Distance Shots

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

If you want to tell if someone is a beginner filmmaker its not that hard. All you really have to do is looks at their cinematography and you will tell. Super shaky shots without any sense of composition that go on for 45 seconds at a time make me close a YouTube video faster than anything else.

However a lot of people think that if they want to improve their cinematography they need to buy a better camera. NOT TRUE! In fact if you don’t know how to use the camera you have right now buying a more expensive camera with even more features you don’t use you will probably get an even worse looking shot.

There is good news though; there are simple rules for you to follow so that you can get great looking cinematography. After learning each rule you can gradually add onto it with other parts of composition to improve your cinematography.

The first thing that is important to know about is the different type of distance shots. You can either have a:

Wide Shot
Many times this is also called an establishing shot because it establishes the location of where the scene takes place. A great example of an establishing shot is in Seinfeld. Every time the scene switches to Jerry’s apartment they show a wide shot of an apartment complex. The best thing about that shot is that it is actually an apartment complex in Los Angeles even though the show takes place in New York. However the shot gets us to believe that it is in New York.
A wide shot when involving people shows their entire bodies or more. If possible get a wide-angle lens for your camera. When I had a hand held camera I got one for about $40. For DSLR users you can expect to pay a minimum of $300 for a wide angle.

Medium shots go are shots from the waist up of a person. These tend to be good shots for casual dialogue between two people. It allows for us to see both people and there is enough space in the frame for it not to feel that congested. I personally use this shot the most for anything I do.

A close up shows the shoulders to the head of a person. It is great for getting in close to the action and showing the details of what is going on. When used for dialogue it emphasizes what is said.

Extreme Close up
An extreme close up is a close up on steroids. With a person it is usually their eyes and mouth with the top and bottom parts of their head cut off. This creates a tense and uncomfortable scene. When not involving someone talking these shots are going to show the very minute details of what is happening.

All of these shots are great and good cinematography should include a variety of all of them. Instead of just hitting record on your camera think about the shot first and how you want to tell the story. A good example of how you can use them is like this.

Wide: A house on the corner. We start to hear people talk.

Medium: Inside of a house. Centered on two friends, John and Tanner are sitting at a table, each with a cup of coffee.

Medium: Facing on the John sitting on the left. He continues to talk.

Close up: Tanner’s face. He looks from John down to john’s cup of coffee.

Close up: John’s coffee. There is a packet of sweetener next to it.

Medium: John is still talking and reaches for the sweetener.

Close up: He begins to open it

Extreme close up: Tearing open the packet.

Close up: Pouring it into his coffee and stirring it

Extreme close up: Tanner’s eyes looking at John

Extreme close up: John is still talking

Close up: John stops stirring the coffee

Medium: John picks up the coffee and brings it up to his mouth to drink it.

Extreme close up: John drinking the coffee

Medium: John putting the cup down on the table.

Wide: The house on the corner. We hear someone falling off a chair. Tanner leaves the house with mug in hand.

Did you see how those shots go from wide to extreme close up? The camera is literally bringing you into the action.

Experiment with different shots and how you can arrange them to give a different mood to your film.  Once you mastered these shots you can move on to learning more about cinematography.


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