not have to look at each other. One character may be present in the foreground while the other in the background. This is used to convey a strong emotional bond between the two characters.
35. Whip Pan
A whip pan is an intentional camera rotation, so fast that it creates a disorienting blur effect. The camera literally whips the camera back and forth on its X-axis. Notable filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright have all incorporated whip pan shots into their works.
A trucking shot is a shot in which a camera is mounted on some kind of conveyance and films while moving through space. Similar to dollying, trucking means moving the camera from left to right, instead of in and out.
A storyboard is a method of visualizing the shots you’re considering shooting. It’s a great tool for any storyteller to see how the different frames come together to establish the narrative of the film. A meticulously designed storyboard lets your DoP know what is expected of them and saves a lot of time that would have otherwise been used to brief the technical crew.
38. Static frame
As the name suggests, this shot does not involve camera movement of any kind. While the characters or props within the frame can move, the frame does not move. It conveys important information, allowing viewers to study a frame.
39. Reverse shot
This refers to a technique where a cinematographer places the camera setup on one object or subject and then makes use of an altogether different second setup to show the reverse view of the first setup. Nolan makes use of this technique in The Dark Knight during the iconic interrogation scene. Reverse shots are used to establish the fascinating dynamic between Batman and The Joker.
The French term mise-en-scène translates to ‘placing on stage’ and essentially refers to everything that is placed in front of the camera. It comprises of all the components that contributes to the overall look and feel of a scene.
41. Jump cut
A type of transition used in film editing where a single take is broken using a cut to make it seem like the subject has jumped forward in time instantly. While it is a stylistic choice more than anything, purists would argue that a jump cut draws attention to the constructed nature of the film. Nevertheless, it can be a handy tool while introducing characters or further accentuate mental states of a character.