Not too far, not too close.
As a filmmaker, one of your primary responsibilities is to translate what’s on the page to the screen in a way that is both emotionally charged and reveals the necessary information.
There’s no one way to do that. There’s no secret formula. No one-size-fits-all guide. But there is a canon of the hundreds of thousands of existing films. And one of the most common and reliable visual tools that directors have used in those films is the medium shot.
This workhorse is perhaps the most commonly used shot in films and when used properly, can serve as the visual glue of a scene. It’s more than just the glue, though. The camera angle can be used to reveal character and ramp up emotion while also revealing setting and allowing the character and setting to play off one another.
No filmmaker should operate without a firm understanding of this shot, so what we’re going to do today is discuss it and explore some shot examples. We’ll also touch on this shot's 'siblings'.
Before we do all that though, what is a medium shot in the first place?
That’s a fair question to ask, so without further ado, let’s define it!
Medium Shot Definition
A medium shot (“MS” on the shot list) is captured at a medium distance from the subject. It is often used for dialogue-heavy scenes, but also depicts body language and can reveal more of the setting. Oftentimes it will frame multiple subjects as well as a portion of the background.
An alternate and perhaps simpler way to think about this camera angle is that it shows less than a wide shot but more than a close-up.
Let's dive into when to use this shot.
When to go medium
There’s no one instance in which this shot is called for, but all that means is that it’s up to you as a filmmaker to decide when to use it.
A medium shot is often overlooked in favor of a close-up shot that captures more granular detail or a wide shot that captures more scope, but the benefit of the medium is that it’s a happy marriage between the two. You can capture fine details, while also achieving some scope and filling in the surroundings of your character(s).
It can be used to frame large groups of people or individual characters in settings that have more going on in the background, or can also provide a sense of scale between the subject and their surroundings. It allows character and setting to play off each other in a way that other shots don’t allow.
This shot is truly a workhorse; it fits the character, dialogue, setting, and occasionally action all into one shot.
That’s enough talk though, let’s take a look at this in practice!
Medium Shot Examples
Let’s start off with an example from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
The shots in this scene capture Roger Thornhill as he’s repeatedly attacked by a crop duster. The sequence beginning at 1:30 is particularly astonishing as we get real character detail while also getting a sense of scope and danger.
We’re with Roger as he realizes the crop duster is returning for him and we see the sense of urgency on his face as the plane gets closer and closer. The camera angle also reaffirms that Roger is in a remote area, which further amplifies the danger he’s in; there’s nothing but he and the plane and it’s coming straight for him.
This scene is an achievement in filmmaking and is only possible because of our new favorite shot. A close-up wouldn’t capture the sense of scope and danger Roger is in and a wide shot wouldn’t allow for us to see the emotion on Roger’s face.
Now let’s change gears a bit and take a look at how the shot is used to fully capture emotion.
This sequence, among the most powerful in Spielberg’s incredible filmography, features the iconic shot of Private Ryan at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The entire scene is full of emotion, but in this particular moment, we see Ryan gazing not only at the grave of Captain Miller, but at the graves of all the American men lost during WWII.
Ryan is our window into the scene and through him, we see the sheer scope of the loss that occurred on the battlefields. The shot is not only visually arresting but also packs an emotional punch. It feels both personal and intimate and yet grand and unimaginable.
Such is the magic of this 'tweener' of a camera angle.
We said earlier that medium shots are often used to frame multiple characters in a scene, so let’s take a look at an example of that from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
This film is a "two-hander" focused on the relationship between Bob and Charlotte, and this shot almost perfectly encapsulates the complicated dynamic between the two. Both characters are at points in their lives where they feel lost and vulnerable, and they take solace in each other and develop a bond that is somewhere in the messy void between platonic and romantic.
This shot captures all of that in one frame; it’s clear that they’re more than friends, but it’s also clear that they’re not quite lovers. That’s a lot of information to convey.
For our next example, we’re going to take a hard right turn and explore how to amplify atmosphere.
American Psycho is among the more polarizing films of the 21st century, but (hopefully) everyone can agree that this shot is dynamite.
This film is all about tone and this shot really helps create that tone; it’s evocative, eerie, reveals character, and tells us something about the setting all at once.
The movies above use this tool in moderation, but there are some films that use them so frequently as to be...
Medium Shot Films
A whole film defined by one shot? Well...
The Searchers is a medium shot film.
John Ford was not only a master filmmaker, but one could argue that he helped define this shot, or at the very least, mastered it.
In this clip, Ethan returns home and nearly every shot is a medium. Through these shots, we meet the various characters, get a sense of their relationships with each other, and are also introduced to the setting.
The infamous Cowboys vs. Indians scene is another example of Ford’s heavy reliance on the angle. Nearly every shot of Ethan and the rangers is a medium, which allows us to feel close to the characters and the action while also giving the sequence a sense of scope.
Here’s another example:
The iconic sequence of Ethan picking up and rescuing Debbie in this frame achieves maximum emotional impact. We see exactly what Ethan and Debbie are feeling in the moment, but also see the rugged terrain as dust is kicked up in the background, which highlights the setting and adds to the atmosphere.
Now that we have the basic version down, let’s start tackling variations.
Medium Long Shot Definition
The medium long (or medium wide shot) frames a subject from the knees up. It’s an intermediary between the long and the medium and it slightly prioritizes the background over the subjects and the foreground.
Makes sense, right?
When to use the Medium Long Shot
The main reason to use it is to highlight the background, but also show the character in relation to it. In a medium long shot, you can see enough of the character to see his or her facial expressions, but the focus is on their surroundings.
Medium long shots are also commonly used for group shots or two shots because they provide enough room in the frame to include multiple characters simultaneously.
Medium Long Shot Example
Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to the medium long shot and this frame from Inglorious Basterds perfectly highlights what the shot can really do for you.
In this frame, Shoshanna Dreyfus captures our attention in the foreground, but the reason this shot is so evocative is because of how it pairs Shoshanna with the various visual elements in the background. We see Shoshanna’s reflection, the film poster, and the red Nazi banners and the interplay between these and Shoshanna herself creates a frame that perfectly encapsulates her state of mind as she prepares to enact her revenge.
On the other end of the spectrum is the medium close-up shot.
Medium Close Up Shot Definition
A medium close-up (MCU) frames a subject’s head and cuts off around mid-chest. The focus is on the subject, but the shot does reveal a little bit of the surroundings.
When to use this shot
If you want to focus on a subject’s face in detail, while also including enough of the background so as to make clear the setting we’re in. The shot allows that setting to interact with the subject.
It also allows for nuanced shifts in facial expressions, while also allowing the actor(s) to convey more emotion through body language via their shoulders and chest.
Medium Close Up Shot Example
Medium close-ups can be used to great effect in all genres, but one of the most memorable examples comes from the opening scene of Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria.
This scene is a masterclass in the atmosphere. By the time Suzy Bannion has gotten in the cab, we’re already uneasy and the medium close-up shot of Suzy in the back seat only amplifies that. She’s soaking wet, it’s pouring rain outside, and she’s clearly in a foreign place based on how she reacts to her surroundings.
This not only highlights Suzy’s state of mind but also allows enough space for the flashes of color and practical thunderstorm effects to take place. The result is a compelling interplay between Suzy and the eerie kaleidoscope of a world she’s just entered.
Not too wide and not too close... in summary
We've defined the shot, and we've looked at prime examples.
If you’re ever doubting the value of this visual workhorse, remember, there’s no other shot that can simultaneously reveal intimate emotion and nuance in a character while also allowing for scope and atmosphere.
So as you draw your storyboards or otherwise visually plan your next film, keep this angle in mind. After all, it is often the visual glue of a scene. But don’t take it from me, take it from Spielberg, Ford, Tarantino, and Hitchcock.