14 Basic Cinematography Techniques Nigerian Film Makers Should Know

With the unbundling of Mass Communication as a single degree in Nigerian universities, cinematography has emerged as one of the lucrative programmes you can enroll for in higher institutions in the country. Some institutions could offer this as a degree under Film and Media Studies department while others can run it as a single degree. Any way, cinematography is an interesting field requiring serious skills for anyone to excel in.
There are many important things that you’ll need to know and equip yourself with in order to get started in the field. To become a cinematographer, you’ll need more than just the gear and technical know-how.

Cinematography consists of visual storytelling through skillful manipulation of shots and other production components. Aside from skillfully operating a camera and setting up the lighting for every scene, you have to control what the viewer sees and how the image is presented to them. This entails picking the most appropriate shooting techniques that best tell the story in the most captivating way.

There are most widely-used cinematography techniques which help interpret a story effectively to the audience. These techniques can help determine how viewers would feel about various scenes, as well as how they will interpret them. If you are an aspiring or professional cinematographer these techniques discussed below can help you create the most impactful and engaging films and other videos you wish to create. These are various shots commonly used in films to tell stories or create specific impressions, make your shots work together to form a beautiful, clear, and cohesive narrative. You don’t really need to be in the four walls of a university to understand and apply these simple techniques.

1. Extreme long shot


The extreme long shot (ELS) captures a very wide area to show details of the background with the subject of focus (individual, building, cars, etc.) The object looks tiny in the background. It could be a tiny building, animal, human being etc.
This type of shot is typically used as an establishing shot when changing from one big area or city to another. It is a good shot to use to relate a subject of focus to its environment. Let people know where a person or thing is located before zooming in for details.

2. Bird’s eye shot


This is also a kind of long shot just that the angle is higher than that of extreme long shot. The bird’s eye shot shows massive depth of the environment but from a much higher angle, to the point where land starts to show abstract shapes and lines out of roads, buildings, and trees. It is also typically used as an establishing shot for introductions and scene transitions. It is a good shot also used to relate subjects of focus to their environment. For instance, you use it to show the type of community a person or his village is located.

3. Long shot


The long shot (LS) shows the full length of an image but with less details of the environment where that image or subject of focus is located. Also called full, or wide shot, this type of shot is a significantly closer shot of an area where viewers can have a better look of what’s going on, but still not close enough to actually be emotionally involved in the scene. The subject the camera is focusing on is also closer to the camera but far enough to have the entire body or image in view. It can be used to make your viewers feel like a casual bystander, such as when your leading actors are shown walking hand in hand while crossing the street. It is a good shot used in making the viewers understand a scene very well. Where the subjects involve two to three persons you can add just a little bit more intimacy by moving in a little closer for a medium long shot until your subject is shown from the knees up. It is neither a complete medium or long shot but just to add intimacy without actually getting to a medium shot.

4. Medium shot


The medium shot (MS) creates more intimacy between the scene and the viewers. It allows viewers to move in a lot closer, but in a more informative way than emotional. The frame for a medium shot typically features a person’s image from the waist up. If it’s a building it could be half of the structure, from middle up or down. Mediums shots are used for general group scenes with dialogues and interviews. The cinematographer can use this while changing shots within one scene for better story flow.
You can also move in just a little bit closer for a medium close up shot to better show the expressions and emotions of an actor.
To achieve this you can frame the subject’s head up to about half of the chest to increase viewers’ focus on the person and show less of the surrounding. This is commonly used for documentaries and news programs.

5. Close up shot


The close up shot (CU) is a cinematographic technique that shows details of a part of the subject. It could be the head, hand, legs of a human being, or a floor or even roof of a building. This shot is used to allow viewers to feel more engaged and affected by the character’s emotions. By framing less of the background and more of just the face, you are able to create impact with the character’s facial expressions. If it’s a building, you can use close up shot to create impression that something is about to happen on a particular part of the building, maybe first or second floor, or even a specific part of the environment, maybe back yard or corner of the street.

6. Extreme close up shot


An extreme close up shot (ECU) captures extra details of specific part of the subject of focus. It could be the eyes, ear, knee, or window of a building etc. This shot is often used for moments when you need to increase the emotional intensity of a scene. You can do this by really zooming in on the character’s face, sometimes just on the eyes, or even the hands. It works just as well for objects, like the ticking hands of a clock or movement of grass in a bush part showing strange activity. The extreme long shot is good for setting the mood or adding drama and intimacy.

7. Dutch angle shot


This shot consists of rotating the camera to either side until verticals (like people and buildings) are tilted and the horizon is no longer parallel with the bottom of the frame. Just like the extreme long shot, the Dutch angle shot is used sparingly in narrative filmmaking, usually to portray uneasiness and disorientation. You can use this to show a character’s unstable emotional or mental state, or add an unsettling feeling to a particular scene. You can use this to create the shaking of foundation of a building during earthquake or such unsettling activities.

8. Over-the-shoulder shot


This is another very interesting shot professionals use in film making. As the name suggests, the over-the-shoulder shot shows an out-of-focus shoulder and head in the foreground while another person, object, or the background is in focus. It’s one of the most essential cinematography techniques for use in narrative filmmaking as it not only adds that much-needed depth to a shot but also aids in making conversational scenes look as natural to the viewer as possible. This shot makes it easy for viewers to relate with conversations by characters in a movie.

9. Tilt shot
This is achieve moving the camera upwards or downwards. You either tilt up or tilt down. It can be used as an establishing shot of a wide-angle view or for slowly revealing something at the end of the shot. It can also be used to exit shot from one scene into another.

10. Panning shot
This consists of moving a camera sideways. You either pan left or right. It is the horizontal equivalent of the tilt shot. They can be used simply to show the surroundings, but you can achieve truly professional results with it by keeping the panning smooth and accurate (make sure to use a gimbal stabilizer or something similar), especially when there’s action and a carefully composed final frame involved. The movements should be well-executed to look very natural and almost unnoticeable so as not to distract the viewers from the story.

11. Zoom shot
This involves gradually getting close to or further away from a subject, to show more or less details of it. The use of the zoom shot has evolved over time — from being jerky, fast, and cheesy to being a lot slower and smoother to create a more natural zoom effect that doesn’t distract viewers. The zoom shot increases the focus on a scene, an object, or a character.
You can also try the dolly zoom shot, which creates a dizzying “vertigo effect” that can be perfect for suspense films. It works by smoothly zooming out with the lens while the camera (and dolly) moves closer to the subject in perfect coordination. You could use the camera tripod achieve zoom effect. Move the camera on the tripod forward (as in dolly in) or backwards (as in dolly out). Each movement creates a zoom effect.

12. Crane shot


The crane shot captures vertical translational motion by moving the camera up or down by a couple of feet. It used to be achieved with huge and expensive cranes, but it can now be replicated with drone cameras. This is not a common shot seen in every film. It is very effective (where necessary) to add value to a production work.

13. Tracking shot


A tracking shot is popularly used in movies to record characters while they’re moving on a particular axis or to show a range of action while the camera moves on a track. The tracking shot refers to any shot where the camera follows backward, forward or moves alongside the subject being recorded. This term refers to a shot in which the camera is mounted on a camera dolly that is then placed on rails – like a railroad track. An important tool for this type of shot is a dolly, which is basically a wheeled cart that moves along a rail track, but it can also be achieved with a Steadicam and other innovative motion control gear. You may even use a drone—specifically one with a tracking flight mode like the DJI Mavic Pro, which comes with an ActiveTrack mode that allows you to choose a subject (whether a person, a vehicle, or even an animal) for the aircraft to follow.
The dolly track is used to create smoother movements and follow a subject as it leaves the frame, or simply add dynamism to an otherwise static camera shot.

You achieve the tracking shot by moving the camera to follow the movement of a subject along side it, in front of it (also called a reverse tracking shot), or behind it; because of this, the movement in tracking shots is said to be motivated. This cinematographic technique is often used to follow a subject that would otherwise leave the frame (it is often called a following shot), such as an actor or vehicle in motion. In this spirit, any conveyance, such as a motorized vehicle like a car, may also be used to create a tracking shot. The tracking shot in commonly seen in movies.

14. Point-of-view shot


This is another important shot used to carry the viewers along where necessary. It makes them a part of the movie, as if they are one of the characters. It is also called the point-of-view (POV) or first-person shot. Your camera can either be steady or moving along its axis, as long as it shows how and where viewers should look at or scan the scene and make them feel like they’re in the movie. It can also be accomplished by fitting your subject with a camera mount, similar to the GoPro footage above. The scene is then seen through the eyes of a particular actor, as if the viewers are moving in a particular scene as that actor or actress being used to achieve the shot.
This shot is also used sparingly. It is one of the best ways to make your film all the more immersive and engaging. Just know when it is essential in a movie.

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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