Basic camera shots
Shots are usually defined by how much of the scene you show in your frame (what you see in your viewfinder). This can be controlled a couple of different ways. One would be to change the distance between the camera and your subject by physically moving the camera closer or farther away. The other would be to change the focal length of your lens, which controls the angle of view. A zoom lens, which virtually all camcorders have is a combination wide angle, normal and telephoto lens. You change the angle of view by zooming in to a narrow angle of view (telephoto) or zooming out to a wide angle of view. Here are the basic shots:
Long Shot ( LS )
A long shot frames a wide field of view of your subject and its surroundings. It usually requires a greater distance between your camera and your subject. Most likely you would choose a wide-angle lens setting (zoomed out).
Long shots are also referred to as wide shots or establishing shots. An establishing shot establishes the subject’s location for your viewers by revealing its surrounding. It might also be used to cover broad action involving several people in a large area. Use long shots sparingly! Details are lost in long shots. Overuse of long shots is boring.
Medium Shot ( MS )
A medium shot frames more of your subject while still revealing some of the background. If your subject is a person, a medium shot would show the person from about the waist up. Medium shots provide more detail than long shots, which makes them more interesting to your viewer.
Closeup Shot ( CU )
A closeup focuses your viewer’s attention on specific details. It demands that the viewer concentrate on the information you are giving them. In storytelling, closeups have great emotional impact. They can also be used to give the audience information the characters in your video don’t have. For example, showing a closeup of a sign reading “wet paint”, right before a medium shot of your character in the process of sitting down on a painted park bench, would build anticipation and set up the audience for the laugh. You will most likely need to use a camera support, like a tripod, in order to get a steady shot. A closeup of a person would frame the subject from the top of the head to the top of the shoulders. Human emotions are best revealed in closeups!
Extreme Closeup Shot ( XCU )
An extreme closeup shot frames only a portion of your subject. It is a very dramatic shot that can generate great visual excitement. XCUs might be used to show the face of a wristwatch or words being typed on a computer screen. Like the long shot, extreme closeups should be used sparingly, when it is important that your viewers see great detail. In most instances you’ll want to choose a wide-angle lens setting (zoomed all the way out) and move the camera lens as close to the subject as necessary. Use of a camera support, like a tripod, is a must. An extreme closeup of a person’s face would detail the eyes, nose and mouth. When framing an extreme closeup of a face, be sure to include the chin and sacrifice the forehead. The reason for this has to do with how our imaginations fill in spaces we can’t actually see on the screen, using something called psychological closure. When framing human subjects, proper closure can be achieved by avoiding putting natural cutoff lines of persons at the bottom of your frame. Instead, frame your shots to include the area slightly above or below these natural body joints. Your shot will look awkward if you don’t supply enough visual information for your viewers to project what lies outside the frame.
A matter of degrees
You’ll find words like “big” or “extreme” are also used with shot descriptions, as in “big closeup” or “extreme long shot,” to further qualify a shot. Another popular way to describe shots of people is to include the number of people in the shot as part of the description. For example, a medium shot of two people might be called a “medium twoshot”. The medium two-shot is perhaps the most used shot in movies and television.
Start out playing by the rules
Some people feel that rules restrict them too much. However, if you’re trying to control the visual messages your video is sending, you need an understanding of traditional rules of composition. Then when you go about breaking the rules, you’ll be able to do so with purpose and intent! Many centuries ago, artists developed rules to guide them when painting or positioning objects in a rectangular frame. They discovered that certain placements were more pleasing and that the eye was drawn to some areas of the canvas more readily.
The Rule of Thirds
An offshoot of those artistic rules, used in still photography and video, is called the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds states that you should mentally divide the frame (what you see in the viewfinder) into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. What you get is like a tic-tac-toe board overlaying your screen. When you shoot your video, according to this rule, you should place your key subject elements along those lines. Where the lines intersect will be the best place for your subject. That means that centering your subject in the frame will create a less interesting composition.
In most cases you will have control over where you are with your camera. When framing your subject, move the camera so that the prominent subject elements fall along one of the third lines, preferably at a point where those lines intersect. If you can’t move the camera to a good spot, try to move the subject.
A case in point would be the placement of the horizon line in an outdoor shot. Don’t center the horizon on your screen. Place the horizon on either the top or bottom third line. Which one will depend upon your subject. If you’re shooting a sailboat on the ocean, do you want to show more of the ocean or more of the sky? That would be your artistic choice! Which one looks the best to you? The point is to take control of the situation and try to frame the most appealing shot. Don’t just accept whatever happens to appear in your viewfinder!
Room at the top
Headroom refers to the amount of space between the top of a person’s head and the top of your frame. Too much headroom makes the person appear to be sinking. Most novice photographers and videographers will frame shots of people with too much headroom. Take a look through some old family photos if you don’t believe me. Too little headroom places visual emphasis on the person’s chin and neck. When framing shots of people, pay attention to where the eyes appear. Follow the rule of thirds and place the subject’s eyes on the upper third line.
Reminder: When framing shots of people, don’t forget to avoid placing the edge of your frame at one of the body’s natural cutoff lines: neck, elbows, waist, knees and ankles.
Lead them on
Lead space refers to space in front of your subject. Leave extra space in the direction your subject is looking. You might also see this space referred to as look space or nose room. Leave extra space in front of a moving person or object, like a runner, bicycle, or automobile when following the action. Not doing so will make it look like your subject is in danger of running into the edge of your frame!
What’s in the background?
Most of your shots will include background elements that are part of the location where you’re shooting. Make sure what’s in the background of your shot doesn’t draw your viewer’s attention from your main subject. We’ve all seen live TV interviews, shot on location, where somebody in the background is waving or making faces at the camera.
This is one type of distracting background you need to try to avoid. Always check what’s in the background of the shot you are framing. Background clutter or distracting objects, like an overflowing garbage bin, can usually be avoided by repositioning your camera (moving it left or right, framing a tighter shot, changing the camera angle) or
moving your subject. You might also be able to put the background out of focus by decreasing the depth of field in your shot.
Mergers are another form of distracting background. Background objects or strong vectors that visually merge with your subject can not only be distracting, they can be down right humorous. Again, reposition the camera or the subject to avoid mergers.
Moving right along: camera movement
A pan is the horizontal pivoting of the camera from a fixed point, left to right or right to left. It is used to follow screen action or to reveal more of a location without zooming or repositioning the camera. It is a shot that is abused and overused by many beginning videographers. It might be used as an establishing shot, to follow a moving subject, or to reveal the relationship of one subject to another. A pan shot should have a beginning, middle, and end. Once started, a pan should continue smoothly in one direction, at the same rate of speed, until coming to a smooth stop on a well composed shot. Keep the camera recording as you hold it still at the end of your pan. You’ve chosen to lead your viewers to this shot by panning to it, so give them a chance to see what it is they were led to. You can always choose to cut the shot off when editing. Generally speaking, don’t string multiple pan shots together or pan one way and then back the other way.
Pan tip #1: Move the camera slowly when panning. Most novices tend to pan much too fast. The rate of your pan should match the pace of the scene you are shooting for. A very fast pan, often called a swish pan, can sometimes be used as a transition between scenes to signal a change of location and time.
Pan tip #2: Have a good reason for choosing to use a pan. Most of the time a pan can be replaced by multiple stationary shots with a more satisfying result. Don’t use pans because you are too lazy to shoot sequences!
Pan tip #3: Hold the camera still for a few seconds at the start of the pan as well as at the end.
Pan tip #4: Practice the pan shot before recording it, making sure you know where to end the shot. If you’re going to be editing your footage you can always just record the shot again and use the best take for your edited program.
A tilt occurs when you pivot your camera up or down from a fixed position. As with the pan, a tilt should start and end with a stationary shot that is held for a few seconds. The same tips described in the pan section apply to tilts as well.
Tracking shots usually involve the use of some sort of wheeled camera support for smooth camera movement. The pros will actually lay down a section of train-like tracks for the camera to be pushed along. If you don’t have access to such equipment, you might try substituting a tripod on wheels (called a dolly) or you could have your cameraperson hold the camera while riding on an office chair, grocery cart, or wheelchair. It’s generally best to use a wide-angle lens setting to keep camera shake to a minimum. Tracking shots come in two basic varieties:
Trucking is the lateral movement of the camera at right angles to the subject. It makes the background of the shot appear to move. Think of Fred Flintstone running through his cave house. The wall of his house appears to be moving as the camera appears to run along side Fred. Actually, since it’s a cartoon, it is the drawing of the wall that is moving! In real life, a trucking shot might be used to follow two people in conversation as they walk along a path. A trucking shot differs from a pan in that with a trucking shot, the camera changes location. In a pan shot, the camera stays put and the direction it is pointed changes. The terms trucking and tracking are sometimes used interchangeably.
Moving the camera toward or away from a subject performs a dolly shot. The effect can be vastly different than leaving the camera in a stationary position and zooming. A dolly shot has the effect of bringing your viewer closer to or farther away from the subject, while zooming reduces or magnifies the subject and the field of view.
First off, let me point out that the zoom shot is probably the most overused shot of lazy or novice videographers. Your video can improve dramatically by resisting the temptation to press the zoom toggle every time you want a different view.
The zoom is a convenient way to quickly reframe a shot in situations where it is impractical to physically move the camera. You might have just recorded a long shot of a crowd of people at a sporting event. You now want to pick up a few medium shots of small groups or individuals in the crowd. Use the zoom to quickly reframe those shots and record them. You might even choose to leave the camera on record between shots, with the intention of eliminating the in-between zoom footage when editing. Zooms that serve no purpose are boring. Don’t try to follow action with the camera zoomed in. You’ll quickly make your audience seasick. So, what’s a good purpose for a zoom?
A zoom in can serve to concentrate the viewer’s attention to particular subject or detail not evident in a wider shot. It is more dramatic than a cut from the wider shot to the zoomed in view, but takes longer. Have a good reason for making your audience wait. A zoom out can serve to reveal the location or context of the thing that is framed at the start of the zoom. Picture this. A shirtless young man sporting several facial piercings is sitting in a room with twenty other people. The camera slowly zooms out from a closeup of his face to reveal the other people in the room, who are all senior citizens in formal attire!
Playing the Angles: what’s your perspective?
A flat shot is a shot where the subject and the camera are at the same level. There is little emotional impact. This might be a shot of another person taken from their eye level.
A high angle shot occurs when the camera is raised to a position higher than the subject. A slight difference makes the viewer feel somewhat superior to the subject. Raise the camera to a more extreme high angle and the viewer becomes clearly dominant. Frame a closeup shot of a person from an extreme high angle and the viewer becomes a threatening monster!
A low angle shot occurs when the camera is lowered to a position below the height of the subject. This can make the subject appear larger than life, exaggerating its importance. There’s a reason why the King and Queen have their thrones on a raised platform. It’s the same reason professional wrestlers and football players are often photographed from a low angle.
Over the shoulder (OTS)
An over the shoulder shot (OTS) is a type of POV shot. It is often used when it is impractical for the camera to be in the same position as the person whose point of view you are showing. It’s also used a lot when depicting a conversation between two people.
Showing a subject’s reaction to something that just occurred in your scene is aptly called a reaction shot. This shot conveys the impact of the moment. In a fictional story, it can be used to give your audience insight into what a character is thinking. Common reaction shots are closeups of faces that portray alarm, delight, fear, laughter, suspicion . . . . . . whatever the moment calls for. Reaction shots are usually cutaways from the primary action, shown from the point of view of someone viewing the occurrence. When you’re watching a televised performance of a comedian, and the view suddenly switches from the comedian to a closeup of somebody laughing at the last joke, that’s a reaction shot. If you don't want to miss any of the main action, try to record reaction shots before or after the main event. You can edit these into the production later, wherever they would be appropriate to the action.
The Horizon line
Carpenters use levels to make sure the doorways they construct aren’t leaning sideways and kitchen countertops don’t slant to one side. The world is full of vertical and horizontal lines. We expect vertical objects, like trees and the sides of buildings, to be at right angles to the ground. We expect horizontal things, like where the ocean meets the sky (the horizon line) to be, well, horizontal! If you tilt your head to one side, the view or the world you get is an unnatural one. Things seem off kilter and a bit unsettling. That’s the same effect you will have on your viewers if you compose shots where the horizon line is not parallel to the top and bottom of your frame.
Reaching for new horizons
However, if your goal were to create tension and add drama to a scene, tilting the camera sideways to create a slanted horizon would be a good way to do it. Combine a tilted camera with severe angles and your audience will start to become anxious. It generally works best to use extreme tilts.
Television is a two-dimensional medium. The screen is pretty much flat. Shots that appear to have depth are more engaging. Adding a 3-dimensional quality to the two dimensional medium of video is a matter of illusion. Here are some things that can help you pull off this magic act.
A simple way to give a shot a feeling of depth is to show perspective by framing your shot so your subject is at an angle. Instead of shooting a side view of your car, choose a corner of the car (say left front) and shoot facing that part of the car. This will create a foreground and a background, which is what you need to show depth. Use this technique on other things, like buses, buildings, bridges, etc.
Rack ‘em up
A rack focus shot is achieved by shifting focus during a shot in progress, typically between the foreground and background. You’ll need to switch to manual focus to accomplish this shot. You can use this technique to quickly shift the viewer’s attention between something (someone) in the foreground and something (or someone) in the background.