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Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques

Lewis McGregor

Improve your establishing shots with a few principles of still photography.

Cover image via Shutterstock.

The establishing shot is one of the core tools in cinematography. However, it can be easy to overlook this shot’s creative potential. When it comes to establishing shots, we can look at some principles of photography to create better shots because, in most cases, an establishing shot is essentially a cityscape photograph, a landscape photograph, and so on.

Lead-In Lines

There are many visual components of print, film, and photography that can direct the audience’s gaze to specific areas of the image — or lead them through the picture organically. The Gutenberg Diagram dictates that readers of very large print will usually read from top left to right, diagonally across the center, and then to finish on the bottom right of the image. You’ll find countless magazine covers and movie posters that adhere to the Gutenberg Diagram.

Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques — Lead-in Line

You can also direct the eye within an establishing shot using a lead-in lines.

In photography, a lead-in line is any line in the image that leads your gaze into and through the photograph. It can be a road, the edge of a building, a contrail, even a spiral staircase; it doesn’t have to be a straight line. You can find lead-in lines in almost all compositional spaces — you just have to look for them.

Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques — Lead-in Line
Image via Shutterstock.

In filmmaking, we can use a line to direct the audience’s attention throughout the entire image instead of just focusing on a specific aspect. By doing so, we can add story elements and visual cues, and give the audience extra information about the story or plot — all within the establishing shot.

Take the following shot from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Crawford. By choosing to shoot from behind the path, the filmmakers give the audience an organic lead-in line to follow through the entire image until we reach our location.

Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques — Visual Movement

Talk about diagonal lines.

Foreground Interest

Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques — Foreground
Image via Shutterstock.

This photograph is a great example of foreground interest in photography.

Foreground interest helps create layers of depth in your image. Since an establishing shot identifies a location, it’s normal to question the idea of featuring something in the foreground that will ultimately be the center of focus. However, foreground interest doesn’t just pertain to a boat, or a fence, or any visible object. Foreground interest can also be the ground itself, tall grass, rocks, water, etc.

The establishing shot below is of Bear Island from Game of Thrones, home of fan-favorite Lyanna Mormont. Since this is a digital matte painting, the VFX artists had great creative leeway regarding what they wanted in the composition. The result features the Bear Island keep prominently, and we see some of the beauty of the island. However, by adding foreground interest, we see a lot more emotion in the environment, which creates a sense of depth.


Image via HBO.

If this were a real location, you would have had two possible shooting scenarios: to walk right up to the edge to get the best shot of the keep, or to move further back and include some of the foreground to give the composition life.

Natural Frames

A popular photography technique is to find and use natural enclosures to frame a landscape shot.

Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques — Natural Frames
Image via Shutterstock.

Applied correctly, this technique can really add a sense of majestic beauty to an otherwise standard landscape. If you pay close enough attention to Steven Spielberg‘s films, you’ll see that he often uses people and objects within a scene to frame a major character or moment, as we see in Duel.


Image via Universal.

We can also use this technique in an establishing shot with the use of foliage, bridges, gates, fences, or even clouds. It’s important to note that you don’t have to use objects to create a defined frame. In fact, if we take another look at the still of Bear Island, we can see from the position of the foliage and the darkened areas of towards the edge of the image that there’s a somewhat-natural frame that locks your focus on the building in the center of the composition.

Create Better Establishing Shots With These Photography Techniques — Vignette


Establishing shots are usually low priority on set. They usually fall to the second or third unit, and some filmmakers are doing away with them altogether. Personally, I love a great establishing shot; it can really set the tone for a scene. Using the tips here and the techniques discussed in this establishing shot article, you can now improve any project with more dynamic establishing shots.

For more composition tips, check out this video by Steve McCurry.


Do you have tips for improving establishing shots? Let us know in the comments.

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