Learning the Camera Language – Tips on the Fundamentals of Directing

February 10th, 2023 Jump to Comment Section
Learning the Camera Language – Tips on the Fundamentals of Directing

Content, content, content… The video industry is getting overloaded with it every day. There’s an endless amount of film ideas, and stories to tell, and so many creators to implement them. Sadly, in this race for creating the best and coolest video, most of them seem to have forgotten one of the magical truths of filmmaking: your shots have a voice and they have much to say. That’s why learning the camera language and mastering it, is essential – and not only to beginner directors but also to every filmmaker. In the MZed course, Fundamentals of Directing, there is a whole detailed module dedicated to this topic.

Together with The International Film Institute of New York, the course “Fundamentals of Directing” is held by Kyle Wilamowski, an independent screenwriter, director, and producer, and takes everyone back to basics. It’s here to remind us that the camera is a narrator and that even the craziest shot doesn’t do anything for your film if it’s ignorant of the scene context and the overall story.

The portrait of the course teacher - Kyle Wilamowski - screenshot from the Fundamentals of Directing
Image source: screenshot from the “Fundamentals of Directing” with Kyle Wilamowski

The shot is like a word. The scene is a sentence. And then scenes come together to tell the story that is your film.

Kyle Wilamowski from the introduction to the module “Core Building Blocks of Directing”

In the thorough overview of all visual elements like the shot’s size, composition, depth of field, etc. Kyle also analyses which impact each of them creates on the audience. Below, we picked some of his remarkable tips for learning the camera language and using your shots as a powerful storytelling tool. If you’re interested in taking the course, you can head to to check it out!

Choosing the right size of shot for your story

“Wide, medium, close-up, blah blah blah… common knowledge!”, you may say. But what’s important here, is that choosing the right shot size shouldn’t be a random decision or a simple “Let’s shoot some coverage in different sizes and move on.” Surprisingly, I’ve seen a lot of this lately.

For example, a wide shot shows the entire object or character placing it in relation to its surroundings. As Kyle Wilamowski explains, such an approach gives the setting a bigger role at the chosen moment. This haunted hotel from “The Shining” and its influence on the life of small Danny is very important to Stanley Kubrick.

The film still from the scene where Danny rides his bicycle through the hotel hallway.
Image source: a film still from “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick, 1980

At the same time, a close-up shot of the actor’s face reduces the surroundings and makes them insignificant. The only thing that matters in a tight frame is what the character is feeling or going through at this moment. Kyle invites us to watch the French silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, where practically every single shot is a close-up. The result of this unconventional camera language was that the spectator experienced all emotions, fears and reactions together with the main character of Joan.

A close-up of the Joan's face struggling and covering it with her hands
Image source: a film still from “The Passion of Joan of Arc” by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928

What is the purpose of this particular shot?

That’s the question you ought to ask yourself during the pre-production breakdown session. There are different types of shots to consider. Do you need to locate where the narrative currently is or has arrived? Go for the establishing shot showing the space and not staying too long. Are you trying to drive attention toward a specific detail? Consider shooting an insert; a meaningful close-up of an object that provides the audience with new information.

Even a “simple” reaction shot can possess tremendous power for the story. For that matter, Kyle uses the example from “Bicycle thieves”. In the last scene, the child sees his father doing something that breaks his heart. The entire film builds up to this moment, so his reaction is essential and says more than any spoken word ever could.

The boy from the film still looks with tears in his eyes at what his father did, holding the hand of someone nearby
Image source: a film style from “Bicycle thieves” by Vittorio De Sica, 1948

Out of different shot types, one definitely stands out. It’s also an important tip from Kyle, which is to include a master shot for every scene, at least if you’re a beginner. It means, to have one shot where all of the action takes place and which you can always cut back to.  

A couple of tips on composition that supports your story

Another very strong element of the camera language is the image composition. Like in photography, it can deeply affect the spectator, though most of the time unconsciously. Using it, you’re able to manipulate the eye of the viewer and their reaction, either by following some rules or by breaking them. But first, you need to know them.  

While everybody seems to have heard of the rule of thirds, another interesting aspect to consider is how you place the leading lines inside your picture. Each line naturally draws the eye focusing its attention on something very specific, or away from it. For instance, look at how these hallway lines drive us to the door at the end. If we put a character there, they will become the biggest point of interest.

A picture of a long empty corridor leading towards the door
Image source: Freepik

A further composition tool worth trying out is to play with what to frame in and what to crop out. By placing elements in your picture, you decide where to put the main focus. If they are cropped on the edges, they can also help isolate the main subject from the outside world. Or, like in the example below, create a completely different effect. It’s quite an unusual framing and makes us feel that the protagonist is experiencing something unique.

A boy lies in the grass, cropped out by half
Image source: a film still from “Ratcatcher” by Lynne Ramsay, 1999

And other key elements of the camera language

Do you see, how much a shot has to say? How using its elements differently can change the perception of the story? And we haven’t even touched various angles which can communicate, for example, the power play of characters to the audience. Or the depth of field and which layers it brings to the table.

Yes, these all are just the basics. But to me personally, it’s always exciting to be reminded of them. It feels like magic because you don’t need emotional dialogs or complicated effects to tell a story. A simple shot can do so much if you know how to speak the camera language.

A collage from different film stills from the film "Marie Antoinette" used as a showcase for an outstanding mise en scene
Explaining the mise en scène on the film stills from “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola, 2006. Image source: a screenshot from the “Fundamentals of Directing” on

How to balance the elements within the shot or irritate your viewers by disturbing them? What’s the point of Wes Anderson using symmetry and patterns to a great extent? What kinds of camera movements can help create tension? In the course “Fundamentals of Directing” you will learn all this and more. And what about you? Do you speak the camera language fluently? What are your favorite shot elements to use in video projects? Let us know in the comment section below!

Feature image: a film still from „Ratcatcher” by Lynne Ramsay, 1999

What else do you get with MZed Pro?

As an MZed Pro member, you also get access to over 300 hours of filmmaking education, including The Art & Technique of Film Editing with Tom Cross ACE, plus we’re constantly adding more courses (several in production right now).

For just $30/month (billed annually at $349), here’s everything you’ll get:

  • 40+ courses, over 600 high-quality lessons spanning over 300 hours of learning.
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