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 The R-05 was recently superseded by the newer Roland R-07 that sports some nifty new features like remote control and low-latency monitoring with a smartphone, but I’ve not had a chance to try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 Lynda.com. 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.