The Language of Film:

Camera Shots

Shots—A shot is what is recorded between the time a camera starts and the time it stops, that is, between the director’s call for “action” and the call to “cut.”

A. Three Most Common Shots:

Long shot or establishing shot: Showing the main object at a considerable distance from the camera and thus presenting it in relation to its general surroundings.

Medium shot: The camera records an area equal to the height of a seated figure or a figure from the waist up.

Close-up shot: An image in which the distance between the subject and the point of view is very short, as in a “close-up of a person’s face.” It is considered the director’s chief way of directing our vision and of emphasizing a detail.

B. Moving Shots:

Pan shot: The camera is mounted on a non-moving base and films while pivoting on its axis along the line of the horizon from left to right to right to left.

Tilt shot: The camera can move up or down while fixed on its axis.

Traveling shot (dolly shot): The camera can move forward or backward while fixed on its axis. The dolly shot is a trademark of Spike Lee films; he uses it in Malcolm X and 25th Hour. See, for example, the scene “Jake the Snake” in 25th Hour.

Crane shot: The camera can move in and out and up and down while mounted on a mechanical crane.

High angle shot: The camera is placed higher than the subject, often suggesting a God’s-eye view of helpless and vulnerable people.

Low angle shot: The camera is placed lower than the subject. It often produces a towering figure or powerful object.

The “Grammar” of Film[1]

  Signifier (shot)




face only


medium shot

most of the body

personal relationship

long shot

setting & characters

context, scope, public distance, character in relation to surroundings

full shot

full body of person

social relationship

pan down

camera looks down 

power, authority

pan up

camera looks up

smallness, weakness

zoom in

camera moves in

observation, focus

fade in

image appears on blank screen


fade out

image screen goes blank



switch from one image to another

simultaneity, excitement


image wiped off screen 



Close Ups (primarily faces, signify intimacy)




These images, taken from Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, feature two close up shots: the first of Atticus Finch and his daughter “Scout” and the second of Atticus with his son Jem.  The images reinforce a sense of paternal protection and security, and illuminate a broader theme in the film: the idea of “nurture” and its effects on the innocent. Based on these images, what larger conclusions can we draw about Atticus Finch as an agent of the New South? Can we trust him to defend Tom Robinson (the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman?



Wide/Long/Establishing Shots
(setting & characters; context, scope, public distance)


Discussion: Compare these two wide/long shots in James Cameron’s Titanic. What effect does the long, establishing shot produce in these clips? How does the camera angle capture or convey the dramatic events?







Pan Up (smallness, weakness)







Taken from To Kill a Mockingbird, this image features (left to right) Dill, Scout, and Jem who intervene in the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson. As children, they occupy a liminal social space; they are virtually powerless to physically stop the men from hurting Atticus to get to Tom. The camera reinforces their physical smallness by juxtaposing them against the men’s larger bodies in the background, highlighting the film’s dualities between youth/adulthood, innocence/experience, powerlessness/power.



Pan Down (power, authority, control)



This image captures the psychological state of mind of the two characters, Jack and Rose. The camera angle dramatizes the stature and height of the characters and focuses the audience’s attention on the limitless blue sky in the background, giving the effect of a kind of “transcendence.” Jack and Rose appear to be navigating their own course, underscoring their perception—even if just an illusion—of feeling “on top of the world.” Proud, safe (for the moment), and “above” issues of class and social hierarchy, they appear inseparable and powerful in this scene.

The Green Mile, 1999.





Exercise: Analyze the progression of events in these clips, excerpted from To Kill a Mockingbird; discuss how the director conveys hierarchies and power structures (even power reversals) through the use of pan down and pan up shots. 






















[1] Cited in Frank Baker’s website; original source: “Grammar Of Television” from Berger found at