Understanding and applying the medium shot

I can’t help but feel that whoever named the medium shot did it a vast injustice. In most real-life situations, people equate the term “medium” with blandness, mediocrity and an underwhelming lack of excitement. It is neither large nor small, but something that falls into the no-mans-land of the middle. It is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. Medium is the indecisive choice of the uninspired. It is the size of french fries that no one wants to order; It is the roast of coffee that no one prefers to drink. It is a milquetoast compromise that lacks any amount of passion.

But in the case of shot composition, all of these underwhelming and unflattering connotations of compromise so often associated with the word medium are an unfair and inappropriate underestimation of the immensely important and powerful device that filmmakers call the medium shot. In reality, this modestly monikered shot type is a mainstay of compelling and creative visual storytelling. And its value is of such magnitude that it could very well redeem the malaise of the word medium once and for all. 

The ubiquity of the medium shot

In the world of film and video, the medium shot is featured with such regularity that, to casual observers, it may go all but unnoticed. Those who are inclined to look for the medium shot, however, will be amazed at just how frequently it is relied upon. While medium shots are occasionally used as a visual bridge between extreme wide establishing shots and extreme closeups as a way of providing coherent visual context, the medium shot is more often a destination in and of itself, not merely a means or method of visual transition. Once the environment has been established, editors intercut medium, wide and close up shots to focus the interest of the viewer and drive the pace of a scene. In most scenes, variations within a range of medium shots occupy the bulk of screen time, carrying and communicating the weightiest portions of the primary content that we refer to as the A-roll. Extreme wide shots and extreme closeups, by comparison, are used much more infrequently, and often as what most would consider to be B-roll inserts.

Image courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Why use a medium shot?

One of the great benefits of medium shots is that they allow the procure to show a subject within the context of his or her surroundings. Whereas a closeup isolates a subject so that the environment is nearly, or entirely, indistinguishable, the medium shot allows the viewer to see a scene or subject inside his surroundings in a way that is close enough to grant the audience the ability to see details of facial expression and subtle movements, but loose enough to allow the subject freedom to move within his space. This is a valuable device when an on-camera subject needs to interact with an environmental object like a desk, dinner table, car, cannon, grocery store shelf, elevator door or other persons within a location. The strength of the medium shot is that it is not an apathetic compromise between wide and close shots, but the perfect balance and blend of closeness and context. 

Medium shots are often used to frame two or more subjects in a scene. A typical two-shot and an over-the-shoulder-two are variations of medium shots that are used as a device for delivering dialogue. These scenes allow viewers to see multiple participants in a conversation, as well as their environment, while allowing room for them to gesture with their arms and hands without extending them outside the bounds of the frame. While its name may not tend to indicate so, the medium two-shot, which composes two characters in close approximation, can effectively provide context for some of the most intense and intimate interactions that take place on screen.

Common types of medium shots

The name medium shot does not so much describe one singular shot composition as much as a broader category of shot compositions within a range. The medium shot is manifested in a variety of iterations, ranging from a medium closeup on a single subject to a shot showing two or more subjects together. There are at least eight different varieties of medium shot that prolific producers should be able to identify and employ in their productions.

  • Standard medium shots frame a subject from the top of the head to just above the waist or beltline, showing the full torso, chest and shoulders, but nothing below the belt. 
  • Medium close-ups are a slightly tighter composition that frames the subject’s head and shoulders from about the middle of the chest up, but do not show the belly or belt.
Forrest Gump
Image courtesy: Paramount Pictures
  • Cowboy shots are a looser composition that frames the subject from the mid-thigh upwards. This shot’s nickname was coined because it was innovated in the production of classic Hollywood Western’s so as to include a gunslinger’s 45 in his holster when squaring off for a shootout. 
  • Medium long shots frame a subject wider still, pulling back to reveal all the way to the knees. This framing is sometimes referred to as a three-quarter shot. A full-shot, by comparison, shows a subject from head to toe.
  • High-angle shots are created when the camera is raised above the eye level of the subject so that he or she looks up at the camera. This makes the subject seem small, weak or insignificant. High angle shots are often used as POV (point of view) shots that simulate the perspective of a tall or strong person looking down at a weaker counterpart.
Image courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
  • Low-angle shots drop the camera below the eye level of the subject so that he or she looks down at the camera. This makes the person in the shot seem large, powerful and dominant. It is often used as a POV (point of view) shot that simulates the perspective of a small, weak or diminutive person looking up at an oppressive bully.
  • Two-shots include two persons in the frame, either facing one another or side-by-side, typically in conversation or dialogue. Two shots are often used as establishing shots for interviews, and are intercut with individual isolation shots of each person.
  • Over-the-shoulder shots show two people facing one another in conversation. The camera shows the face of one subject from a position behind the other, including part or all of the back of the head of the second subject.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Image courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Once you develop an eye for identifying medium shots, you will begin to notice just how often they are implemented in the TV shows, videos and movies you watch. As a producer, learning to leverage the art and master the nuance of the trusty medium shot, and the many variations of the medium shot, will help you improve your visual storytelling to engage your viewers. Inexperienced producers may rely too heavily on dramatic closeups and sweeping wide shots. When used at the wrong time, inserting these shots can distract viewers and disrupt a scene. When used well, medium shots are inconspicuous, drawing the attention of the audience to the content of the scene, not to the composition itself. As always, the best composed shots are invisible to the viewer.  

Chuck Peters
Chuck Peters
Chuck Peters is a three-time Emmy award-winning writer and producer. He is currently director of operations for LifeWay Kids in Nashville, TN.

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