The ‘Language’ of Cinematography & Lenses

9 Apr

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Getting to know how your lens choice can affect the the ‘language’ of Cinematography

For budding cinematographers the ‘language’ of cinematography is certainly something you need to understand if you are going to move forward with your career. This language includes not just phrases and terminology (though I’ll touch on those in this post) but also your lens choice and camera blocking. Become fluent in the language of Cinematography and you’ll be well on your way to becoming the next big thing!

So join me as we quickly explore the many wonderful elements of motion picture photography. Hopefully by the end of this post, you’ll be more familiar with some of the core basics that will help you improve your movie skills.


If you’re a novice camera operator with aspirations of becoming a DP and have relatively little experience, you may at some stage end up working with an experienced director, he or she will expect you to know cinematic terms, like for example what a ‘Dirty Two Shot’ is.

You don’t want to stand there on location with a glazed look on your face, wondering what the hell a ‘Dirty Two Shot’ is… No, you want to immediately know what that means and start to set up the shot.

Conversely if you are an inexperienced Director working with an experienced DP, they will expect you to communicate shots and scene construction using the cinematic language. If, for example a Director says to a DP:

‘I want a close shot on this person’

The DP will immediately think… please be more specific, do you want a Big Close Up? a Close Up? a Mid Close Up? or just a Mid Shot?

That’s just one simple example of knowing and really ‘understanding’ the language of cinematography. It’s VITALLY important if you are going to take your directing or DP careers seriously – which I certainly hope you are! These short hand phrases are used to quickly communicate shot construction and framing, speeding up production and keeping things as simple as possible (very handy!).

Here are a few terms, with examples, to get you started.

2 shot, 3 shot, 4 shot etc

Relates to the amount of people in shot at any one time; for example “Mid 2 Shot” or “Mid 3 Shot” (see below).

2 shot



Over the shoulder 2 shot (or a Dirty 2 Shot)

A shot that includes a suggestion of someone’s shoulder  just off camera, who your main subject is talking to.


Here is a good example of a Dirty 3 Shot, lots of content in the foreground but the focus still remains on the main character, centre screen.

dirty 3 shot


Cutaway or Release Shot

A shot which can be used to get away from the main action/scene, used to edit and shorten sequences, or bring attention to a certain aspect of a scene that moves the narrative along. This can be anything from a shot of another character to a relevant object in the scene like a glass of water or a gun.

Reverse Angle

Similar to a cutaway, used mainly during film interviews to reveal the person asking the questions – used as an editing device to shorten sequences.

Wide Angle

A wide shot that incorporates an entire scene so the audience can appreciate the ‘geography’ of the situation – mainly used at the beginning of a sequence to ‘set the scene’. They can also be a useful cutaway/get out if you’re having problems in the edit.

This wide angle shot from the movie Dr Strangelove immediately sets the scene that this is a high powered meeting at the pentagon.

dr strangelove

On the other end of the movie-spectrum here’s an wide shot example from Michael Bay’s Transformers – both these shots (although drastically different in content!!) create a similar sense of power and authority.

transformers wide shot


how to move your actors to enhance the film narrative

Camera movement and blocking actors (giving them specific instructions, during rehearsal for them to hit specific marks and play out a scene) are two of the most important elements of Cinematography and something that makes motion picture photography stand out from just stills photography. You’ve got moving images, so use them!!

By introducing subtle camera movement we can create a seamless ‘dance’ between actors and the camera that needs little editing (if any) and looks totally natural and organic on screen. Though more recently, Directors like Alfonso Cuaron have become known for their impressive long shots, other Directors such as Spielberg and Scorsese have been demonstrating this artful principle for decades!

Take a look at this clip, from the opening scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Notice how everything flows naturally with little cutting, the film actors move through the scene taking the audience with them on their road to discovery. It’s also incredible efficient way of shooting, requiring fewer camera setups and with a little rehearsal you can cover a scene quickly but in a way that’s exciting and engaging.

This topic warrants a post of its own as we could talk about camera and actor blocking all day! For now, just start to notice it more in the movies you watch, it’s not too common in most modern movies these days (which is a big problem!) but you’ll find it in all the classics.

The Static Frame

The static frame is basically very similar to a theatrical proscenium arch; indeed the action is presented as a stage show. To achieve a similar field of view as human vision, DPs often choose to shoot these statics using a 55mm lens (or similar) on the camera, however you can of course shoot static frames on any focal length.

Stanley Kubrick used the static frame to great effect while shooting Barry Lyndon, the fixed, well composed shots reflected the static hierarchy of that period in time.

With this approach the actors have to move within the frame without being able to venture outside the basic composition, again putting emphasis on strong blocking. In the Barry Lyndon example, this is a reflection of the world those characters lived in, and while it strongly implies a sense of order and tranquility it also carries an overpowering sense of lack of mobility.

Barry Lyndon Static

Each scene is played out completely within this fixed frame, without cuts or changes in perspective. This approach is obviously not suitable for all movies but nonetheless it’s interesting approach.

Kubrick also extensively used ‘One Point Perspective’.

One Point Perspective exists when the camera is framed parallel to two axes of a rectilinear scene – a scene which is composed entirely of linear elements that intersect only at right anglesWikipedia

Check out this great video to see how Kubrick used this technique in many of his movies.


The camera lens is one of the prime tools for adding additional layers of meaning, nuance and emotional context to shots and scenes. Using lenses to ‘set the frame’ and so deciding what the audience will or will not see is a core principal of Cinematography.

The first decision then is where to position the camera in relation to the subject, once the camera position is set, it’s a case of what you want your audience to see. This is the job of lens selection.

Wide Angles:

When using a wider than normal lens, depth perception is exaggerated, and objects appear further apart (front to back) than they are in reality. This exaggerates the sense of depth, and the movement towards or away from the lens is heightened, space is expanded and distant objects become much smaller.

All this can give an audience a greater sense of presence, which of course is the aim of the Director and Cinematographer.

private ryan wide angle

In the example above, see how we feel part of the scene, included. Notice also how much depth is created by the character blocking.

Longer Lenses:

Now lets talk a little about longer lenses and how they can compress space. This compression of space can be used for many perceptual purposes, creating a claustrophobic feel, making distant objects seem close and heightening the intensity of action and movement.

The effect of having objects seem closer together than they really are is often used for practical reasons, making stunt scenes look more dramatic and more dangerous.

the rock long lens compression

In the shot above (from The Rock) a long lens is used; because of the compressive nature of the long lenses they have a tendency to squeeze the image into the frame. In the above example the distance between the cars looks very close and therefore dangerous, however this is an optical illusion created by the lens compression – in reality the distance between the vehicles is greater… making all things safe… phew!!! Though these stunt drivers are amazing!

With longer lenses you also tend to get more of a feeling of “observation”, as if you were an onlooker watching the scene unfold. Another Michael Bay example below demonstrates this. Other Directors who are fond of the Long Lens include Tony Scott and more recently J.J. Abrams.

armegeddon long lens



So there you go, hope you enjoyed this little post and that it has helped introduce you to the importance of terminology, lens choice and camera blocking.

Happy filmmaking!

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By the way… I run a course on Lighting & Cinematography, so click the link or get in touch if you’re interested in coming and learning in person!

Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.

7 Responses to “The ‘Language’ of Cinematography & Lenses”

  1. Morten Furre April 10, 2015 at 6:10 am #

    This is great! Thanks for writing this.

  2. James Ian Gray April 10, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    Reblogged this on Being A Jnr. Cinematographer.

  3. Agin-candid wedding photographer delhi November 1, 2015 at 1:12 pm #


  4. ssenyonjo ivan April 24, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

    thank yuo so much

  5. John Jordan January 29, 2018 at 11:59 am #

    this is very useful. thanks

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