Michael Lee Simpson
HOW TO USE WIDE SHOTS AS A DIRECTOR & CINEMETOGRAPHER
Directors and cinematographers utilize an ever-evolving arsenal of shots behind the camera. In the black-and-white classics of the 1930s, close-ups were king—the closer the camera, the more in tune the audience felt with a character’s emotions. As technology and filmmaking techniques evolved, the camera pulled back. Now, the wide shot is one of the most common ways for filmmakers to emphasize setting, emotion, character, and tone.
What is a wide shot?
The wide shot (also known as the long shot or full shot) captures both the subject of the scene and its place within a surrounding environment. Filmmakers employ this technique to allow the audience to absorb more information. “A wide shot, at the most practical level, is used to establish spatially where a scene takes place,” says director of photography and camera operator Allen E. Ho (“Vanity,” “Mira Mira”).
“An effective wide shot not only provides context, but also sets a tone or mood to help drive the story,” Ho continues. “It sets the scene for what is about to take place and connects the audience to either the space of the location or the character’s relationship to that space. "While any shot that captures both subject and setting is a wide shot, there are four variations on the technique: the establishing shot, the master shot, the extreme wide shot, and the very wide shot.
Establishing shot: This shot commonly indicates the scene’s setting. If a conversation between two characters takes place in a coffee shop, for example, the establishing shot might be the shop’s exterior before cutting to the actual conversation.
Master shot: This shot also establishes the setting, but introduces and holds the subjects of the scene in frame as well. For example: A static shot of a bedroom that shows the geography of the space while also holding on a character’s entire phone conversation.
Extreme wide shot: This version of the shot places the camera far enough away so that the subject is lost in the vastness of their surroundings. Extreme wide shots can also double as establishing shots.
Very wide shot: In the middle of the extreme wide and standard wide, the very wide shot is set far enough away to get a much wider view of your surroundings, but also close enough to identify the subject.
Director and Academy Award–nominated cinematographer Mikael Salomon (“Birds Eye,” “The Expanse”) remembers the piece of advice Steven Spielberg gave him on the set of “Band of Brothers.”
“The only tip Steven gave me was, ‘Don’t forget the wide shot because it sets the geography,’” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a long shot or a long-running shot—it could be a short shot, but it does set up the geography, so people know what’s going on.”
What should you consider when framing & composing wide shots?
It’s possible, even as a low-budget filmmaker, to execute wide shots without sprawling backdrops dominating the frame. Here are a few ways to maximize your wide shot through technique, not budget:
Point-of-view shot: Shooting a wide shot from the POV of a character immediately grounds the setting from their perspective.
Low-angle shot: Shooting your wide shot from a low angle, with the subject looking down on the viewer, lends a sense of power or authority to the character and setting.
High-angle shot: The opposite of a low-angle shot, a high-angle wide shot gives the power to the audience. Both high-angle and low-angle shots are often seen in crime films or Westerns, where the balance of power shifts between the heroes and villains.
Two-shot: No matter the setting, placing two subjects together in a wide shot telegraphs to the audience their relationship.
“A wide shot [can] be used to accentuate the relationship between two characters based on their proximity to each other,” says Ho. “They could be standing on opposite but equal sides of the frame to show how they are emotionally and physically distant to each other.
You should also aim for clarity with your wide shots, especially if you’re shooting a scene heavy on movement and action.
“A lot of action movies forget the wide shot, and it becomes confusing,” says Salomon. “It can clear up the confusion and people know and think, ‘Oh, I see that’s there and this is there. Now I understand why they’re looking in that direction and why they’re running in that direction.’ It’s such a simple tool. It doesn’t have to be the first shot of the sequence. It could be anywhere in a sequence—sometimes even at the end.”
Tips for shooting wide shots
Lenses: Use a focal length shorter than the length of film or sensor. Anything between 35mm and 23mm is considered wide-angle, while ultra-wide falls below 18mm. Ultra-wide, favored by directors like Orson Welles, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton, evokes a sense of distortion and confusion. Understanding the mood and tone of your story is the deciding factor.
Location: Choose a setting large enough to cover both the environment and the subject, keeping the subject fully in frame. An outdoor location is ideal for extreme and very wide shots where you want to emphasize the vastness of your setting. Shooting a wide shot in a small, interior location can actually highlight a sense of claustrophobia, giving the viewer a clear relationship between your subject and their tight surroundings.
Lighting: Wide-angle lenses collect more light in comparison to longer focal lengths. Keeping that in mind, if it’s an outside location, a shooting schedule that matches the intended time of day is paramount.
Cinematography: All directors need the help of a cinematographer, or director of photography. Janusz Kaminski, who regularly works with Spielberg, favors lenses longer than 27mm for staging wide shots with little camera movement.
Wide shot examples
“2001: A Space Odyssey”
The master of all wide shots, Stanley Kubrick utilized this technique frequently in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Kubrick introduces the odd futuristic living quarters of the film’s finale with a distorted wide shot.
Welles famously filmed his 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane” with a focal length of 25mm, lending depth to his scenes. You can see the technique in a moment set in a Colorado boarding house. The key is where Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland set the camera—the three adults are in the foreground, while Kane is visible through a window in the background.
“The Royal Tenenbaums”
Because of his hyper-stylized, diorama-esque style of filmmaking, Wes Anderson often uses wide shots to capture a character’s personality through their surroundings. In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” you learn vital details about each member of the ensemble’s personality from the spaces they occupy.
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
George Miller uses wide shots in his action epic “Mad Max: Fury Road” to emphasize the bleak vastness of the wasteland his characters maneuver through. To introduce Tom Hardy’s Max, Miller uses a very wide shot that frames Hardy as a lone figure against an unending backdrop.