Hints and Tips: Getting the best smartphone footage

What is the best camcorder to use? The correct answer of course is the one you have with you at the time, and these days, for many people that means their smartphone – Android or iPhone in 99.9% of cases (I do know of someone who STILL uses and swears by a Microsoft phone beleive it or not!)

The biggest factor in people using smartphones for video (and photos) is convenience. It is usually immediately accessible and easy to use. However, die to the nature of the beast, there are some “gotchas” you need to be aware of to get the best out of your smartphone for shooting video.

The biggest issue is the sensor / lens type. Despite the hype of the various vendors (and some commentators sadly), there is just no way a smartphone can equal or surpass a dedicated camcorder or camera. The technical aspects, specifically sensor size, just won’t let it.

This leads to other areas of deficiency, particularly when dealing with light. And let’s face it, without decent light, there is simply no imagery.

Another concern is audio quality. A tiny little microphone designed for picking up a voice for a phone call is not going to compete with a proper mic designed for video such as a Sennheiser MKE440 or MKE600.

A lack of viewfinder is also an issue with most smartphones; yes you can frame your shots using the LCD, but be honest, in bright sunlight can you REALLY see your smartphone’s screen in order to properly compose an image?

Finally there is stabilisation. The shape and ergonomics of a smartphone are just not suited for a stable image via handheld. Although electronics have come a long way in this area, holding a smartphone for an extended period while shooting is just not one of the nicer things to do in life.

So in summary, here is a quick checklist of do’s, don’ts and tips if you must shoot with a smartphone.

 

  1. Don’t shoot vertical.

Firstly, those ugly black bars on the left and right of the image detract from the content. Second, you don’t watch your TV sideways do you? Horizontal video is shot that way for a reason (and your video will fill the screen as a bonus.)

  1. Use a tripod or gimbal.

No-one likes shaky video. A trend towards making video this way only occurred by accident when the footage shot for a particular music video in the 80s was so bad the editor decided to exaggerate it and make it a “feature”.

  1. NEVER use digital zoom.

In fact, use any sort of zoom on any camera sparingly. If you want a close up of something, shoot one scene at a distance, stop shooting, walk up to the subject and shoot again. Digital zooming only expands the pixels, not the image.  Its ugly. So again, NEVER.

  1. Be aware of the composition (just what IS in the frame?)

Even experienced people get this wrong on (embarrassing) occasion. Tales of telegraph poles in scenes from Robin Hood, and a freeway in a western movie are not just “stories”. Nor was the Starbucks coffee cup in Game of Thrones. Before pressing the “go” button, carefully examine what is actually in the scene. Also check for things like trees growing out of people’s heads and the like.

  1. Be aware of backlighting.

Also an easy one to miss with the most common being shooting into the sun and therefore the subject’s face being totally in shadow. In fact, as per 4. Above always check your lighting and see where shadows fall and the subject(s) are properly lit. Some stuff can be fixed in post yes, but you cannot put light in that wasn’t there in the first place.

  1. Don’t overuse effects.

Better still, don’t use them at all (eg Instagram or Snapchat ones). Nothing yells amateur like cheesy effects and transitions. If you don’t believe me, watch any movie by a “master” such as Hitchcock, Cameron, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg etc.

  1. Learn your smartphone camera / camcorder controls.

Point and shoot is all very well, but if you take the time to learn the basics of video (and photography) including exposure, aperture, ISO, shutter speed and so on, you’ll get much better imagery and as a consequence, be better able to tell your story (which is after all what you are trying to do!). With video and photography, you NEVR stop learning, and the best place to start is your smartphone / camcorder / camera manual. And there are thousands on thousands of online tutorials to help as well (but try our website first of course!) And you can also join any one of a number of Facebook groups for instance, that will cater for your personal taste in video making such as nature, sport, weddings, horror or social issues for example.

  1. Don’t forget the audio!

People often forget just how important the audio is in even a silly home video. Viewers will forgive a jumpy video, but out of synch or bad audio is an instant turn off. Be aware of background noise overwhelming someone talking, or audio that clips or causes distortion. The best way is to use a separate audio recorder such as those made by Zoom. Our own favourite which is affordable and works with your existing smartphone is the Sennheiser Memory Mic. Audio recorded this way can be later synched up to your video quickly and easily.

  1. Remember The Basics – SD card, battery, clean lens.

Whether it be an inexpensive smartphone or a top-of-the-range Panasonic VariCam, the basics still apply. Make sure the lens is clean, you have enough space on your SD card for the shoot and have spare cards just in case and make sure the battery is fully charged (and again spares available if necessary or carry a recharging “brick”)

  1. Have fun!

It is not meant to be a chore so take your time, look for different and interesting angles to shoot from and do another take or more if necessary (and possible). Enjoy the process as the end result, whether a great little home movie or a fully blown documentary or short film destined for a festival, is a very rewarding and satisfying experience.

  1. Finally, know when to stop.

Nothing is ever perfect and if you keep trying to make it so, you’ll get frustrated and bored with the whole process. So know when to stop the shoot, edit or whatever, and move onto the next thing. I speak from experience here!

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