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Image via Sony Picture Classics

Like any aspect of filmmaking, most aesthetic decisions always come down to one question: How does this serve the story? 

While that can be a broad entry point into making creative decisions, there are some general rules of thumb that act as guides for us. In this article, we’ll talk about the general uses for wide shots, how they can be effective for certain types of scenes, and we’ll look at some examples of exceptional uses of the wide shot. 

What is a wide shot?

Wide shot example

Image via Lionsgate

The wide shot has had many names over the years like “long shot” or “full shot” so if you hear these terms on set, they’re referring to a wide shot. The more you know! There’s also the “extremely wide” shot which is… you guessed it, an even wider shot with even smaller subjects in the frame. 

So how do you distinguish a wide shot from a medium or close-up? There are a few rules of thumb to follow to make sure what you are shooting is in fact a wide shot. 

First and foremost, if characters are in the frame, their entire body must be visible and in frame. This is why it’s important to use a wide lens, so you don’t have to be so far back from the actors to get them entirely in frame. 

This can get tricky with wide shots because you don’t have the ability to cheat what's outside of the frame. So if you’re shooting in the corner of your garage, and you’ve made it out to look like the inside of a saloon in the wild west, you would have to make sure more of the set has been decorated because more of it will be on camera. 

So you really have to pick and choose what's worth having a wide shot if your production is already facing some limitations. Plan for the movie you want to make. 

Let’s cover a few more ways you can master the wide shot. 

 

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Using the right focal length

Let’s talk about what the best focal lengths are for wide shots. (And why they also kind of don’t matter?) 

My first instinct is to say that a standard “wide” focal length is anything less than a 35mm lens. Some of the main focal wide focal lengths you’ll find (for prime lenses) are 18mm, 24mm, and 35mm. These lenses will give you a wide shot, obviously, but they’ll also give you a wide perspective no matter how far or close you are from a subject. So a wider shot is inevitable when using these lenses. 

 

Focal length example for wide shot

Image via NEON

Remember a second ago when I said “they also kind of don’t matter”? Well, if you have a longer lens like a 50mm or 85mm, choose to position the subjects or scene far away from you, and are getting a wide view of a landscape or scene, then that's a wide shot! The wide shot isn’t entirely dependent on the focal length of your lens. At its core, it's about how you decide to frame the characters. 

Creating perspective with landscapes

One of the many ways that filmmaking and still photography align are the composition of shots and how the eyes and brain of your audience receives this information. 

Wide shots give us a lot of information to take in, so it's important we think of several different reasons we would need to choose this type of composition. With landscapes, you get the grand scope of the character’s world — think old westerns, big epics like Lord of the Rings or more recently Dune.

 

Dune wide shot

Image via Warner Bros

You need these wide shots to give credence to the scale that the story requires. If your characters are meant to be small compared to a giant castle or a big building, a wide shot will make them seem tiny in the frame compared to the giant object. Which is exactly the perspective you’re looking for. 

Another benefit to using the wide shot is answering the question: Where are the characters in the world of the film? 

If two characters are in the middle of a dialogue and you’ve been cutting between two closeups of them speaking, you’ll almost certainly need to cut to a wide shot to break up the monotony, (think shot reverse shot like we discussed here) while also serving as a form of visual exposition, telling the audience where they are. 

Speaking of world building, there are a couple of shots you can use with a wide perspective that will help a lot: the master shot and the establishing shot. 

The master shot

The master shot is something you’ll hear often in regards to getting coverage of a specific scene or conversation. Think of these as the safety net for anything that could go wrong or just doesn’t work when cutting between two actors' performances. 

The master is usually wide, making sure you have everyone with dialogue in frame. The idea is to get a master, then go in for the close-ups so that you can cut in closer for the actors' performance. Sometimes the master is beneficial to remind your audience where the characters are and what’s happening, spatially speaking. 

The establishing shot

Remember earlier when I talked about the importance of giving your audience context for the space that the characters are inhabiting? Well nothing excels at this task more than a well composed wide establishing shot. 

These shots literally “set the scene” for anything and everything that needs to happen at that part of the film. Usually these shots are placed at the beginning of the scenes as a door opening to what's about to happen. Some of my favorite wide establishing shots were used in Breaking Bad

 

 

Often used as timelapses, these wide shots from Breaking Bad make the case for how fast a shot can totally immerse you into the world of the story, giving you an acute sense of time and space. 

Some of the most iconic wide shots of all time have been establishing shots. Usually filmmakers will try to fill the negative space in the composition by framing objects and people in them so you don’t get a big empty canvas. 

Framing and showing action 

If you need to show action, like fight scenes, a character performing some kind of movement, or using a tool that actively moves the plot forward, giving your audience context for the space around them as well as showing every part of that movement is very important.

When you use a wide shot, this gives you a bigger perspective to show what's going on. Your audience can literally see more of what’s happening. One of the best examples of how effective wider shots can be with action is John Wick

 

 

You can see the shots gradually shift from medium to wide as the action starts. Spatial context is one of the single greatest components for action movies because oftentimes the environment plays a big role in the movements of the characters and plot points themselves. 

Then there’s the static wide shot with action playing out inside of it. One specific example I like to call on is from Akira Kurosawa’s amazing Sanjuro

 

 

While the two main characters are technically in a medium shot frame, the background characters are in full view. It's a pretty complex shot with a lot going on, but I would never call this anything but a wide shot. 

There’s so much going on at once with so many different reactions taking place. Fitting all of that into one frame couldn’t have been possible without using a wide shot. It just gives the characters (and actors) space to perform. 

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention a wide shot given to us by our lord and savior Roger Deakins from Blade Runner 2049. Let’s get some context for the shot first. 

Around two-thirds of the way through the film, we cut to this shot in the most jarring fashion. The context of the cut is hard to explain, but the visual contrast between the two shots couldn’t be more powerful. Had it not been a wide shot, I don’t think it would have been near as effective. 

 

Blade Runner 2049 wide shot

Image via Warner Bros

I mean, come on. On top of the colors being out of this world, the framing and composition of the main character is so perfectly placed. The audience is immediately transported to this location because there’s such a mysterious setting around the main character. It's these kinds of shots that reignites my love of filmmaking and cinematography.

By keeping the compositions wide, the action feels more realistic and contributes to the grounded visual style that works so well for these movies. 

Another benefit to using wide shots is the ability to track with the camera i.e. moving shots and get more in the frame. I tend to think of movies like The Revenant and Birdman

While they’re known for their long, sweeping tracking shots, within all of that you’re looking at two films that are shot almost 100% on wide angle lenses. While the shots themselves fluctuate between close-ups, and medium shots, we still get a fairly wide field of view for the majority of the film. So if you need a good example of what wide shots can do, look at those films. 

 

The Revenant wide shot

Image via 20th Century Studios

It's all about keeping your audience engaged and informed, through clear and cohesive camera movements and shots. 

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite wide shots and how their immediate impact benefitted the rest of the film.

A few more iconic wide shots

Image via Warner Bros

Arriving at a pivotal point in Mad Max Fury Road, this wide shot of Furiosa screaming was captured perfectly. You get context about the desolate nature of her surroundings, which in turn informs why she’s screaming. You also get her entire body in frame as she falls to her knees and she's the only character in the shot, further playing on that feeling of isolation we’re meant to feel in this moment. 

Sometimes when I think about why I like a shot, I have to take a different perspective on it and ask “what if it had been shot a different way?” So what if this shot of Furiosa was a medium shot? Would it still carry such significance to the film, or have the same impact when I saw it for the first time? 

The answer is no, because these filmmakers know what they’re doing. When we choose to shoot these shots with certain lenses or in certain ways, it's important to keep in mind how powerful making the right choice can be for the story.

Like anything you read about filmmaking, it all comes down to the script and finding out what it calls for. Let’s look at two more. 

 

Image via Sony Picture Classics

One of the most stunning shots from Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a wide shot of the main character looking out at the sunset. It’s a perfect example of how a wide perspective can make you feel small, yet establish an intimate connection with the main character. It's also just very pretty, and I want more people to see this movie. 

That being said, wide shots don’t just have to be for vast landscapes. You can use these same techniques but for indoor locations. In fact, I think using wide shots, and wide lenses for conversations inside is an extremely effective way to communicate what the space and feeling of a set is to your audience. 

If I can end this with some parting advice, it would be to listen to your instincts and don’t be afraid to break the rules now and again.

Never be afraid to suggest new ideas while on set(if they’re manageable) and just see what it looks like. Sometimes you never know how a shot will look until you get the camera rolling and see for yourself. 

About the author

Logan Baker is a cinematographer and photographer based in Denver, Colorado. When he's not shooting music videos, documentaries, or working on his YouTube channel, you can find him trying to teach his dog, Ted, how to ride a bike. "

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