How to Use Shot Sizes & Camera Angles: 4 Ways They Affect Perspective

How do you pick your shot sizes and camera angles?

Are you picking what looks cool? Are you picking what is easiest or most practical?

Maybe you’re just winging it, even though planning out the visual storytelling is one of the most important things a director can do.

Well, you should also be making storyboards/shotlists and probably a look book, too.

Or are you picking your shot sizes and camera angles in pre-production based on how your shot choice affects your story?

You should be doing the latter.

But how do you decide which shot sizes and camera angles are best for your film? There’s a lot to shot choice and how it affects your audience.

So, by popular demand, I wanted to cover an aspect of visual storytelling, and that is…

 

What is shot perspective, exactly?

Shot perspective is the point of view in which you place your audience. When you make a shot choice, you are selecting the perspective from which your audience will experience your story.

Perspective consists of two aspects:

1. How close you are to the character (shot size)

2. What angle you see the character from (camera angle)

Why is perspective–including shot size and camera angle–so important?

Perspective is the single strongest influence on how your audience experiences your film.

At least, this is true regarding the visuals – the cinematography, lighting, etc.

After all, there are tons of movies that never moved the camera, were black and white (without fancy lighting), and didn’t have glamorous visual effects, yet were popular and commercial successes.

Part of that is obviously good storytelling, writing, acting – the other important parts. But when it comes to the visuals, the most powerful tools they had ‘back in the day’ were the shot sizes they picked and camera angle they chose.

 

How perspective affects your shots

How do shot size and camera angle (also known as angle of view) affect your shots – and your audience’s experience?

Shot size and angle of view both change the level of intimacy with the viewed character.

Every type of shot ranges on a scale from subjective (personal, intimate) to objective (impersonal, neutral).

Generally speaking…

1. How close you are to the character (shot size, or ‘proximity’)

Closer to character = more personal and intimate

Farther from character = more detached and impersonal

The scale of shot sizes, starting with the least personal and going to most personal, includes: point of view (POV), extreme closeup (XCU), closup (CU), medium closeup (MCU), medium (MS), cowboy or three quarters full shot (¾ full), full shot (FS), wide shot (WS), and long shot / extreme wide shot (LS / XWS).

Check out the below graphic for an illustration:


To be clear, when I talk about shot size or proximity here, I’m only talking about how large the character appears in the frame. I’m not talking about what lenses to use, wide or long lenses, etc.

That being said, if you want to learn about how your lens choice affects your image, you should read my guide Indie Director’s Guide to Creative Lens Use.

The reason a closer shot size like a medium or closeup is more emotionally intimate is that Humans only get that close to someone who they know very well.

Subsequently, we aren’t familiar with how people look closer than an arms-length away unless we have a very close relationship with them. Therefore, when the audience perceives they are at an intimate distance to a character, it arouses deeply ingrained, instinctive emotions.

The opposite applies for further shot sizes. People that we see from a distance are strangers. We don’t connect with them on a gut/emotional level.

2. What angle you see the character from (camera angle, or ‘angle of view’)

In order to understand how camera angle affects perspective, you have to understand something called ‘eyeline’. You might already be familiar with it.

Eyeline is where a character’s eyes and face are looking. If you draw a line straight out of a character’s eyeballs into the distance, then it would be a literal ‘eye line’.

For example, here are two shots that play directly after one another in the short film “Destination” I created for my post-apocalyptic, sci-fi universe Esotera. Go to 3:06 to see the shots I’m talking about.


Coincidentally, I shot this film on a Canon Scoopic 16mm, so if you’ve ever thought you’d like to try shooting a project on film, you might want to learn about the pros and cons of shooting on film.


Your camera angle determines how close you are to the character’s eyeline. This is important because…

Closer to eyeline = more personal and intimate

Farther from eyeline = more detached and impersonal

So, if you’re looking straight into the eyes of a character, that’s pretty dang intimate. If your looking at the back of their head, or in profile, it’s significantly more impersonal.

The shots above from my film “Destination” are somewhere in the middle.

They are fairly neutral – which fits because these characters are skeptical of each other. They are strangers in a hostile wasteland.

 

Using perspective to tell your story

Let’s say you want to make your audience feel emotionally close to a character (and this can change from scene to scene or moment to moment). Select a closer shot size. Make the camera angle closer to the character’s eyeline.

Or do both, if you like. Really put the audience inside your character’s head.


Maybe you want to make the audience feel like an intimate friend who is observing this character. You don’t want things to feel quite as intimate as a camera angle that looks straight-on at this character. So go slightly off eyeline, but not too far, like I did in this scene from “Inversion”.


If you want the audience to detach from a character, even for a moment, pull away from the character. Use a shot size where the character is further away; smaller in the frame. Don’t select a camera angle that forces the audience to look at the character in the eye – keep the camera further from their eyeline.

Anyway, I hope you get the idea.

There are a ton of ways you can play with shot sizes and camera angles–two important aspects of perspective–to tell your story.

 

Perspective in a nutshell

1. How close you are to the character (shot size / proximity)

Closer to character = more personal and intimate

Farther from character = more detached and impersonal

2. What angle you see the character from (camera angle / angle of view)

Closer to eyeline = more personal and intimate

Farther from eyeline = more detached and impersonal I highly recommend that you try out different perspectives and techniques whenever you can. See how they turn out. They won’t always work like you thought they would, but that’s part of the learning process.