Movies string together shots with different compositions and camera angles in order to tell a story. By carefully choosing your camera angle in each of those shots, you can influence your audience’s reaction. Thus, you can influence your audience’s interpretation of what is presented on screen.
Simply put, this works because cinematographers have developed a complex visual language for storytelling over the years. At the same time, audiences have become in-tune with common filmmaking techniques and their connotations. Bring some of these techniques into your productions. That way, you can more easily and effectively draw the audience into your story.
The type of story you’re going to tell affects how you’re going to shoot it. To start, figure out what type of story you’re telling. Watch and think about stories that are similar to yours. Even if you have a story that doesn’t fit into one genre, watch stories that have similar elements to yours. Learning to manipulate and control your camera angles to enhance your storytelling will keep your audience engaged. This is why camera angles are an essential piece of cinematography.
Camera angle functions
Generally, every well-chosen camera angle does four jobs:
- It delivers information. Wide shots provide context and closeups and inserts highly important details or emotions.
- It creates impact. Closeups enhance intensity; high and low camera angles suggest power or lack of it; off-level shots feel dynamic or even uneasy.
- It facilitates editing. Through contrast with the preceding and following angles, it lets the editor make invisible, or at least unobtrusive, edits.
- It enhances performance. Closer shots intensify performances; longer shots make them less intense.
There are a number of factors that define as specific camera angle. These include:
- Field of view: extreme long shot, long shot, full shot, 3/4 shot, medium shot, head and shoulders closeup, closeup, big closeup, extreme closeup.
- Horizontal position: front angle, 3/4 angle, profile angle, 3/4 rear angle, rear angle.
- Vertical position: birdseye angle, high angle, neutral angle, low angle, wormseye angle.
- Camera level: normal, Dutch (off-level).
Finally, we can also describe camera angles by their:
- Purpose: master shot, establishing shot, insert, cutaway.
- Population: single, two shot.
Let’s take a closer look at the functions and connotations behind each of these factors.
Field of view
Field of view refers to everything that falls within the frame of the image. A camera’s field of view is determined by two factors: the camera’s distance from the subject and the focal length of the lens. There are different types of common shots in production that are named to describe their field of view in relation to the subject. These shots include: extra-wide, wide, medium, close-up and extra close-up.
Using a lens with a short focal length gives you a wide field of view. This allows you to capture a lot of background with your subject. Lenses with wide fields of view also decrease the perception of camera shake, making them a popular choice for hand-held action shots.
Wide angle lenses
Wide-angle lenses also seem to exaggerate depth. Thus, subjects in the rear are smaller than they would be in normal perspective. For the same reason, those subjects grow rapidly as they approach the camera, making them seem to move faster. Everything about wide angle shouts speed, power and excitement.
As usual, “normal” lens settings are unobtrusive because their images look like what we see in real life.
A lens with a long focal length gives you a narrow field of view, allowing for close-up shots to be achieved with the camera further away from the subject. Lenses with narrow fields of view are also used to reduce depth of field and make the subject stand out from the background.
This effect is great for camera tricks like forced perspective. Miniatures in the foreground can be aligned with distant scenery so they look full-size. Cars speeding across the screen can “just barely miss” cars headed at them toward the camera. The very long lens reduces the apparent distance between the two, concealing the fact that there was really a big, safe gap between them.
Emotionally, long lenses often convey formality and a certain detachment. They keep us distant from the action even as they magnify it. Paradoxically, long lenses also convey suspense. Like, when the rescuing hero runs desperately toward the lens, yet runs and runs and runs without seeming to get any closer.
Subject distance and size
When framing up people, subject size is usually gauged in terms of a standing position. In a long shot, the person is in the middle distance, with plenty of room overhead and below the feet. In full shot, the person fills the frame from head to foot. A medium shot covers waist-up and a classic closeup frames head, neck and just a touch of the shoulder. Subject size has further divisions within each general category. For instance, a close shot may be a medium closeup, a closeup, a big or tight closeup or an extreme closeup.
Some wide shots function as establishing shots. This is because they include the area around the subject(s) and give a sense of placement in an environment. We all remember John Ford’s tiny wagon trains dwarfed by the vastness of Monument Valley or a gnat-size Omar Sharif riding out of a mirage in Lawrence of Arabia. Long shots literally show us the big picture, revealing who and what is in it and the spatial relationships among them.
Physically distant shots are often also emotionally distant. They leave the viewer detached, observing calmly from the sidelines. They can create tension, however, when they withhold details of tiny subjects that viewers desperately want to examine. In the classic film version of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” (released as “The Innocents”), we can just make out an indistinct human figure on the far side of a lake. Is it a ghost? We can’t see enough to tell. Though photographed in cheerful sunshine, the shot’s as creepy as a crypt at midnight.
Midrange angles, including full shot to medium closeups, tend to be inconspicuous because they model typical human perspectives. When you want the video camera to be invisible, framing just a window on the actual world, mid-range setups are the ticket.
Close shots tend to be intense. Moving in on a subject enhances its importance. The bigger a subject is in the frame, the more viewers pay attention. Very close camera angles can often do the acting for the performer. In the golden oldie,” A Fistful of Dollars,” ultra-tight closeups of Clint Eastwood tell us he’s planning big surprises for the bad guys. We know this even though his face is totally expressionless.
Too many constricted frames can produce claustrophobia in viewers — which can be great inside a sub like “Das Boot,” but not as a general rule. It’s usually better to range between three-quarter two-shots (knee-to-head) and normal closeup shots, saving the really tight stuff for special emphasis.
How close the talent is in the frame gives us a feeling of how close they are to us, or to other things. This was used spectacularly in Robert Benton’s 1979 drama about a family falling apart, “Kramer vs Kramer.”
Actor Dustin Hoffman pushes his son Billy (played by Justin Henry) on a bicycle. As Billy figures out how to ride, the camera pulls back and Billy rides toward the audience. At the same time, Hoffman gets smaller in the background, presaging Billy leaving his father and the distance that will come between them. Here, what seems like a simple shot — a father teaching his son to ride a bicycle — takes on layers of metaphor.
Horizontal position is the lateral perspective on your subject. The classic angles are front, three-quarter, profile, three-quarter rear and rear.
Horizontal position helps you control apparent depth. Profile shots are flat, whether a distant car traveling parallel to the camera or a subject walking across a room. This makes profile shots useful in conjunction with long lenses. Together, they allow you to paint action on the plane of the screen, delivering a studied, formal effect.
Three-quarter shots (both front and rear) have just the opposite effect. These shots enhance depth by letting subjects move toward or away from the camera. In general, three-quarter setups also tend to produce diagonal lines from inside walls, buildings, and streets. This enhances depth and adds a dynamic quality to your compositions. In conjunction with wide-angle lenses, which also exaggerate apparent depth, three-quarter views are great for action: fights, chases and the like.
Of course, front and rear angles also enhance depth with moving subjects, but they send other signals as well. Though subjects shouldn’t look into the lens (except as spokespersons), front angles lend a presentational quality to setups. By contrast, rear angles — especially on people — feel closed off from viewers. We naturally want to see faces. Rear angles are often used to tease the audience by saying “this is someone worth showing you, but you can’t see who it is yet.”
Vertical position is the height of the camcorder in relation to the subject: bird’s-eye, high, neutral or eye-level, low and worm’s-eye vertical angles are common, again, with more choices in between.
The direction from which we see people has a big impact on how we view them. This is partly because many of us are used to looking down at children and up at adults. However, this is also because of a natural intimidation we feel from things bigger than we are — churches, giant ships, Godzilla, etc.
Bird’s-eye and high angles lend a feeling of detachment, of being literally above it all. Functionally, they’re invaluable for orienting viewers to complicated action because they function as maps of the shooting environment.
As you might expect, neutral angles are inconspicuous because they approximate the usual human viewpoint. Though we frequently look up and down, we spend much of our time gazing more or less straight ahead.
Looking at someone at eye-level also shows them to be an equal. In “Return of the Jedi” when Luke meets the tiny Jedi master, Yoda, who is all of two feet tall, you’ll notice that Luke is sitting on the ground when they meet, so that the shots are all done at eye level. In fact, Yoda, despite being small, is very consciously mostly filmed at eye level. Though he is small, as he says “Size matters not.”
Finally, high and low angles are emotionally important in framing people. High angles look down on subjects, making them weaker and less important. Low angles have the opposite effect: they increase power and importance. In making corporate videos, it’s good practice to shoot VIPs from slightly below eye level.
Camera level and the Dutch angle
Camera level is another factor that can carry a big emotional load. Normally, cameras are kept level carefully, so that horizontal lines and horizons are parallel to the top and bottom of the frame. But artists have known for centuries that horizontal lines feel static and vertical lines are almost as quiet. Diagonals, by contrast, feel active and dynamic because, psychologically, tilted objects won’t stay put; they’re falling over. Seen in real life, the Tower of Pisa is one very scary building!
To capitalize on this psychological effect, you can purposely set the camera off level, automatically turning every horizontal or vertical line into a dynamic diagonal. Also, because falling is an unsettling experience, off-level setups can add a subtly queasy, creepy feeling to a shot. Notice how often directors tend to use these creepy angles in horror flicks.
Such off-level setups are called “Dutch” angles because they were popularized by German (Deutsch) directors imported to Hollywood in the 1920s. They can also be referred to as canted angles.
Camera angles for fiction videos
In general, story programs stick to moderate angles because they don’t call attention to themselves. When skillfully edited, unobtrusive camera work allows viewers to feel they’re observing real life, rather than just watching a movie. This is especially true of comedy, which generally avoids big closeups (except for inserts) and maintains a neutral attitude toward the shenanigans onscreen.
Dramas are similar, except that they feature tighter angles to increase emotional intensity and off-level setups to create uneasy feelings in the audience. Action pictures also use a lot of dutch angles, especially in combination with wide angle lenses. The tilted verticals seem to fall forward and the deep wide-angle perspective increases the punch of fights and chase scenes, especially when movement is toward the camera or away from it.
Story programs do use unusual angles, but usually for effect. A sudden birdseye view or extreme closeup can startle the audience and punctuate important action. The trick is to save these punchy setups for key moments, so they don’t lose power from overuse.
Camera angles for nonfiction videos
Nonfiction videos typically include documentaries, news features shot in the field, and sports. All nonfiction forms share the problem of credibility: The camera should appear to be a mere recording device that captures reality, even though you can’t help changing reality through your framing and subject matter — including what you leave out of the frame. To enhance the feeling of neutrality, camera angles tend to be, well, neutral, favoring setups from long shot to loose closeup and avoiding extreme wide angle, telephoto and off-level views.
These rules extend to interviews and the talking heads featured so prominently in documentaries. Subject sizes range from medium shots to closeups and angle shifts from shot to shot are strong enough for easy cutting, but not extreme enough to call attention to themselves.
News features shot in the field follow similar rules. Again, the objective is to transmit an impression of reality without calling attention to video techniques. On-camera reporters are covered in 3/4 or medium shots (loose closeups at night so there’s less subject to light). Of course, breaking action is shot from whatever angles the camera person can get — often with long telephoto lenses that keep the operator out of the traffic, the riot or the gun-fire. These shots can appear detached and uninvolved in the action.
Sports videography has similar problems with angles and lenses. To keep off the playing field, videographers use long shots or extreme telephoto lenses, both of which call attention to the shooting process. For variety, directors get closer angles on coaches and players on the bench, plus cutaways of the spectators in the stands.
The paradox of the artifice
There’s a paradox here. These setups may call attention to the shooting process, but audiences are now so used to them that they actually help convince viewers that the events shown are real. For that reason, some fictional sports programs will use sports-reporting setups, even when their cameras could operate right in the middle of the action.
Extreme focal lengths, dutch angles, and shock cuts continually remind viewers this is a movie rather than a window on real life.
Taking this even further, instead of saying, “This is real life,” some documentaries insist, “this is not real life; it’s a movie about real life.” In this extreme “verite” style, the rules are all reversed. Extreme focal lengths, dutch angles, and shock cuts continually remind viewers this is a movie rather than a window on real life. Available light, lens flares and shaky camera moves, all no-nos in conventional productions, enhance the feeling.
Camera angles for commercials and music videos
Commercials and music videos share several characteristics. They usually make no effort to conceal shooting or editing techniques. In fact, they seek extreme angles and lenses because bravura movie-making is part of the show. Finally, all this gee-whiz videography doesn’t wear the viewer out because it never lasts more than a few minutes or, for commercials, 60 seconds.
As far as camera angle goes, commercials demand extreme care and discipline. In a message that may last as little as ten seconds, every single setup must convey a maximum of information in a minimum amount of time. That means finding the absolute best point of view and lens for each and every shot. All-in-all, commercials may have the most consistently beautiful images of all the genres we’re covering.
Music videos combine the aural music on the soundtrack with the visual music of the shots and cutting. There are no rules regarding camera angle for this genre, except that the images should be as striking as possible. To match the songs, the imagery may sometimes be far from “beautiful,” but they usually show that they’re carefully designed. It is precisely this “designed” look that sets music videos and commercials apart from fiction and documentary programs, which want to avoid looking contrived.
Camera angles for special purpose videos
Special-purpose videos include programs for corporations, schools, churches and community organizations, as well as training videos made to convey specific knowledge or skills.
In most cases, these shows stick to the moderate angles and neutral viewpoints of documentaries. When these programs resemble commercials — say, to introduce a product or polish the image of an energetic, forward-looking company — then they adopt a commercial style, with the dynamic angles and lenses you’d expect to find in a car ad.
Training videos share the commercials’ need to show precisely the right thing at the right time from the right camera angle. All training programs rely on inserts to deliver essential details, and videos about school or factory bench-top operations tend toward very large subject sizes, achieved with telephoto lenses, so that the videographer can stay out of the action and the lighting on it.
Using camera angles effectively
One of the best ways to learn how to control your audience’s perspective with your camera work is to study the visuals of great stories that are similar to yours and see how the cinematographer accomplished it. Most film genres have films that have revolutionized the way that type of film was shot such as “Stage Coach” for westerns, “Blade Runner” for science fiction and “Die Hard” for action films. Study these types of films to help you understand how shot choice drives these stories. It will help you to make similar decisions on your projects.
Of course, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience, so make sure to practice what you have watched. The shots that you choose for your videos should all serve to further the effectiveness of your storytelling. Individual shots can create, enhance and maintain a mood. Good directors and directors of photography have an emotional rationale for every camera placement.
Every day of your life is a day learning more about your craft. Use your time wisely, study the masters and continually improve. Be a perpetual student of cinema. That’s your homework for this month.