Documentary Gear Production

Seven tips for better smartphone moviemaking

When you’re starting out making videos the best camera is the one you got and these days, most of us carry a smartphone, so it’s the best place to start. Here are seven tips that will get you off to a good start with smartphone moviemaking.

1. Study the fundamentals of visual storytelling

With the dizzying array of how-to resources available online it’s hard to figure out where to start. I suggest Nancy Kalow’s Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary (Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, 2011, download PDF). This concise and readable guide provides basic technical guidance, tips on doing fieldwork, a discussion of ethical considerations, and practical advice on low- and no-budget filmmaking with modest gear and tiny crews consisting of one or two people.

2. Double-system sound will mitigate smartphone audio limitations

Sound is half the picture. While smartphones provide excellent video in many situations, audio recordings leave a lot to be desired. The microphone built into your smartphone will rarely provide you with good, clean dialogue. Unlike light rays, sound waves bounce all over the place, they travel around corners, and their intensity falls off quickly as you move away from their source, so you end up with a lot of ambient noise and weak dialogue when you use your smartphone as a sound recorder. There are various microphones made for smartphones, however, I suggest the easiest and most versatile approach is to use a portable sound recorder. 

I currently keep a Roland R-05 portable sound recorder in my backpack so I’m always ready to record sound. The R-05 was recently superseded by the newer Roland R-07 that sports some nifty new features like remote control and low-latency monitoring with a smartphone, but I’ve not had a chance to try it out yet. Delivery is expected in April, and if it lives up to the demos I’ve seen, this little critter may be a game changer. If you’re using your portable sound recorder to record stereo ambient sound on a windy day, you’ll need to pair it with a windjammer. 

I recommend pairing your portable sound recorder with a good external microphone with a lavaliere form-factor. I’m very fold of my Podcasting Omni Stereo Microphone from Giant Squid Audio Labs. This is actually a pair of omnidirectional (captures sound from all directions) lapel microphones that terminate in a single 3.5mm mini-plug and it works with plug-in-power (PiP) provided by most recorders so you don’t have to mess around with little button batteries. It’s perfect for recording one or two-person conversations and it won’t break the bank. If you’re shooting outdoors on a windy day you’ll need to add some lavaliere windjammers to these microphones, otherwise wind noise will ruin your recording. 

Always monitor your sound with sound-isolating form-fitting earbuds or over-the-ear headphones and adjust input levels to avoid excessive peaking. Enable the limiter on your recorder so that any stray peaks are squashed before they become distortion. Basic sound recording turns out to be a more difficult technical hurdle that basic camerawork, however, the time you invest getting a grip on location sound recording will pay off with much better video. Remember, sound is half of the picture. Really. So practice shooting sound and picture before you shoot your first interview.

There’s an added bonus when using a portable sound recorder and a lavaliere microphone: you can use it place of a wireless microphone by setting up the levels, hitting record, and then setting the HOLD button on the recorder (most have them) so that pressing buttons does not interfere with the recording. This allows you hide the recorder in a pocket or whatever. This offers the advantage of both good sound and subject mobility, so you can focus on framing your shot and moving the camera without sound recording considerations.

3. Camera support matters

Hand-held is part of the look and feel of contemporary camerawork, however, sloppy hand-held camerawork is distracting and works against your storytelling. The good news is that it’s not difficult to obtain smoother hand-held and moving camera shots if you spend some time practicing using a monopod, take a look at Steve Fairclough’s Master your monopod – Some monopod tips for creative shooting (The Video Mode, August 30, 2017) for a demonstration of several monopod shooting techniques. The monopod is the wonder device for smoother moves with a smartphone and cheaper than a gyro-stabilizer. In the end you’re better off spending your money on a tripod/monopod combo and sound gear. In addition, newer cameras like the iPhone 8 offer built-in image stabilization, so all you really need is to lower the center of gravity of your rig which a monopod does nicely, among other things.

If you want stable shots you will also want to carry a lightweight, portable tripod with you. While comparing the many options available, three essential features to look for are: 1. It should covert into a monopod which is essential for stable and versatile hand-held shooting; 2. It should be tall enough for standing interviews; 3. It should pack up into a compact size. If you’re on a tight budget the Sunpak 6601TM Tri-Monopod is an inexpensive entry-level tripod/monopod combination that extends to 58 inches and folds to 21.8 inches and weighs 3 pounds. The MeFoto RoadTrip Classic is a bit more expensive, however, it offers higher build-quality, extends to 61.6 inches, folds to a compact 15.4 inches, weighs only 3.6 lb., and comes with a handy carrying case.  

In order to mount your smartphone to the standard 1/4-20 mounting bolt found on many consumer tripods you’ll need an adapter like the Cinetics SmartMount or the Tether Tools Rock Solid LoPro . Another approach is provided by the MeFoto SideKick, an adjustable holder that attaches to any tripod with an Arca-Swiss style quick-release plate (including the MeFoto line).  

4. Shed some light on your subject

Sometimes a little bit of extra light coming from the left or right of camera (avoid frontal lighting, it blinds your subject and it looks terrible to boot). There’s a wide rage of LED lighting units available and this topic could easily fill an article and more, however, here are three key features you should look for in any portable LED lighting unit you purchase: 1. It should offer dimming capability; 2. It should accept a Sony L-series type Lithium Ion battery (a widely used standard and Sony offers intelligent battery chargers) for power that connect directly to the unit (you don’t want to be messing with power cables or outboard battery options); and 3. It should be a bicolor model. Bicolor units have an array of both daylight balanced (5600K, bluish) and tungsten balanced (3200K, yellowish) LEDs so you can dial in the color temperature you need depending on the ambient lighting conditions. A little can go a long way. In many situations you can get away without lighting, and if you do need it, all you need to to is supplement existing lighting.  Whether you use lighting or not, pay attention to exposure. Most smartphones let you touch the screen to set where it’s prioritizing the exposure for the shot for better looking video. 

5. Edit with Adobe Premiere Pro CC

While it’s easy to edit movies on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop with entry-level applications like Apple’s iMovie, as you begin to make videos you’ll quickly hit a brick wall the moment you try to do anything sophisticated. This is where Adobe Premiere Pro CC comes in. It is capable of handling any editing task and you’ll be able to master the basics with a modest amount of practice. Good “getting started” tutorials are available online from both Adobe and The fluidity you gain using this professional non-linear editing system will handsomely repay your investment learning the software. If you want to preview your clips and/or create rough assemblies on your phone or tablet, you can use Adobe Clip (available for both iOS and Android) and then more your project to Premiere Pro to finish it.

6. Enhance your capabilities with camera apps

The standard video recording app on most smartphones is no frills. Once you have been shooting for a while you’ll start expecting more from the camera and that’s where FiLMiC Pro (available for both iPhone and Android) comes in. This app improves upon the standard camera, providing you with better manual control over exposure, frame rate, resolution, and provides features like slow-motion, time-lapse, and aspect ratio guides. Unfortunately, the app is a tad temperamental and crashes once in a while, even with the latest version. Another apps worth looking into is Lapse It Pro (available for both iPhone and Android) designed specifically for capturing time lapse and stop motion videos. It allows you to zoom ramp over time and if you’re into stop motion, it provides onion skinning and touch-less photo snapping. 

7. At some point you might want to move beyond a smartphone

Once you are comfortable shooting with a smartphone I suggest investigating the pros and cons of shooting video with smartphone compared to a dedicated video camera. There are some affordances dedicated cameras provide, for example: the “D-SLR look” (selective focus), the ability to use interchangeable lenses, better ergonomics, better sound recording options, longer battery life, etc. The smartphone allows you to start developing your visual storytelling skills without breaking the bank. When the time comes to upgrade, you’ll have a better idea of what you want from a camera, and that may very well continue to be the black mirror in your pocket. 

Disclaimer: The mention of specific products does not constitute an endorsement.



Microphone Capsule Technology

Microphones used in video production are characterized primarily by their form factor, capsule technology, and pick-up pattern.

A microphone may employ one of several technologies for translating vibrating air particles into electrical energy that in turn is fed to your camcorder or sound recorder through the microphone cable. The two most widely used microphone capsule technologies in video production are dynamic capsules and condenser capsules.

Dynamic microphones

The Electro-Voice RE50 is a dynamic microphone widely used as a reporter microphone. Image source: Electro-Voice.

With a dynamic microphone, sound waves move a thin diaphragm connected to a moving coil. The movement of the coil within a magnetic field translates the sound energy into an alternating current that can be sent directly down a microphone cable, no additional circuitry is requires (the basic physics behind this is that the movement of a coil within a magnetic field creates an electrical current). A dynamic microphone is essentially the inverse of a conventional speaker. A speaker has a moving coil and magnet connected to a cone. The speaker translates the electrical signal applied to it into the physical movement of the cone, creating sound waves that correspond to the signal applied.

The advantages of dynamic microphones include:

  • Less expensive than condenser microphones, and
  • More rugged than condenser microphones, and
  • Don’t require an external power source.

The disadvantages of dynamic microphones include:

  • Not as accurate as condenser microphones,
  • Much less sensitive than condenser microphones,
  • Due to their lower sensitivity, they are limited to close-proximity recording applications.

Due to their specific characteristics, the dynamic microphones used most often in video production are hand-held “reporter” microphones. These work well for vox pop and on-camera reporter segments because they can be held in close proximity to the sound source and due to their low sensitivity don’t pick up a lot of ambient sound. Dynamic microphones are also widely used as vocalist and public address microphones as well as for recording high sound pressure level sound effects which will oversaturate more sensitive condenser microphones.

Condenser microphones

With a condenser microphone, sound waves move a thin diaphragm placed between charged metallic plates. The movement of the diaphragm between the plates creates a change in capacitance. Electronic circuitry and a power supply are required in order to translate the changes in capacitance into alternating current that can be sent along a microphone cable. Condenser microphones are  powered by either phantom power or a small battery (many professional microphones only work with phantom power only, some models give you a choice of phantom power or battery for power). Plug-in power is the consumer equivalent of phantom power.

The Rode NT3 is a condenser microphone with a super-cardioid pick-up pattern. Image source: Rode.

The advantages of condenser microphones include:

  • More sensitive than dynamic microphones,
  • More accurate sound reproduction than dynamic microphones, and
  • The increased sensitivity allows for greater source to microphone distances.

The disadvantages of condenser microphones include:

  • More expensive than dynamic microphones,
  • More sensitive to extreme environmental conditions,
  • Requires a power source, and
  • More prone to handling noise due to their increased sensitivity (requires the use of a good shock mount).

Due to their specific characteristics, condenser microphones are more widely used in video production than dynamic microphones. Common applications include lavaliere microphones worn on subjects, camera-mounted microphones, and boom-mounted microphones. Their high sensitivity makes them effective for recording sounds when there is a large source to microphone distance, for example booming subjects overheard or recording sound effects at a distance.

See also:

  • Microphone Form Factors,
  • Microphone Pick-up Patterns,
  • Microphone Frequency Response,
  • Microphone Placement,
  • Sound Fundamentals.
Featured Gear

Audio-Technica BP4029 Stereo Shotgun Microphone

The Audio-Technica BP4029 is a stereo shotgun microphone that produces a center-focused stereo image. It contains two independent condenser elements: a “Mid” element with a line-cardioid pick-up pattern and a “Side” element with a figure-eight pick-up pattern. The frequency response and overall sound quality is quite good. As with many professional condenser microphones, phantom power is required.

Stereo modes

The microphone can be used in one of three modes. M-S mode provides independent Mid and Side signals from the two independent microphone capsules. This allows the Mid-Side balance to be adjusted as desired with a mixer in the [glossary_exclude]field[/glossary_exclude] or later in post-production. Choose M-S when you want to use the middle capsule for mono recording or if you prefer to record discrete middle and side channels and encode as stereo in post-production. The microphone also has two internally-matrixed modes providing traditional “left-right” stereo: LR-W mode (wide) has a wider pick-up pattern with increased ambient pickup while LR-N mode (narrow) has a narrower pick-up pattern for less ambient pickup.


The microphone has two configuration switches: a low-frequency roll-off filter switch (-12dB/ octave @ 80Hz) and a stereo mode switch for selecting M-S, LR-W, or LR-N.  Ty Ford writes, “One very noticeable difference between these AT mics and others I have used is in the design of the LF rolloff filters. […] Engaging the LF rolloff switch actually increases the LF response between 100Hz and 500Hz. Below 100Hz it then drops off more steeply at 12dB/octave. is means you get more mid bass and less low bass with the LF filter engaged.” In my experience this provides slightly richer dialogue when recording people who have a deep voice compared to other microphones in the same price range.

Connector and adapter cables

On the back of the microphone you’ll find an XLR5-M output connector. This is different from most microphones, which have a standard XLR3-M connector. The extra pins are needed to carry the second audio signal. When referring to professional audio connectors, XLR designates the type of connector, the number following XLR designates the number of conductors, and the F and M designate whether the connector has sockets or pins, respectively.

The microphone kit includes a 24″ adapter cable (XLR5-F to two standard XLR3-M connectors) that lets you connect it to separate XLR3-F connectors on a camera, audio recorder, or mixer.

XLR5-F to XLR5-M extension cable are available if you want to use the microphone on a boom or with a pistol grip away from the camera, mixer, or reorder. In addition, a short XLR5-F to XLR3-M cable is available to adapt the microphone for use as a standard, mono short-shotgun microphone.

Mounting options

The microphone is very sensitive to handling [glossary_exclude]noise[/glossary_exclude] and should be mounted on a pistol grip with a good shock mount, a boom pole with a shock mount attached, or a camera mount with a shock mount. Using this microphone on a stock camera microphone mount or a microphone mount without a shock mount is strongly discouraged.

A windjammer or zeppelin should be used when it’s windy outdoors, the foam windscreen that comes with the microphone only protects you from wind noise caused by microphone movement or very light wind.

Placement considerations

Proper placement is critical in most situations, since the microphone is quite directional and off- axis sounds exhibit distinctive coloration. For the best results the microphone should be precisely aimed at the source, regardless of whether you’re in the narrow or wide matrixed modes.

Usage recommendations

Short shotgun microphones are very versatile in that they are easily used as either an on-camera microphone or a boom mounted microphone, or mounted on a pistol grip. This microphone works well for both dialogue recording (using the M channel as a mono short- shotgun) as well as stereo sound effects and ambient sound recording.

Short shotguns are a good choice for recording when it is desirable to focus on a specific sound source and where isolation from unwanted sounds or noise is needed and you can’t get as close as you’d like with a cardioid or hypercardioid.

Shotguns are not so great for recording in small reverberant spaces since as off-axis sounds exhibit quite a bit of coloration, in these situations a cardioid or hypercardioid is a better choice.

Frequency response

Polar patterns



Diagrams courtesy of Audio-Technica

Using the mic on a camera

In an ideal world you’d have a ninja-class boom operator with you on every shoot, however, if you’re working solo lobo there are times when a wireless lavaliere on your subjects is not practical, or you don’t have one, and then the only option becomes  mounting the BP4029 on your camera. I suggest avoiding built-in microphone mounts or rigid microphone mount because they transmit too much handling noise to the microphone. A Rycote Lyre or InVision Hot Shoe mount are good options. Whatever you get, make sure you can swivel the mount, so in situations where you are framing a subject to the right or left of frame, you can offset the microphone so it’s pointing directly at the sound source for the best sound quality.

Mono dialogue recording on a boom

If you are using the microphone on a boom, especially a boom with a mono cable running inside the boom, the use of an XLR5-F (stere0)  to XLR3-M  (mono) adapter cable comes in handy for connecting the microphone.

Cinéma-vérité style shooting

Since the BP4029 is an MS stereo microphone,  it has two discrete microphone capsules: a middle (M) capsule with a line-cardioid pick-up pattern and a second side (S) capsule with a figure-of-eight pick-up pattern. Normally the discrete M and S channels are decoded into stereo either by the microphone or later in post-production. However, for cinéma-vérité shooting, when you are primarily concerned about the dialogue of your subjects, you can  use the microphone in MS mode which provides the M and S as discrete ;independent channels recorded to channel 1 and 2 respectively. In thus case channel 1 provides you with the dialogue of subjects in front of the camera and channel 2 provides you with the dialogue of subjects to the right or left of the camera. This second channel gives you a lot more flexibility in postproduction when shooting cinéma-vérité style.

Recording discrete M and S and decoding in post

The discrete M and S signals recorded to channels 1 and 2 of the camera or sound recorder can be decoded to stereo in Adobe Premiere Pro using a plug-in like Voxengo MSED.  You can use the M channel and ignore the S channel and it functions as an ordinary short shotgun or you can covert the M and S channels to stereo using the plug-in during post. The plug-in allows you to vary the width of the stereo [glossary_exclude]field[/glossary_exclude].

MS recording is a two way process, you can decode stereo from MS and encode stereo into MS. The stereo is derived algebraically from the M and S signals, where

L = (M+S)/2
R = (M-S)/2

When you adjust the levels on the MS signal you control the width of the stereo image. One useful trick in post is if you’ve got dialog that was recorded with a built-in stereo camcorder microphone, if you encode it to MS you can then pull out the middle for cleaner dialog, or simply boost the middle compared to the side signal to reduce unwanted side noises. The world of MS stereo is full of ancillary benefits.

Parting thoughts

The BP4029 is a handy one-size-almost-fits-all solution for media makers who want maximum versatility form the least amount of gear. I use mine for recording dialogue in mono, as well as sound effects and ambience in stereo, and I’ve been very happy with the results.