A person in a wool sweater as framed in a cowboy shot while running through a foggy field

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Go wild with the cowboy shot.

Don’t let the name fool you: This type of shot isn’t just for movies about cowpokes. Explore how filmmakers in every genre can make the most of this Western movie trick.

What is a cowboy shot in film?

  • In cinematography, a cowboy shot includes the subject’s face down to their mid-thigh.
  • This shot size was widely used in Western films like Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars based on the frequency of showdowns in these flicks.
  • The cowboy shot is now used widely in films of many other genres.

Cowboy shots are a piece of film history.

Back when Western films ruled Hollywood, directors began using a very particular camera angle to capture their larger-than-life heroes and villains on screen. By filming characters in a medium shot, with the frame extending from the top of the character’s head down to the middle of their thigh, a filmmaker could simultaneously record the grimace on a cattle rustler’s face and the six-shooter hanging by his side.

       

This framing came to be known as the cowboy shot (or the American shot, overseas), but this versatile camera shot was widely adopted throughout cinema and has stayed in use even after Western films have largely ridden off into the sunset. 

A person wearing a fedora and leather jacket turning away from the camera to hide their face
A person facing the camera framed from head to hip while wearing a dark hat and bright button-up shirt

Fundamentals of the cowboy shot.

The cowboy shot can convey a lot about a character very quickly, all without using a single line of dialogue.

 

“The cowboy shot is usually used to reveal some kind of weapon that a character is holding,” says videographer and cinematographer Eric Crain. “It’s a way to show that a character has power or dominance over another character.”

 

Showing the actor’s face, hands, and a weapon at the same time creates suspense for the audience as they try to guess based on the actor’s expression what they’re about to do. That’s why so many non-Western films contain examples of modern cowboy shots.

Where have all the cowboy shots gone?

Cowboy shots are just one of the many different types of shots directors and camera operators use to tell stories in any genre — no cowboys required. Take a look at some examples of classic and more recent films that’ve made skillful use of the cowboy shot:

Pulp Fiction

In a memorable scene in this iconic Tarantino film, Samuel L. Jackson threatens a thief who has stolen a valuable briefcase from his boss. Jackson is filmed from a low angle, with the camera framing both the anger on his face and the weapon clutched in his hand at his side. He looks tall, imposing, and powerful — all bad news for the man he’s confronting.

Fight Club

Just as a cowboy shot doesn’t require a cowboy, it also doesn’t require a weapon. Following a brutal fight, we see a cowboy shot of Brad Pitt’s character: battered, triumphant, and holding a beer. This still establishes him as powerful, but the cold beer hanging by his waist shows that despite it all, he’s having a good time.

Wonder Woman

When Wonder Woman squares off against a machine gun crew on a World War I battlefield, director Patty Jenkins uses a cowboy shot to show her staring down her enemies. It captures the steely resolve on her face as well as her hand reaching for the lasso of truth on her belt, giving us a chance to anticipate the action-packed sequence to come. 

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"The cowboy shot is usually used to reveal some kind of weapon that a character is holding. It’s a way to show that a character has power or dominance over another character."

How to set up your own cowboy shot.

The beauty of the cowboy shot is its simplicity. “It’s a fairly easy shot to pull off,” Crain says. “It’s not like you need any special equipment. You could use a Steadicam or a reverse dolly to move with the character as they walk toward the camera if you want to get complicated. But all you really need is a tripod and a camera to get the shot.”

       

Don’t be afraid to use classic Westerns, like the films of Sergio Leone, as a film school for how to incorporate a cowboy shot into your shot list. Consider cutting from a cowboy shot to an extreme close-up shot of your actor’s face to further heighten the dramatic tension of a scene. Or try opening with an extreme wide shot as an establishing shot of your location before cutting to a cowboy shot of your protagonist surveying their new surroundings.

Perfect your cowboy shot with Adobe Premiere Pro.

Once you’ve filmed your cowboy shot, Premiere Pro has an impressive set of features that can help you make it shine.

 

If you used a dolly to film your cowboy shot in motion, you can use the Premiere Pro Warp Stabilizer Effect to smooth out any shaking and make your camera movements look more professional. You can also apply motion tracking to stabilize your frame and keep the focus on the subject of your shot.

       

If you’re looking to add a little tension to your scene and establish one of your characters as a powerful figure, the cowboy shot is an effective storytelling tool.



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