Film Studies 101: The 30 Camera Shots Every Film Fan Needs To Know

From whip pans to crash zooms and everything in between

Camera Shots

by Ian Freer, illustrations by Olly Gibbs |
Updated on

The cinematographer's art often seems as much black magic as technique, taking a few actors milling around a set and turning it into something cinematic, evocative and occasionally iconic. Amidst all the voodoo and mystery, however, there is concrete science behind those money shots so we've identified thirty of the most important camera shots to help you distinguish your dolly zooms from your Dutch tilts.

Aerial Shot

An exterior shot filmed from — hey! — the air. Often used to establish a (usually exotic) location. All films in the '70s open with one — FACT.

Example: The opening of The Sound Of Music (1965). Altogether now, “The hills are alive..."

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Arc Shot

A shot in which the subject is circled by the camera. Beloved by Brian De Palma, Michael Bay.

Example: The shot in De Palma's Carrie (1976) where Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) and Tommy Ross (William Katt) are dancing at the prom. The swirling camera move represents her giddy euphoria, see?

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Bridging Shot

A shot that denotes a shift in time or place, like a line moving across an animated map. That line has more air miles than Richard Branson.

Example: The journey from the US to Nepal in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

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Close Up

A shot that keeps only the face full in the frame. Perhaps the most important building block in cinematic storytelling.

Example: Falconetti's face in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928).

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Medium Shot

The shot that utilises the most common framing in movies, shows less than a long shot, more than a close-up. Obviously.

Example: Any John Ford film (i.e. The Searchers), the master of the mid shot.

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Long Shot

A shot that depicts an entire character or object from head to foot. Not as long as an establishing shot. Aka a wide shot.

Example: Omar Sharif approaching the camera on camel in David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia (1962).

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Cowboy Shot

A shot framed from mid thigh up, so called because of its recurrent use in Westerns. When it comes, you know Clint Eastwood is about to shoot your ass.

Example: The three-way standoff in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966).

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Deep Focus

A shot that keeps the foreground, middle ground and background ALL in sharp focus. Beloved by Orson Welles (and cinematographer Gregg Toland). Production designers hate them. Means they have to put detail in the whole set.

Example: Thatcher (George Couloris) and Kane's mother (Agnes Moorehead) discussing Charles (Buddy Swan)'s fate while the young boy plays in the background in Citizen Kane (1941).

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Dolly Zoom

A shot that sees the camera track forward toward a subject while simultaneously zooming out creating a woozy, vertiginous effect. Initiated in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1959), it also appears in such scarefests as Michael Jackson's Thriller video (1983), Shaun Of The Dead (2004), The Evil Dead (1981) and The Goofy Movie (1995). It is the cinematic equivalent of the phrase "Uh-oh".

Example: Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the Kintner kid (Jeffrey Voorhees) get it in Jaws (1975). Not the first but the best.

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Dutch Tilt

A shot where the camera is tilted on its side to create a kooky angle. Often used to suggest disorientation. Beloved by German Expressionism, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi and the designers of the villains hideouts in '60s TV Batman.

Example: The beginning of the laboratory scene in Bride Of Frankenstein (1935).

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Establishing Shot

The clue is in the name. A shot, at the head of the scene, that clearly shows the locale the action is set in. Often comes after the aerial shot. Beloved by TV directors and thick people.

Example: The first glimpse of the prison in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

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Handheld Shot

A shot in which the camera operator holds the camera during motion to create a jerky, immediate feel. Beloved by Steven Soderbergh and Paul Greengrass. It basically says, "This is real life, baby".

Example: The pool hall fist fight in Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973).

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Low Angle Shot

A shot looking up at a character or subject often making them look bigger in the frame. It can make everyone look heroic and/or dominant. Also good for making cities look empty.

Example: Darth Vader stomping around the Death Star corridors in Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (1977).

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High Angle Shot

A shot looking down on a character or subject often isolating them in the frame. Nothing says Billy No Mates like a good old high angle shot.

Example: Andy Dufresne throwing his hands up into the rain having finally escaped from Shawshank prison in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

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Locked-Down Shot

A shot where the camera is fixed in one position while the action continues off-screen. It says life is messy and can not be contained by a camera. Beloved by Woody Allen and the dolly grips who can take the afternoon off.

Example: Ike (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) walk in and out of shot whilst flirting.

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Library Shot

A pre-existing shot of a location — typically a wild animal — that is pulled from a library. Aka a "stock shot", it says this film is old. Or cheap.

Example: Every shot of an animal in a black and white Tarzan movie.

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Matte Shot

A shot that incorporates foreground action with a background, traditionally painted onto glass, now created in a computer. Think the Raiders warehouse or the Ewok village or Chris Hewitt's house.

Example: The final shot of 1968's Planet Of The Apes.

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Money Shot

A shot that is expensive to shoot but deemed worth it for its potential to wow, startle and generate interest. In pornography, it means something completely different.

Example: The White House blowing up in Independence Day (1996).

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Over-The-Shoulder Shot

A shot where the camera is positioned behind one subject's shoulder, usually during a conversation. It implies a connection between the speakers as opposed to the single shot that suggests distance.

Example: The opening of The Godfather (1972).

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A shot where the camera moves continuously right to left or left to right. An abbreviation of "panning". Turns up a lot in car chases and on You've Been Framed (worth £250 if they use a clip).

Example: Brian de Palma's Blow Out (1981) — a 360 degree pan in Jack Terry (John Travolta)'s sound studio.

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POV shot

A shot that depicts the point of view of a character so that we see exactly what they see. Often used in Horror cinema to see the world through a killer's eyes.

Example: The opening of Halloween (1978) told from the point of view of the child Michael Myers (Will Sandin).

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The Sequence Shot

A long shot that covers a scene in its entirety in one continuous sweep without editing.

Example: The 3 min 20 secs opening of Touch Of Evil (1958) in which Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) cross paths with a car carrying a ticking bomb.

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Steadicam Shot

A shot from a hydraulically balanced camera that allows for a smooth, fluid movement. Around since the late '70s, invented by Garrett Brown. Beloved by Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron. A lengthy Steadicam shot is the directorial equivalent of "Look ma, no hands!"

Example: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) taking his new girl (Lorraine Braco) through the Copa by the back entrance in Goodfellas (1990). If you have the time, also see Russian Ark, a 99 minute Steadicam shot.

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A shot where the camera moves continuously Up to Down or Down To Up. A vertical panning shot. A tilt to the sky is traditionally a last shot in a movie.

Example: The last shot of Robert Altman's Nashville (1975).

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Top Shot

A shot looking directly down on a scene rather than at an angle. Also known as a Birds-Eye-View shot. Beloved by Busby Berkeley to shoot dance numbers in patterns resembling snowflakes.

Example: The camera moving over the carnage left by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver (1976).

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Tracking Shot

A shot that follows a subject be it from behind or alongside or in front of the subject. Not as clumsy or random as a panning shot, an elegant shot for a more civilized age. Beloved by Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Terence Davies, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Example: The dolly shots in the trenches during Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory (1957).

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A medium shot that depicts two people in the frame. Used primarily when you want to establish links between characters or people who are beside rather than facing each other.

Example: Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson) discuss love in Magnolia (1999).

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Whip Pan

A shot that is the same as a pan but is so fast that picture blurs beyond recognition. Usually accompanied by a whoosh sound. Beloved by Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright.

Example: Any one of a dozen sequences in Hot Fuzz (2007).

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A shot deploying a lens with a variable focal length that allows the cinematographer to change the distance between camera and object without physically moving the camera. Also see Crash Zooms that do the same but only quicker.

Example: The slow descending zoom that picks out Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams) out of a crowd in The Conversation (1974).

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Crane Shot

A shot where the camera is placed on a crane or jib and moved up or down. Think a vertical tracking shot. Beloved by directors of musicals. Often used to highlight a character's loneliness or at the end of a movie, the camera moving away as if saying goodbye.

Example: Gone With The Wind (1939). As Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) arrives at the train depot, the camera heads skyward to reveal hundreds of wounded confederate soldiers around her.

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