What is a wide shot?

Learn how a wide shot can establish a location and set the stage for an important scene. 

A wide shot looking over farmland and into the desert

Image by Padraic O'Meara

Filmmaking is about creating a sense of space.

Filmmakers use a variety of camera shots to tell their stories, but the wide shot — also known as an establishing shot, long shot, full shot, or extreme wide shot (EWS) — is one of the most important for drawing viewers into a new scene.

       

“The establishing shot is what gives you a sense of time and place,” says independent filmmaker Nick Escobar. “It can sometimes convey a moment. But it’s more about grounding the viewer in the scene.”

 

When to use a wide shot.

“A wide shot is any shot in a movie that’s filmed with a 35mm lens or wider,” Escobar says. “Most establishing shots are wide shots. Which, for example, show you the outside of a city to let you know the next scenes are taking place in that city, or an apartment building to let you know the scene that comes right after that is inside that building.” 

A wide shot capturing a person carrying a basket through a lush field

One other use for a wide-angle lens is a wide shot of an entire scene, known as a master shot. A master shot is often the first shot in a scene in order to show the audience where the characters are in relation to one another before cutting to a series of over-the-shoulder shots, close-up shots, and medium shots of the actors interacting.

       

This back and forth can help the audience connect with the characters by showing the subject’s face and their changing facial expressions, but you need a solid master shot to establish the scene. During post-production, it can also be helpful for the editor to have a scene they can cut back to that will help the rhythm of the edit, so the audience isn’t looking at the same two shots repeatedly.

 

Wide shots can set a scene’s mood. 

Beyond just giving the audience spatial information about the scene and characters, a wide shot can convey an emotional or thematic message as well. Extreme long shots of the desert landscapes in Lawrence of Arabia complement the film’s epic storyline, while Westerns also make frequent use of scene-setting wide shots.

       

The Hateful Eight does this really well. When you’re watching those wide shots of that area in the western US, you can see how cold it is. There’s nothing and nobody around. You’re isolated and alone,” Escobar explains. “And you feel for these characters, who just need to get to some kind of civilization without getting stuck out there.”

       

And while audiences that love Westerns will recognize their use of wide shots, although, ironically, a well-known angle called a cowboy shot is a fairly close look at an actor. Camera shots that frame the subject from the knees or mid-thigh to just over the top of the head to depict characters as confident and heroic (while zeroing in on critical actions, such as drawing a weapon) are so common that some cinematographers now call them cowboy shots.

A wide shot establishing the scene of a person sitting alone looking out over the ocean
A person sitting alone at a restaurant table in this establishing shot

Plan and prep for the perfect wide shot. 

Before you start shooting, make a shot list of all the different types of camera shots you’ll need for your movie. Go down the list and identify the wide shots, then do some location scouting to find the perfect setting for each one based on the script, storyboards, and director’s vision. But bear in mind that anywhere you shoot will have unique conditions and complications.

       

“When you’re inside planning a wide shot, you need more gear,” Escobar says. “You’re going to need more lights to illuminate the entire area, and you’re going to need to block all the characters in the scene. If you’re outside, you’re at nature’s mercy.”

       

Once you’ve got your location, plot out how far away from the camera your actors will be, and choose a lens with the appropriate focal length to keep everything in focus. When you’re framing up your shot, look for prominent landmarks you can center the frame around, and use the rule of thirds to ensure that interesting or noteworthy objects are spread throughout the frame.

A filmmaker adjusting the lens setting of their camera as they set up the establishing shot

A wide range of inspiration. 

You don’t need to go to film school to make a great film with stunning cinematography. You can learn a lot just by watching movies by famous filmmakers with a knack for breathtaking wide shots.

       

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a master class in extreme wide-angle photography, which he uses to convey a sense of foreboding surrounding the isolated Overlook Hotel high in the mountains. Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning war film 1917 is essentially one continuous wide shot in which the characters move toward and away from the audience, illustrating the importance of composition, blocking, and lighting. And Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses wide frames to convey the loneliness and fragility of an artist painting a portrait, underlining her growing emotional connection to her subject.

       

Whether your movie is a sweeping wilderness epic or an intimate character study set in a single house, a well-crafted wide shot is a powerful way to draw the audience into the world of your film.

       

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