How to Align the Camera and Match Shots

How to Align the Camera and Match Shots

There will often be times where a cinematographer wants a camera assistant to match two shots, such as a close-up of one character to be identical to the other. There will also be times where you may be asked to come back to a shot and match it exactly. Doing this isn't hard, it just takes a little bit of time and a trusty old tape measure.

Matching Two Different Shots

This is a common request from the director of photography (DP) — to take two different subjects and match the shots. In most cases, this is done in a shot/reverse shot scenario.

To achieve this accurately you will need:

  • A measuring device (in this instance, a physical hard or soft tape measure is best)
  • A level or clinometer
  • A piece of paper & pen

1. Start by measuring the lens height

Place the tape measure on the floor and measure up to the lens. You can choose to measure to the bottom of the lens, the middle of the lens or the top of the lens — it doesn’t matter as long as it stays consistent. In many cases, this information will be rendered moot since a lot of DP’s prefer to have their lens at eye-level to their actors and each actor will be a different height.

2. Measure the distance to the subject

If it is an actor or actress, measure the distance to their eyes in the position they spend most of the scene in. This should be measured from the film plane (or sensore plane). It’s likely you already have this information from focus marks.

3. Get the angle of the camera

For this part, I use an iPhone app that will give me an angle measurement in degrees. I will ask the DP to lock off the head where they like the framing, then I will rest my iPhone on the flat part of the head until the level stabilizes. You can use any tool for this, such as a clinometer, that will allow you to measure the tilt of the camera.

4. Write all of this down

A lot of camera assistants might skip this step for the sake of time, but I think it comes in handy. If you can’t write it down, ask your 2nd AC to write it down. Having this info on hand will help you remember the details and come into play if, for some reason, you end up having to come back to this shot after already moving on.

5. Move the camera to match

At this point, you can now walk the camera to where it should match the other shot. A big part of this step is going to be “eyeing” the angle to the subject from before, but the DP will usually indicate where they want the camera positioned anyway.

Matching The Same Shot

This situation is a bit more rare, but it can happen due to a number of issues with wardrobe, special effects, or scheduling. In this case, you are asked to take the same measurements above and be able to match the shot with the camera in the exact same location at a different time during the day.

To do this, follow the same steps as above but also do these steps before moving the camera:

6. Write down camera settings

Your 2nd AC should be on top of this with camera reports, but there are plenty of times where you may not be keeping reports as a one man band. Make sure you write down the T-stop, ISO and any other unique settings on the lens/camera to that shot.

7. Use tape to mark the location

If I have the time, I will use three pieces of paper or camera tape to mark where the legs of the tripod are. I run the tape alongside the “feet” or lift the feet up and place the tape underneath.

I also take step number 4 & 6 from above and put all the info onto a single piece of paper tape and place it on the ground directly underneath the camera. It looks like this:

Camera Paper Tape with Info to Match a Shot

Info on the tape from left to right: lens height, focal length, T-stop

If you are in a hurry and don’t want to mark every tripod leg, you can place a single piece of tape (ideally with the info on it) at the exact center of the tripod/camera to indicate the position.

Bring the Camera Back

With all of this info, you should be able to place the camera back onto the tape marks, raise it to the correct height/angle, and match the shot almost perfectly. Usually you can afford to be off by a few inches, but, of course, as a camera assistant precision is key. If you are ever unsure, ask the DP if the shot is an acceptable match. In the end, it’s their call.

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  • Court Fisk

    This is excellent, as a first time director with a mostly first time crew, this tutorial saved out butts from the fire on the last shoot. However, I think we messed up and marked the focal distance to the subject on the single piece of tape instead of the lens height.

    We have the rest of it (Camera Lens type and T-Stop), but I’m worried we won’t be able to match it when returning. Is there a way to compensate?

    Also what is the best way to mark the camera when the two front legs are moved to another position to get coverage of a second subject? Do you just mark a second piece of tape under the sticks and let the ends overlap forming a “V”?

    Finally, when operating a clinometer (it’s been awhile since I’ve used one), what part of the subject is my view (through the clinometer) focused on?


    • Evan

      Hey Court,

      Glad this helped! To answer your questions…

      1. You may just have to do it the old fashioned way and have a screenshot of the shot your matching and try to line up the frame. Or “eye” it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what else you can do if you had already moved the camera.

      2. If you’re pivoting the camera, the easiest thing to do is put a piece of tape on the outside each of each of the three legs and another piece of tape under the center of the sticks. That should make it easy to line back up.

      3. I would focus the clinometer on the same part of the subject that the center of the lens would be focusing on.