What is a medium shot in film?
From cowboy shots to close-ups, see why the happy medium still rules.
Maybe the best way to understand the medium shot’s central role in cinematography is to think of it as a true “happy medium” — a balance between near and far, foreground and background, characters and setting, details and context, action and emotions.
It’s the most common type of shot in film and TV for good reason: medium shots are the visual glue that holds scenes and whole productions together.
This is the shot filmmakers turn to when they need to strike a balance of some kind — to show the characters but also their surroundings, to include multiple actors reacting to each other, to highlight the central action without neglecting the facial expressions and body language that tell the emotional story.
What is a medium shot?
The medium shot, sometimes also called a mid-shot or waist shot, is a film shot that stretches from around the waist (or sometimes the knees) of a subject up to their head. (Sometimes people also use it to refer to full-length views.)
The exact dividing line between a long shot and a medium shot isn’t precisely defined, any more than the exact division between the medium shot and the close-up. As a general principle, medium shots capture what can be seen with the human eye in a single glance, conveying all of the action happening within that field of view.
Medium shots are MVPs.
Medium shots, including their various hybrids, are the MVPs of moviemaking. Because they give equal weight to subjects and their background, medium shots allow filmmakers to focus on a whole scene while preserving important levels of detail.
These shots are far enough away to show characters in context with their surroundings, but still close enough to catch critical nuances of performance (like facial expressions and body language), individual elements of a set (such as costumes and props), or other key details.
It’s easy to see how valuable medium shots are in filming dramas, comedies, and action thrillers alike — as well as the vital role they play in bringing characters to life onscreen.
Early on in the original Jurassic Park, for example, the main characters are separated from their tour and lost in the jungle. Many directors would show that in a long shot, or even a bird’s-eye view from a drone. Instead, Steven Spielberg drills down into the details with a medium shot that quickly reveals — from their scratched faces and dirty clothes — that these folks have already seen some serious action.
Comedies frequently rely on props, physical performance, or both. When Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Gold Rush came out in 1925, it was full of gags and shots that have influenced moviemaking ever since. For the iconic “Potato Dance” sequence, Chaplin needed a new kind of shot that would frame his character from the tabletop up to his face — wide enough to show the dancing potato feet while still close enough to capture his inimitable facial expressions. That classic scene kicked off the medium shot in American cinema.
Today, medium shots run all the way through comedies like The Princess Diaries. Remember Mia Thermopolis struggling to master the etiquette of fine dining? The medium shot is a must here to incorporate all of the props that are central to the scene — the scarf tying her to the chair, the nightmare of silverware and glasses surrounding her plate — as well as to capture Anne Hathaway’s comic timing.
Medium shots are also crucial for incorporating more than one character in a scene. It’s the shot of choice for capturing dialog, because it’s cropped far enough away to include multiple people but closely enough to show the actors reacting to the conversation and each other.
Wide shots are simply too far away to pick up facial cues or detect subtle body language. Close-ups are great for facial expressions, but may cut off body movements altogether. Medium shots are the ideal distance for capturing an actor’s entire physical performance.
And you can cram entire armies into a long enough shot, but that will never give you quite the sizzle of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie interacting at close quarters as married assassins in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. For that kind of body language, you need a medium shot — and maybe a fire extinguisher.
Action scenes typically have multiple characters as well. Medium shots can accommodate a surprising amount of action while still preserving at least some portion of the setting or surrounding context. (Think of how the boxing scenes are staged in Creed, for example. Most any sports or action movie benefits from at least a little bit of context.)
Medium shots let directors embellish action scenes with additional layers of emotional meaning, too, thanks to the extra level of detail they provide. The progressive terror visible on Cary Grant’s face as he flees the menacing crop duster in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest is a classic example.
In addition, medium shots are versatile enough to give viewers some idea what’s going on in a scene without revealing everything. In fact, that became a trademark for directors like Hitchcock and Spielberg. Psycho, Vertigo, Jaws, and E.T. all have major scenes that begin with an extreme close-up and then pull slowly back to a medium shot that reveals someone — or something — else in the background.
Most directors and cinematographers, of course, use medium shots in combination with a whole arsenal of other camera shots and angles. But there are entire movies built around the medium shot.
Many people think John Ford’s monumental movie The Searchers, starring John Wayne and released in 1956, is the greatest Western ever made. Ford made such abundant use of medium shots in this epic production that today it’s actually classified as a “medium shot film.”
That puts us on the dusty trail that leads, inevitably, to the cowboy shot. The cowboy shot shows a character from head (or hat) to just above the knee — that is, holster high. This shot was a mainstay in Westerns so filmmakers could capture both the facial expression on a cowboy (or gun fighter or outlaw) and the action as he went for his gun.
Due to the immense popularity of film and TV Westerns in the last century, this camera angle became indelibly known as “the cowboy shot.” (Elsewhere around the world, it’s simply called the American shot.)
Other medium shots.
The term “cowboy shot” is sometimes used interchangeably with the medium long shot, the medium wide shot, or medium shots in general. There are several major variations on the medium shot, each with slightly different coverage and specialized applications.
Medium close-up shot (MCU).
- Shows character from the chest or shoulders to the head, with minimal setting
- Not meant for framing multiple subjects
- Great shot for combining facial expressions and body language
- Frequently used in comedies to capture acting nuance
- Also commonly used as a reaction shot
Medium long shot (MLS).
- Sometimes also called a three-quarters shot
- Shows character from the knees or just below the waist to just above the head
- Similar to regular medium shot, but a step further back and a bit wider
- Provides more context than other medium shots — puts the character in a location or setting
- Can sometimes be used as an establishing shot
Medium wide shot (MWS).
- Shows characters from their heads to around their knees
- Wide enough to show setting without losing facial expressions, body language, and other details (unlike the MLS)
- Best shot for dialog scenes
- Shows both location and characters, but main focus is usually on the setting
- Used to show small groups of characters and their interactions; also good for showing characters in their environment
Over-the-shoulder shot (OTS).
- Camera is positioned behind or over the shoulder of one character
- The other subject is also visible onscreen
- Used to emphasize the connection or relationship between characters
- Two subjects appear in a single frame
- Usually either side by side or facing one another
Point of view shot (POV).
- Shows the action through the eyes of one specific character
- Essentially lets the audience become that character
Get creative with your films.
Whichever type of shots you choose, find tips to help elevate your video projects and expand your creativity. Then, discover everything you can do with Adobe Premiere Pro to easily edit your films — and have fun doing it.