Understanding Pictures

The world of television and film is a curious one. In some ways it’s amazingly simple; all you need is a little imagination and a lot of good taste. But as any experienced director will tell you it’s also very very complex; you’re constantly juggling with a thousand and one details. So where does the newcomer to the business start? You can’t learn creativity but you can learn a few ground rules that will allow your creativity to flourish unfettered. The guiding principle is:

Do with the Camera what you’d do with the Eye

That’s a vast over-simplification, of course, but it really is fundamental. And you need to know what you do with your eye. Did you know, for instance, that we see by cutting from picture to picture? You might think that if you’re looking at someone talking, when he talks about the weather that you pan to the window. It seems obvious. But think – do you really pan? Do you really take in the bookcase, the clock, the painting of the bird in flight and the curtains? No – what actually happens is that your eyes close momentarily, ‘whip pan’ to the window, then open again. The effect is the same as a cut. Seeing things in separate shots is the most vital thing about the camera and the eye. Shot sizes follow a similar principle. Take a simple example; You go into your office. You’re not looking at anything in particular, so the camera equivalent is a ‘wide shot’ of the room. A colleague says good morning, but as he’s someone you see every day you probably don’t look close. You look at your desk, and there’s an unusual envelope on top of the pile of mail. You’d probably mentally see a ‘close-up’ of it as you try to fathom the handwriting. Then a voice asks for you by name. You look up; there are two people in the doorway – strangers so you might well be looking at a ‘two shot’. They come in and sit. One of them does most of the talking, so you’d be seeing him in ‘mid shot’ much of the time. Except for the bit where he offers you a lot of money. You’d be much more interested in him then and probably cut to a ‘medium close-up’. Then when he mentions his friend as being the richest man in the world you’d look closer at the friend then. And so on and so on. I’ve cheerfully gone on about close-ups and things. Most businesses have their own peculiar jargon, and television is no exception. You’ll need to learn some of the terms, and one of the most useful and easiest to comprehend is the language of shot size.

Shot Sizes

Most shots include a person, so let’s start there. The most common sizes are:


The Long Shot: Top to toe plus a little bit spare. All the person. The screen will be largely empty if the shot is of just a person.

Useful for showing a person in his or her surroundings. And the surroundings tell you about the person; is he riding in a limousine or trudging slowly along an empty road?


The Mid Shot: The top half of a person – the waist is usually at the bottom of the shot. Slightly wasteful of space – at least half the screen is empty if you’re just featuring a person. Most useful for people plus things; for example a lady plus vase of flowers she’s arranging.


The Medium Close-up (MCU): The top bit of a person. Head and chest down to the top of the breast pocket. This is probably the most common shot used on television; close enough to see the face clearly, not so close you feel you’re intruding.


The Close-up (CU): Head and shoulders – just wide enough to include the tie knot if there is one. Now you’re concentrating on the person and what he or she is feeling.

There are many other shots, most of them obvious from their names. A two shot contains two people, for instance. How wide the shot is will probably depend mostly on how close together the people are. A useful interview shot is the over shoulder shot – the back of the head and shoulders of one person (over shoulder) plus the front of the other one. Here are two examples of two shots:


A two shot. That’s all. You hardly ever have to specify the size of a two shot (three shot, four shot, whatever); if the two stand close together, then the shot is naturally closer. Abbreviation 2S. The shot might last for quite a while, if the two are having a conversation. But not if the conversation is very emotional; in that case we’d want to see their eyes.



Here’s an exception: a long two-shot. Doesn’t tell you much about the characters, but it sets the scene.. And the mood.


And here are a couple of Close-Ups – one nearly full face, the other profile. You’d normally use the one on the left, but the profile can be useful at times – maybe if the girl and whomever she’s calling are having an argument.