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Ministry of Education.


Composition is a term used not only in static images but also in film and television. It includes all the elements that contribute to the appearance of a frame - the way people and other objects appear and are related within the frame for dramatic effect in much the same way as in a still photograph or static image. All the following elements contribute to the composition of the frames that make up a film.

Different kinds of shot

Shot is a very important ingredient of composition. The term "shot" refers to the appearance of what is in each frame. This is determined by how far the camera is placed from the subject or by using an adjustable lens to achieve the effect of distance. The shot is also determined by the camera's angle and movement relative to the subject shown in the frame.

Each shot, like each word in a written text, has a purpose. The choice of shots is determined by purpose and, therefore, by genre, topic, and audience. A feature film, for example, uses different shots and also uses the shots differently from those in a television talk-show.

A wide shot or WS, called a long shot or LS in the American film industry, shows a comprehensive view from a distance. This might be similar to what we would see if we looked out over, say, a field. If a person is in such a shot, their whole body is visible from head to foot, and they may even look small and far away.

A WS or LS is most commonly used as an establishing shot. An establishing shot provides important information about the setting, environment, or context in which subsequent events will take place. It is often the first in a scene or sequence.

The size of the images on a television screen is considerably smaller than film projected onto a movie screen. Wide shots featuring broad landscapes or large crowds are generally less effective on a television screen than on a movie screen.

Picture of two friends sitting on the ground.

A medium shot or MS is midway between a WS (or LS) and a close-up. An MS of a person is usually shot from the waist up.

Medium close-up on one of the friends.

A medium close-up or MCU is closer still. An MCU of a person shows from mid-chest to head.

Close up showing one person's head and shoulders.

A close-up or CU of a person shows head and shoulders.

Extreme close up showing just a hand.

A big close-up or BCU, sometimes known as an extreme close-up or ECU, of a person shows the head, usually from the bottom of the chin to the mid-forehead.

Close-ups are not simply complements to medium and wide or long shots. Their power of emphasis gives them a special place in film. They can show whatever is most significant at any given moment and focus our attention on it. A CU or BCU may reveal human emotions, such as sadness as revealed through signs like tears, or anxiety as shown by constant wringing of the hands. They may reveal private information, as in a BCU of a letter, emphasise such other symbols as police identification, or increase tension by focusing on a door handle turning.

A shot framed from a particular character's point of view is called a subjective shot. In a subjective shot, the audience sees almost exactly what the character sees. Subjective shots can also reveal how a character is seeing, as in an out-of-focus shot from the point of view of a character who is injured, just waking up, or drugged.

Another kind of subjective shot is when a character looks directly into the camera and talks to the viewer, who, no longer an unacknowledged observer, is drawn into the action. This technique is sometimes used for comic effect in feature films, and it serves a particular purpose in television commercials, where the second person pronoun "you" is used in conjunction with a subjective shot to address the viewer personally and individually.

Similar to the subjective shot is the over-the shoulder shot, filmed over the character's shoulder from behind. This shot often looks towards another character and is usually followed by a reverse-angle shot showing the face of the person whose back was to the camera.

A shot that shows two people, very common in film drama, is sometimes called a two-shot.

Different lenses

Composition is also affected by the lens and focus used. A wide-angle lens provides great depth of field and can capture wider spaces than a normal lens from the same distance. Foreground and background details may be separated by considerable distances, yet all the objects within the frame appear in sharp focus, although a wide-angle lens can distort the image of subjects very close to the camera. The wide-angle lens can capture action in the foreground and related or unrelated action in the background, both of which might be important.

Generally, though, the closer the subject is to the camera, the shallower the depth of field is. The long lens usually shows objects in the foreground clearly, but objects in the background are less sharply defined and may be blurred. Within a shot, the focus may be altered to reconcentrate the viewer's eyes on what is in focus by pulling or racking focus.

A telephoto lens shot has little depth, but the use of a such a long lens can bring the subject very close. This lens enables a photographer to capture easily frightened or dangerous wildlife in its natural habitat or the detail of sporting action in a way otherwise impossible.

A zoom lens or zoom combines the optical properties of normal lenses with those of wide-angle and long lenses, enabling movement from wide-angle to telephoto, or the opposite, within the same shot. The zoom can easily be overused and often is by amateur, student, or inexperienced film or video camera operators.


It is sometimes helpful to consider a shot in terms of movement, which occurs within a frame when the subject of the shot moves. The frame itself moves when the camera is fixed but pans by moving on its horizontal axis, for instance, as it pans across the horizon of a countryside location or follows a character walking across a playground. The frame also moves when the camera tilts up or down on its vertical axis or when the lens zooms in or out.

The camera itself moves when the camera tracks the subject. Sometimes, actual tracks are laid on the ground - hence the term tracking - or the camera may be mounted on a vehicle or trolley called a dolly, from which we get the term dolly shots. The camera may be hand held to follow the subject. Cameras may also move up or down while attached to a crane, producing crane shots, or they may produce aerial shots from an aircraft or helicopter.

Summary of Terms

composition reverse-angle shot zoom lens
shot two-shot zoom
wide shot (WS) camera angle movement
long shot (LS) high-angle shot pans
establishing shot low-angle shot tilts
medium shot (MS) lens tracks
medium close-up (MCU) focus tracking
close-up (CU) wide-angle lens dolly
big close-up (BCU) long lens dolly shots
extreme close-up (ECU) pulling or racking focus crane shots
subjective shot telephoto lens aerial shots
over-the-shoulder shot

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Published on: 06 May 2009