The Power of the Close-Up Shot: Why, When, and How to Use It
Production & Filmmaking
August 16, 2020

The Power of the Close-Up Shot: Why, When, and How to Use It

By DJ Pangburn 8 min read

In cinema, photography, animation, comics, and other visual media, the close-up shot is the best way to show detail. While medium, long shots and extreme wide shots show the context of a scene, the close-up and the extreme close-up can reveal information that remains unseen from afar.

Filmmakers of the late 19th and early 20th century overwhelmingly used medium and long shots for their films. They framed scenes as if the audience were looking at a play on stage—one unfolding in projected light. But by about 1910, filmmakers like D.W. Griffith began to experiment with close-ups, hoping to create films that showed how people actually looked at the world, when they focused on certain things, like a coffee mug in front of them or a book.

These experiments in close-up detail forever changed motion pictures. Now, when a filmmaker or YouTuber shows us something in detailed close-up, we simply take it for granted. 

Why Use Close-Up Shots?

It’s worth noting that there are a few different types of close-ups. To understand this, it’s helpful to think of each type of close-up shot zooming closer and closer on the frame’s subject or object.

Typically, when we think of a close-up, we probably envision the camera framing a person’s face, hand, and so on. But, there is also the Medium Close-Up, a frame that lies between the Close Up just mentioned and a Medium shot that shows a person’s entire body. If you keep zooming in from a close-up, you get an Extreme Close-Up—a shot that shows details, like the skin on a hand or a person’s eyelashes.

Close-ups can be used for both narrative and stylistic purposes. In the film Inglourious Basterds, director Quentin Tarantino uses a close-up to great effect in a scene between the story’s antagonist and one of the protagonists. In the scene, Shoshanna—a French Jew hiding under a fake identity—and SS officer Col. Hans Landa sit at a table in a restaurant. Tarantino frames the serving of apple strudel in close-up, which helps build suspense, as the audience wonders if Landa will figure out that Shoshanna isn’t who she says she is.

On YouTube, you will see close-ups pop up in cooking shows, to show the cooking and presentation of food, or in music tutorials, where creators show how they are making sounds. Close-ups are also sometimes used in reaction videos because they let viewers see the emotions of people in the videos.  

When to Use Them

As we’ve already noted, the close-up shot is really powerful for dramatic moments and shots that involve details. It can also be used to highlight comedic moments.

When it comes to drama, a close-up allows a filmmaker to focus on a person’s face to show emotion. The emotions could be anything from nervousness and anxiety to sadness and happiness.

In cinema, a lot of filmmakers use the close-up to show a character crying. But Sergio Leone, who directed many “Spaghetti Western” films with Clint Eastwood, loved to use the extreme close-up to build tension right before gun duels. But Leone also used the extreme close-up to highlight the calm of his anti-heroes, which were played by Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.

Anyone who has seen Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrence yell “Here’s Johnny” in The Shining will know how well a perfectly timed close-up can work. Kubrick’s close-up shot of Nicholson reveals just how possessed and deranged Torrence has become at the haunted alpine hotel. 

As for how the close-up can be deployed in YouTube videos, there are a few different common usages. One popular type of close-up is found in videos that are more personal, like vlogs, but also motivational or self-help videos. YouTube makeup artists and cooks also use close-ups to show the detail and technique of their work.

You can also use close-ups at the very beginning of a shot or scene to hide the surrounding detail. Using a close-up in this way allows you to control when viewers/audiences get more information and a larger view of action and context. 

How to Shoot Close-Ups

Before we talk about framing, we should discuss cameras. The type of close-up you can shoot is really determined by the camera and lenses you have. While something like a smartphone features lenses that can be zoomed in for some good close-ups, modern DSLR cameras from Canon, Sony, and Nikon typically shoot close-ups in much greater detail.

So, the first thing you will want to do is decide which kind of camera you are going to use for your YouTube videos. There is nothing wrong with using a smartphone camera. But, if you opt for one, know that you will have to use its onboard screen zoom and focus features; unless you get an attachable lens to give you more versatility and control.

If you buy a DSLR camera, which can shoot both photos and videos, then you will have that versatility at your fingertips. These cameras allow videographers and filmmakers to use prime lenses (which can’t be zoomed in and out), for example, that are really great for getting cinematic close-ups. And they give YouTubers the controls and settings to work with lighting kits to get the exact exposure they want—something that is much more difficult with smartphone video technology.

As we just noted, to get a good close-up, the shot will need to be properly lit. Sometimes natural lighting will do, but at some point, you may want to invest in a lighting kit that will give you more control over your image, which you can play with during the editing process.

Once you’ve settled on the camera and lighting you want to use, you can practice framing your close-ups. Work on medium close-ups, close-ups, and extreme close-ups. By doing this, you will get more comfortable with zooming in, focusing, and lighting your close-up shots. 

Some More Thoughts

Shooting good videos is about having a balance of shots in your arsenal. While it’s perfectly okay, especially for aspiring YouTubers, to stick with one static shot throughout a video, adding medium shots and the three main types of close-ups can really help give your work a dynamic look.

The key is to know when to use a close-up. If you want to show details on objects, structures, and faces, this is a great time to use close-ups. If you want to show emotion, this is another great moment to shoot a close-up.

As with anything in video and film, just don’t over-use it. Unless your entire video is about showing detailed work, like programming a music synthesizer or showing how to build a robot or carve wood, then you want to use the close-up only when necessary.

Author Bio

DJ Pangburn is a New York-based journalist, videographer, and fiction writer, with bylines at ViceFast CompanyDazed and Confused, and other publications. DJ records ambient techno and IDM under the name Holoscene.

Share this article