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If you think about it, cinematography is really just the art of how one looks at things.

A filmmaker must decide not just what should be included in every shot in terms of characters and actions, but also how those shots are constructed in terms of lighting, framing, and composition.

One of the most unique shot types in any filmmaker's arsenal is the point of view shot (also stylized as a POV shot). As its name implies, a POV shot gives audiences a rare glimpse into the mind of the director with the camera becoming a character unto itself.

It’s truly a powerful tool that can be a very memorable and immersive shot type to help the audience immerse themselves in the story. However, when done at the wrong time or in an awkward style, it can also be confusing and awkward.

As part of our on-going series on shot types, let’s look today at the all-important point of view shot and explore what it is and how to use it, as well as highlight some classic examples from film history.

What is a point of view shot?

From a basic definition standpoint, a point of view shot is pretty simple. Put simply, a point of view shot “is a short film scene that shows what a character (the subject) is looking at (represented through the camera).”

You see these shots all the time in films, television series, and all sorts of online content. However you might know point of view shots from different names. Here are a few terms which basically mean the same thing as a point of view shot.

  • First-person shot
  • Subject camera shot
  • Through-the-lens shot

Unlike other shot types, the trick for a POV shot is to have the characters and the world around them reflect what a person (or character) within your film is seeing. When done correctly, the camera becomes the character itself.

 

 

Noteworthy point of view shots

If you look at point of view shots today, they seem quite normal and expected. They are integrated organically into shot lists so that the audience sees and understands the character’s perspective. 

However, when we begin to trace the POV shot throughout film history, you can see that it was indeed quite a revolutionary shot type when it was first introduced. And it’s continued to evolve over the years in its style and use.

Napoléon (1927)

 

 

One of the very first POV shots ever captured came from the silent epic Napoléon directed by the great French filmmaker Abel Gance.

Known for its vast array of technical achievements and cinematographic experimentations, Gance’s decision to wrap a camera in padding and carry it through the trenches of a snowball fight to simulate what the character must be seeing and feeling remains one of the most important breakthroughs in POV cinematography.

For audiences at the time, it must have felt incredibly immersive as they were swept into the narrative, feeling as if they themselves were a young Napoléon Bonaparte being pelted with snowballs and rocks.

For modern filmmakers, Gance’s approach to POV shooting inspired creators who wanted to make their viewers feel like they were active participants in the film, even for just a few moments. With a POV shot like this, a character’s reaction is tangibly felt by the audience.

Breathless (1960)

 

Breathless point of view shot

 

Filmmakers over the years would turn to POV shots time and time again as a way to transport the audience into the mind’s of the characters themselves. We’d see great examples over the years from all of the big name directors, yet it wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 60s that filmmakers really began to experiment with point of view as a stylistic approach.

One of the best examples of this new POV shot usage was of course French auteur Jean-Luc Godard. In his seminal film Breathless, we get plenty of examples of stylish, playful and at times challenging POV shots as we’re thrust into the worlds of two lovers on the run.

 

Goodfellas (1990)

 

 

POV shots aren’t only meant for fun and games. As modern filmmakers began to start out their careers full of highly-informed inspiration and diversity in terms of coverage and shot types, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese found ways to use POV shots to devastating effect. (Emotionally-speaking, that is.) 

In this famous sequence from his film Goodfellas, Scorsese cast the audience as his lead character Henry Hill as we experience the horror firsthand of waking up with a loaded handgun in our faces. The POV shot turns into a shot-reverse-shot from both lead character’s perspectives as audiences are as close as possible to the feeling and action within the scene.

 

Titanic (1997)

 

 

Even in mainstream films and huge blockbusters, POV shots have remained a solid weapon in any filmmaker's arsenal. Take this iconic sequence from James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Titanic in which our lead characters exchange POV experiences as they twirl around each other in dance.

In fact, Cameron chooses to shoot long tracking shots throughout the entire film which often start out as a POV shot. It creates a very welcoming feeling as well as its style invites audiences to feel like they are truly in the scenes that they are watching.

Hardcore Henry (2015)

 

 

Finally, as digital camera technology has evolved, modern filmmakers have found new and creative ways to utilize POV shots as a way to immerse audiences and show them things they have never seen before.

In the experimental action film Hardcore Henry, directed by Ilya Naishuller, for example, GoPro cameras are strapped to our lead character as the entire film is shot in the first-person POV. While this approach might only work for the right project, it’s a great example of how POV shots have truly been unlocked for modern filmmakers and can be used for pretty much any purpose.

What makes a good point of view shot?

So, looking at all of our excellent examples above, we can now ask ourselves: what makes a good point of view shot? As you can see, POV shots can be used for a wide variety of styles and looks. Yet, at its core, a POV should really be about immersion.

Simply put, a good POV shot is going to help bring the audience more into the narrative of your story. However, unless you’re looking to embrace the style (or gimmick depending on how you look at it), POV shots are best used sporadically and simply mixed in with the rest of your shot and coverage types.

As you build out your shot lists, consider how different shot types and camera angles can work together to tell the story. (A low angle shot could be exactly what you need to emphasize a power imbalance between two characters, for example.) 

Also, don’t underestimate the impact of a good camera stabilizer, the right focal length, and strategic video lighting.

The most memorable POV shots are the ones that are earned. Which means that the shots before and after, as well as the scene and film construction overall, make the audience feel immersed within the relevant POV shot.

Tips for shooting a POV shot

From a production standpoint, POV shots — while not difficult by themselves — do require at least a little bit of understanding and maneuvering on set. 

Most traditional shots can be set up with the camera clearly “off set” with the majority of the actors and action taking place “on set.” However for POV shots, the camera is very much a part of the action, so defining that on and off set line is quite crucial.

There are also plenty of elements that you need to keep in mind in regards to how the actors and performers in the scene interact with the camera. Is it a truly immersive scene where the camera is the actor and other characters interact with them? Or is it more of a dream-like POV where the camera floats between characters who cannot see them?

Here are some more basic tips for shooting POV shots in your film and video projects.

  • Set it up with the shot(s) before.
  • Bring the audience into the film.
  • Use wide-angle or fisheye lenses to mirror the eye.
  • Direct your actors accordingly.
  • Focus on showing a character’s reaction.
  • Don’t be afraid to add movement.

As far as production goes, you also want to consider your lensing and how the camera is set up. POV shots are really meant to feel like they’re coming from the point of view of a human set of eyes. This means that many filmmakers like to shoot at a wide angle or even fisheye. 

Also, don’t be afraid to add movement to your shots to help make them feel more authentic and human. Even if it’s just a little bit of instability by taking your camera off its tripod and using a monopod or some sort of gimbal or mount, a little bit of subtle movement will give your POV shots more of an ethereal quality which can help to bring the audience in further.

How to use point of view shots in your cinematography

At the end of the day though, a POV shot is still just another one of the many shot types which a filmmaker should keep in their repertoire to show a character’s perspective. Unless your project calls for something more outlandish and stylistic, POV shots are used best when sprinkled sparingly around plenty of other shot standard shot types like wide shots, cowboy shots, medium shots, and close-ups.

As you can see in many of the examples above, the best POV shots are the ones that are set up from “regular” shots just before it. Whether that’s a long shot of a character turning their head, or even an extreme close-up of an eyeball staring through a window, the context of who is looking where is a critical component to any memorable POV shot.

Further reading

If you’d like to read up more on shot theory and explore some extra filmmaking advice, be sure to check out these articles on the Soundstripe blog:

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