Basic Cinematography

17 Most Important Cinematography Techniques

The 17 most important cinematography techniques you should know about right now.

Written by raghavgautam and Sareesh

Cinematography is the art or science of motion-picture photography. If you’re new to the idea this video and article will help you come up to speed:

The important elements of cinematography are

  1. Camera angles
  2. Camera movement
  3. Film Lighting

Within these three elements we find hundreds of techniques that can help us tell the story in different ways. Just like music!

Let’s look at the 17 most important cinematography techniques that you can use right now to improve your cinematography.

1 Establishing Shot

An establishing shot is a shot that tells you where the story is happening. In other words, its purpose is to tell the audience about the location and the environment in which the scene is taking place.

Even though the establishing shot is written in singular, you can combine multiple shots to enrich the process of establishing the location.

The most common way to establish a location is via a montage of several important aspects of a location.

E.g., iconic images from a city can quickly place us in the story. Places like the Eiffel Tower (Paris), Times Square (New York City), India Gate (Delhi), etc., are quick ways to establish the location of the story. Then you could move into a particular street, and then move in closer to a cafe 0n that street and then the table where the main protagonists are sitting, and so on.

The establishing shot can be one single shot, or a montage of shots – but the purpose is to place the audience in the story.

2 Over-the-Shoulder Shots

In this shot you see the shoulder of one character, while watching the face of the other character – either delivering dialogue or reacting to something or whatever.

That shoulder in the shot makes all the difference, because it makes the audience always aware of the other character’s presence. When you cut back to this character, you could continue with an over-the-shoulder shot in reverse, and the conversation takes on a confrontational tone.

As per the scene blocking, over-the-shoulder shots vary from scene to scene, and take different variations. This makes setting correct over-the-shoulder shots a challenge. A nicely set over-the-shoulder shot can showcase the body language and movement of the actor who is being conversed with, while the main actor is in focus. It helps establish eye contacts, movements, among many other important aspects of conversations.

Watch this short film play out in mostly over the shoulder shots:

3 Ultra-wide Shots or Extreme Long Shots

Ultra-wide shots often give us the idea about the location and the placement of the subjects. The movement of the subjects with respect to each other, especially where location plays an important role, can be beautifully showcased in an ultra-wide shot.

A beautiful example of such a sequence can be seen in the movie Downsizing, where ultra-wide shots are often used to depict subjects with respect to each other, also often displaying scale of different characters.

Jurassic Park also has similar use of ultra-wide shots where the dinosaurs and humans in one frame depict the size and magnanimity of the dinosaurs.

4 Wide Angle Shots or Long Shots

Wide-angle shots are closer than the long shots, where we are able to make out the actions and conversations of the protagonists. They are, along with over-the-shoulder, a very important aspect of storytelling. They involve the location, the characters, and also the actions.

They usually lead to mid or close-ups, or over-the-shoulder shots. Many scenes start with long shots and then get closer as you carry on in the scene.

5 Medium Shots or Mid-shots

Wide angles tend to lead to medium shots, which often include only the torso of the protagonist in the scene, and a bit of the ambience of the character. Mid-shots are often used to lead us slowly to the action instead of taking directly from a long shot to a close-up.

Mid-shots are also important to showcase the action being performed, while not losing sight of the ambience. The movie ‘Passengers’ depends on plenty of good mid-shots because the ambience and actions are an important part of the futuristic space-based film.

6 Close-Ups

One of the most important shots in filmmaking are close-ups. Traditionally, close-ups are of the face and neck of the character.

However, close-ups can be of even hands or legs, especially where there’s an important detail to be seen. Apart from important details or movements, close-ups are used to reveal the expressions of the subject, often letting us feel the emotions of the character.

The famous film Titanic has plenty of close-ups that often depict emotions. Tragedy and romance are two genres that depend on close-ups of faces, while suspense films often have close-ups of legs and hands, and even a particular location, without revealing many details. The above example of Fight Night is a great example of restricting the action to mid shots, over the shoulder shots and close ups.

7 Ultra Close-Ups

Very rarely used, often to intimidate the audience or showcase extreme emotions, extreme close-ups take us really close to the subject. Whether it is the eyes, or the lips while a conversation is going on, or fingers while some action is being performed, extreme close-ups are used only to showcase extreme intensity. Once upon a time in the West has some of the finest ultra close-ups in the history of fine cinematography.

8 Long Uncut Master Shots

Long uncut master shots are those which follow the characters or story without introducing any cut in the scene. Normal storytelling often involves plenty of cuts, but the long uncut master shots help in establishing actions that are better showcased via an uninterrupted sequence. Spielberg is considered master of long uncut master shots.

In this video I show you how a single-take scene is shot:

9 Tilting the Camera

Tilting the camera is a common way to introduce vertical subjects with a hint of suspense. A tilt movement is where camera tilts from top to bottom or from bottom to top.

Monuments and people are often introduced this way, with people often going from bottom to top. Tilt shots, owing to their apparent simplicity, are one of the overused cinematography techniques.

10 Panning the Camera

Panning shots are similar to tilt shots, except the movement happens horizontally across the frame. Panning shots are simple to create, like tilt shots. Hence, they are also one of the most overused shots in the filmmaking.

Some of the finest panning shots can be seen in Christopher Nolan films, where smart character blocking and character actions are combined with the panning movement. Here’s an example analysis from The Dark Knight:

11 Bird-eye View and Aerial Cinematography

Bird-eye view is one of the best ways of establishing a scene. It involves a top view from a very high vantage point, or even aerially. Traditionally, cranes and helicopters were used to attain them, and only the higher budget films could afford to use them owing to the costs involved.

With the advent of drones and cheaper camera alternatives, there’s an overuse of bird’s eye view shots, even in places where it isn’t necessarily required for storytelling. Some of the finest aerial cinematography can be seen in the film ‘Avtar’, which presents an out of the world experience, also because of very fine VFX.

In this documentary I shot on fishermen check out the aerial drone shots that add a totally different flavor to the piece:

12 Dutch Angle

One of the more unconventional, yet known, cinematography shots is the Dutch angle shot.

Instead of the horizon being parallel to the bottom of the frame, it is at an angle. Dutch angle is used to create a mystery or suspense, and often used as a tool to disorient the audience and show tension. Suspense and horror are two genres that use dutch angles extensively. However, overdoing it can be harmful for the overall cinematic value of the film.

13 Point-of-View Shots

Point of view shots are where the viewer is looking at the scene from the eyes of one of the subjects of objects in the scene. A very common method is to showcase the CCTV camera angle into the screen or a camera that is left switched on.

Paranormal activity derives much of its horror due to the fact that it showcases video camera footage, which makes the action look like it is very real. Another use of the point-of-view shots is where a cinematographer wants to showcase a particular action, like driving, hiking, or skiing. It is, however, more often used in documentary filmmaking as opposed to traditional filmmaking.

14 Breaking the Fourth Wall

Breaking the fourth wall is when a character from the film looks into the camera and talks to the audience or acknowledges the audience.

The whole experience of filmmaking is designed to immerse you in the story. Breaking the fourth wall shakes it off, and brings you out of the story. It is rarely used in filmmaking. Some of the fine examples of breaking the fourth wall are A Dog’s Life, written, directed, and starring the legendary Charlie Chaplin. On finding a wallet with money in it, ‘The Tramp’, Chaplin’s famous character, breaks the fourth wall and looks with his signature expression of eyebrow being raised.

Another great example is of Woody Allen in Annie Hall. Here’s the scene:

15 Tracking or Dolly Shots

Tracking shots are those where the camera follows the movements of the character across the location. A fine example of great tracking shots can be seen in the songs of the film ‘La La Land’.

Tracking shots help us in getting us fixated to the movements and actions of the subject, while keeping the cinematic essence of the scene beautified. Tracking shots keep moving from long shots to close-ups, and in between, as per the scene blocking and requirement. The Camera Dolly is one of the best ways to get smooth and perfect tracking shots.

This helps in blocking the scene and the character movement much better. Steadicam is another way of getting tracking shots, especially where it isn’t possible to setup a dolly track. While there may be obvious body movements in a steadicam shot, it counts as natural body movement and gives the impression of a fluid walking or following action.

Chase sequences in films involve such a large area of movement that it isn’t possible to always set dolly tracks. Steadicam helps in getting those chase sequences perfectly. Of course, the gimbal is also a great tool to move around the scene in a fluid and dynamic way.

You can also ignore any camera rigs, and just shoot with the camera on your shoulder (what we call, handheld):

16 The Zoom

Zoom shots are similar to tracking shots in that it moves from long to close-ups and vice-versa. The difference, however, lies in the change of focal length. A change in focal length changes the look of the character entirely. This isn’t preferred by most modern-day cinematographers, unless there’s a definite purpose for the shot.

However, Stanley Kubrick is one cinematographer that actually made the zoom shot fashionable:

17 Dolly Zoom

The dolly zoom combines a dolly movement with camera zoom to create a dizzying effect. While the dolly moves in to the scene, the camera zooms out, creating a beautiful transition, which is sometimes useful in suspense films.

Probably the best use of the dolly zoom is in Jaws:

Many cinematographers can be dazzled by the array of options. It’s hard to know when to pick which camera angle or movement.

What used to be difficult shots to accomplish are getting easier and cheaper due to lower cost rigs and smaller cameras. Unfortunately this might result in the overuse of some of the techniques.

Drone shots, for example, are so much overused, while over-the-shoulder shots, which are difficult to setup, are underused. Also, well-shot tracking or dolly shots are still as difficult to achieve as they were earlier.

Learning important cinematography techniques can help cinematographers know when and where to use a particular technique. Cinematography is a mere tool of storytelling, and whenever it tries to become larger than that, it may dazzle the audience but will probably fail the story.