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How to Frame a Medium Shot Like a Master Cinematographer

Michael Maher
By Michael Maher

Learn how to frame a Medium Shot the Roger Deakins way. Break down the work of a twelve-time Oscar nominee by learning the difference between a Medium Shot, Medium Long Shot, and Medium Close-Up.

Top Image: Roger Deakins via Tested

Roger Deakins is one of the most acclaimed cinematographers currently in the film industry. He has shot award-winning films for directors like the Coen Brothers, Sam Mendes, Frank Darabont, and Ron Howard.

The medium shot is one of the standard camera angles used to frame a character. It is the shot in between a close-up and a long shotIn this breakdown, we examine Deakins’ various uses of the medium shot in the films he shot.


The Medium Shot

Medium Shot: Skyfall
Image: Skyfall Medium Shot via Sony Pictures

A medium shot frames a character from their waist up. It should be considered a personal shot, as it frames a character so it appears that the audience is in a conversation with them.

Think of it as a real-life conversation. When talking to another person, you are either standing or sitting with them. Most often, you are staring at them from the waist up. Even more common, you only notice their attributes from the chest up. You are rarely paying attention to their feet or legs. This conversational framing goes into deciding the medium shot.

Medium Shot: True Grit
Image: True Grit Medium Shot via Paramount Pictures

This is why the medium shot is often used in interviews. It is a relatable angle that everyone is used to. On camera, a medium shot directs the viewer’s attention to a character.

Deakins often frames his medium shots from above the waist, closer to the belly button. This offers a better composition, as it avoids framing around an actor’s joints. Cutting off directly at the waist or elbows creates a jarring image. In each of these medium shots selected, you will see how Deakins frames just on the edge of the elbows rather than in the middle of the elbow.

Medium Shot: No Country For Old Men
Image: No Country For Old Men Medium Shot via Miramax

The biggest takeaway from these medium shots is that the give the audience so much more information that just seeing a character. To properly frame a medium shot, you must pay attention to all of the surroundings and light the scene well. The medium shot should show off the scenery as much as the character.

Medium Shot: Shawshank Redemption
Image: The Shawshank Redemption Medium Shot via Castle Rock Entertainment

The above shots were chosen for a specific reason. Note how much information you get from the character’s body. Unlike a close-up of just their face, you can see each of their shoulders slump in despair. Their body language offers so much more to the scene.

Pay attention to the little background details as well. In the image from True Grit, we see that Rooster Cogburn is totally alone during his interrogation. Notice the balance of light in No Country For Old Men, where Ed Tom Bell is perfectly framed by the blue hues that contrast the other tungsten lights in the hotel.

The final medium shot from The Shawshank Redemption shows us the escape route from the prison in the foreground, the shock of the warden, and the background reactions of the officer and Red. Even farther back, we can still see the other posters on the cell wall, which helped draw attention away from the Rita Hayworth poster that was secretly hiding an escape route.


The Medium Long Shot

Medium Long Shot: Skyfall
Image: Skyfall Medium Long Shot via Sony Pictures

The medium long shot frames the subject from the knees up, and often the focus is on the location rather than the character. Just like with the medium shot composition, avoid framing on the joints — in this case, the knees. Notice how Deakins typically frames from just below the knee. 

The shot is also called a three-quarters shot… obviously it frames three-quarters of the character. The medium long shot is typically used as an establishing shot, as it shows a character in relation to their surroundings.

Medium Long Shot: Jesse James
Image: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Medium Long Shot via Warner Bros.

Roger Deakins will often use the medium long shot as an establishing shot, putting the focus on the background rather than the character. Notice the medium long shots from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the below image from Skyfall only use a silhouette of the character to draw your attention to the landscape.

Medium Long Shot: Skyfall
Image: Skyfall Medium Long Shot via Sony Pictures


The Medium Close-Up

Medium Close-Up: Big Lebowski
Image: The Big Lebowski Medium Close-Up via Working Title Films

The medium close-up shot frames a character from the middle of their chest and up. Where the close-up shot focuses on just the face, the medium close-up includes a character’s shoulders. Thus, it is sometimes called a head and shoulders shot.

The emphasis is on the character’s facial expressions, but their body language should complement the overall composition. The same goes for backgrounds. The background is not the focus of the shot, it’s literally out of focus every time.

 

Medium Close-Up: O Brother
Image: O Brother, Where Art Thou? Medium Close-Up via Touchstone Pictures

The medium close-up is perfect for a reaction shot. It gives a great range of emotion, just like Everett’s reaction in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? shot aboveNote that the background is not the focus. We see the train in the distance, but it’s used to complement his reaction to the situation.

Medium CU Deakins Mind
Image: A Beautiful Mind Medium Close-Up via Universal Pictures

The medium close-up can be very intimate, like the above image from A Beautiful Mind. We can see the total despair and confusion in John Nash’s eyes and slumped body. Notice how the frame includes part of his chest pocket. Just like avoiding joints, be sure to check the costume’s framing as well.

The medium close-up can also feature an array of characters like the below shot from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Each character is framed from just below the chest, and we capture multiple reactions simultaneously.

Medium Close-Up: Group
Image: O Brother, Where Art Thou? Medium Close-Up via Touchstone Pictures


Not only is Roger Deakins a wonderful inspiration, he is also a very active member of the filmmaking community. You can study more from him at his website RogerDeakins.com.