Long Shot, Medium Shot, Close-Up: Camera-Subject Distance

Long Shot, Medium Shot, Close-Up: Camera-Subject Distance

A Few Lesson Ideas for Grades 9 and 10 by Wayne McNanney

Outcome: Students will identify three important visual codes (long shot, medium shot, close-up) used on television and in movies and begin to recognize that these codes affect meaning.

Group Work Activity: Provide your students with a large selection of magazines and newspapers that include a wide variety of photographs. Ask each group to select three photographs.  For each of the photographs, have the group identify the subject (that is, the main focus of the photograph).  It may be useful, before the group activity, to do a short lesson on determining the subject of photograph through using photographs shown to the class on an overhead projector.   For each of the three photographs, the camera should be at a different distance from the subject.  For one photograph, the camera should be far away from the subject; for another, the camera should be close to the subject; and for the other, the camera should not be too far from or too close to the subject.  Ask the groups to talk about the effect of these three different camera-subject distances and to try to determine why they might have been used.  Give the groups a fair amount of time to select the photographs and to talk about their effects.  After the group work, the students should share their findings with the rest of the class.

Possible responses:

Note: It is recommended that, initially, you and your students talk about concepts and that the formal terms long shot, medium shot and close-up be used later.

  • A long shot shows the subject in relation to its overall surroundings.  The photograph may include a rider on a horse in the distance with mountains in the background.  Students may say that it difficult to determine what the subject is because all the details are at a distance; however, the subject appears to be the rider. Details of the rider are not evident (Is the rider a man or woman?  What kind of expression is on the rider’s face?  What is the rider wearing?)
  • A medium shot shows the subject in relation to its immediate surroundings.  The rider and horse appear to take up most of the photograph.  It is now evident that the rider is the subject of the photograph. We now see some details in the subject’s immediate surroundings (small bushes, boulders on the ground, desolation).  The overall surroundings are not as evident (a few mountains, slightly out of focus, in the background).  We also see the subject more clearly (a palomino horse, blue jeans and red shirt on a male rider with blond hair).  However, we still are unable to determine the expression on the rider’s face.
  • A close-up shows detail but little or no surroundings.  We see only the rider’s face (except for a blur behind his face).  It is now clear that the subject is the rider and not the horse.  We see physical details (unshaven, scar on cheek, blue eyes, young, handsome, looking down at his watch) and we begin to understand how he feels (perspiration and fatigue, worried expression).  The close-up helps the viewer to get “into the head” of a character.  Also, close-ups of “things” may help to clarify action (close-up of the rider’s watch indicating that the rider has to be somewhere shortly).

Other Activities:

  • Use comic strips to look at the way “long shots, medium shots, and close-ups” are used in a variety of ways.  Many comic strips are similar to storyboard illustrations prepared for movies.  Because of a wide variety of shots, Spiderman is a particularly effective comic strip.  You may wish to conduct a short whole-class lesson on “camera-subject distance” in comic strips after the previous group work activity has been completed.
  • Have each student use a piece of cardboard with a rectangle cut out of the middle.  With this viewfinder students are able to select long shots, medium shots and close-ups in the classroom.  An old method, but still effective.
  • Show a short excerpt from a movie or a television show and conduct a whole-class lesson on camera-subject distance.

Why is it important for students to be aware of camera-subject distance, perhaps before addressing any other aspect of movies and television?

The long shot, medium shot, and close-up (and many other camera-subject distances such as the medium long shot and extreme close-up) are the basis of editing in movies and on television.

Without these shots, the person who edits the movie, TV show, or commercial would have nothing to work with.  Editing, in nearly all cases, is the combining of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups to create an effective visual presentation.  Camera-subject distance is the basis for visual editing.

It is essential for students to have a clear understanding of camera-subject distance before they begin to analyze television programs and movies and before they begin to create their own productions on video.

Other areas of significance for visual editing include: camera angle, camera movement, visual composition, lighting, duration and frequency of shots.

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