A single camera—either motion picture camera or professional video camera—is employed on the set, and each shot to make up a scene is taken independently. An alternative production method, which is more widely used is still called a "single-camera", but in actuality two cameras are employed - one to capture a medium shot of the scene while the other to capture a close-up during the same take, which saves time as there are half as many set-ups for each scene.
Action films will use three or more cameras to capture multiple angles as action scenes take a great deal of time for only seconds to a few minutes of footage. With this method multiple set-ups for the same sequences can be largely avoided.
As its name suggests, a production using the single-camera setup generally employs just one camera. Each of the various shots and camera angles is taken using the same camera, which is moved and reset to get each shot or new angle. The lighting setup is typically reconfigured for each camera setup.
In contrast, a multiple-camera setup consists of multiple cameras arranged to capture all of the different shots (camera angles) of the scene simultaneously, and the set must be lit to accommodate all camera setups concurrently. Multi-camera production generally results in faster but less versatile photography.
In single-camera, if a scene cuts back and forth between actor A and actor B, the director will first point the camera towards A and shoot shots number 1, 3, 5, 7, and so on. Then they will point the camera toward B and do shots number 2, 4, 6, 8, and so on. In the post-production editing process, the shots will be assembled sequentially to fit the script.
The single-camera setup gives the director more control over each shot, but is more time consuming and expensive than multiple-camera. The choice of single-camera or multiple-camera setups is made separately from the choice of film or video (that is, either setup can be shot in either film or video). Multiple-camera setups shot on video can be switched "live-to-tape" during the performance, while setups shot on film still require that the various camera angles be edited together later.
The single-camera setup originally developed during the birth of the classical Hollywood cinema in the 1910s and has remained the standard mode of production in the cinema. In television, both single camera and multiple-camera productions are common.
Television producers make a distinct decision to shoot in single-camera or multiple-camera modes—unlike film producers who almost always opt for single-camera shooting. In television, single-camera is mostly reserved for prime-time dramas, made-for-TV movies, music videos and commercial advertisements. Soap operas, talk shows, some sitcoms and the like more frequently use the multiple-camera setup. Multiple-camera shooting is the only way that an ensemble of actors presenting a single performance before a live audience may be recorded from multiple perspectives. In the case of situation comedies, which may potentially be shot in either multiple- or single-camera modes, it may be deemed preferable to use the single-camera technique especially if specific camera angles and camera movements for a feature film-like visual style are considered crucial to the success of the production, and if visual effects are to be frequently used. For more standard, dialogue-driven domestic situation comedies, the multi-camera technique, which is cheaper and takes less production time, may be deemed more feasible.
Though multi-camera was the norm for sitcoms during the 1950s (beginning with I Love Lucy), the 1960s saw increased technical standards in situation comedies which came to have larger casts and utilized a greater number of different locations in episodes. Several comedy series of the era also presented feature film techniques. To this end many comedies of this period, including The Addams Family, The Munsters, Get Smart, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, Hogan's Heroes, The Andy Griffith Show and The Brady Bunch, used the single-camera technique. Apart from giving a feature film style, this was more suited to the visual effects frequently used in these shows such as magical appearances and disappearances, and lookalike doubles where the regular actors played a dual role. These were created using editing and optical printing techniques, and would not have been possible had the shows been shot using a multi-camera setup.
In the case of Get Smart, the single-camera technique also allowed the series to present fast-paced and tightly edited fight and action sequences reminiscent of the spy dramas it parodied. Single-camera comedies were also prevalent into the early 1970s. With its large cast and varied locations, the TV series M*A*S*H was shot using single camera style. Happy Days began in 1974 as a single-camera series, before switching to the multi-camera setup in its second season. However, the success of All in the Family (which was taped with multiple cameras live in front of a studio audience, very much like a stage play) and Norman Lear's subsequent sitcom productions led to a renewed interest by sitcom producers in the multi-camera technique; by the latter part of the '70s, most sitcoms again employed the multi-camera format.
By the mid-1970s, with domestic situation comedies in vogue, the multi-camera shooting style for sitcoms came to dominate and would continue to do so through the 1980s and 1990s, although the single-camera format was still seen in television series classified as comedy-drama or "dramedy".
In the 2000s, television saw a resurgence in the use of single-camera in sitcoms, such as Spaced (1999–2001), Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006) Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–), The Office (UK) (2001–2003), Scrubs (2001–2010), Peep Show (2003–), Arrested Development (2003–2006, 2013–), Corner Gas (2004-2009), Zoey 101 (2005-2008), The Office (US) (2005–2013), My Name is Earl (2005–2009), It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2005–), Extras (2005–2007), 30 Rock (2006–2013), Samantha Who? (2007–2009), Community (2009–), The Middle (2009-), Modern Family (2009-), Parks and Recreation (2009–) and Cougar Town (2009–). Unlike single-camera sitcoms of the past, nearly all contemporary comedies shot in this manner are produced without a laugh track.