What is an establishing shot?

An establishing shot is an opening shot at the start of a scene or sequence that tells the audience where (and sometimes when) the next scene will occur. It’s a long take or extreme-long shot that sets up the context required to understand the action and the plot that follows. Often a wide shot, and an aerial shot from a bird’s eye view, it helps the viewer orient themselves in the world they are introduced to.

Establishing shots were more common during the classical era of filmmaking but now are frequently replaced by a mere mention of the setting in the on-screen text to quickly move the scene along.

What can we establish?

Introducing the location is a core element of a good establishing shot. When the story is set in the real world, establishing shots often use famous landmarks to indicate the place the action takes place in. In fantasy and science fiction, establishing shots can be even more important for understanding the environment, and the structures and creatures that inhabit it, like in Blade Runner (1982). This scene provides valuable information to the viewers, and helps them immerse themselves in the story.

The establishing shot can also be used to show the time of day, or the season the plot takes place in, especially if this changes during scenes. For example, an autumn sequence followed by a cut to the snowy exterior of the same location would indicate a time skip to the audience.

In a certain context, a relationship or concept can be introduced as well. An establishing shot of a huge manor with an outside wedding ceremony, a gathered crowd, and festivities would tell the audience a lot about what will happen in the scene, even before the establishing shot is over.

Ready to tackle your own establishing shot? If you need more inspiration, check out these tips on Premiumbeat about how to use photography techniques to get better establishing shots.

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