Smartphone your way to professional video content

Shoot professional smartphone video with these easy-to-learn techniques.

Smartphone video has the power to transform your small business.

How?

Your pocket-sized device produces video that rivals the output of expensive professional kits.

Don’t believe me? Check out Tangerine – a Sundance Film Festival hit shot almost entirely on an iPhone 5s.

That’s three generations of iPhone ago!

We’re not saying the quality of your smartphone video will be necessarily better than vision shot with a $10,000 camera.

What we are saying is that it comes pretty bloody close (as you’ll see in the above trailer).

A professional videographer might notice the difference. But if they’re not your target market, who cares?

Techniques and tips

There are plenty of simple steps you can take to improve your smartphone videos.

When you start stringing these together, you’ll be amazed at the results.

Here are some techniques you can immediately begin applying on your next shoot.

Want a deeper look into making professional smartphone video?

Find out by watching our seven-part short video series on how to do it for under $100.

Click here to access the 7-part video series

Lighting
  • If possible, shoot in a well-lit space and have your subject facing the light source. If you’re indoors, position them near a window, looking into the natural light.
  • Make sure your subject isn’t backlit (i.e. the light source isn’t behind them). This will create a silhouette effect and you won’t be able to see their face.
  • Manually set the exposure to balance out the light and dark areas of your shot. Do this on your iPhone’s in-built camera app by holding your finger on your subject and waiting for the ‘AE/AF lock’ message to pop up (see video below). Once it does, adjust the brightness by moving your finger up and down on the sun icon until you’re happy with the lighting. This locks in your exposure and focus until you change it.

  • If you’re using FiLMiC Pro, move the exposure reticle over your subject, tap it and it will turn red. This means it will maintain the same lighting throughout your recording session.
  • If light is still a problem, turn to an artificial source. One option to help balance out shadows on your subject is the pint-sized iBlazr 2 ($80AUD). This tiny unit packs a hell of a punch and is great for lighting the shadows on an interviewee’s face.
Sound

You can salvage average-looking video with great sound, but you’re up the proverbial creek if you have beautiful video with crappy audio.

Your smartphone mic just isn’t equipped to produce the standard you need for professional video production.

The good news is that external mics are cheap and produce infinitely better results than a smartphone’s on-board version.

The Rode VideoMicro is a great mic for capturing video on the run, where you're interviewing and shooting B Roll in a live environment.

The Rode VideoMicro is a great mic for capturing video when you’re interviewing and shooting B Roll in a live environment.

We’ve used both shotgun and lavalier mics with our iPhone 6 rig, and found the former is the best choice for interviews with up to two people.

  • Lav mic – We’ve been using the Boya BY-M1 and the results are fantastic for such a cheap piece of kit. At under $40AUD, you get a 6-metre-long wired microphone that clips onto the clothing of your subject for super-crisp audio with very little background noise. Our first choice when shooting with a smartphone.
  • Shotgun mic – The RODE VideoMicro (with SC7 adaptor to enable smartphone / tablet use) is a great budget choice if you’re shooting while on the move, or want to pick up some ambient sound during interviews. At under $100AUD for the package, this directional microphone focusses on the audio directly in front of the camera.

If you don’t have the funds to purchase a mic, no worries.  Try to get as close to your subject as possible without filling the frame entirely with their head. You’ll be capturing better audio than you would further away.

Tripods and cages

There are a few options available to keep your video looking steady.

A great all-in-one solution is the iOgrapher smartphone case ($80AUD for iPhone 6 and 7). Not only does it provide you a pair of ‘handles’ to reduce movement in your shots, it also features mounts for an external mic and light.

Bonus – you can fit macro, telephoto and wide angle lenses to further improve your vision, and it will fit directly on to your tripod of choice.

The iOgrapher smartphone kit fits right onto your tripod of choice and enables you to attach multiple accessories to improve your video.

The iOgrapher smartphone kit fits onto your tripod of choice and enables you to attach multiple accessories to improve your video.

Speaking of tripods, these are a must for smartphone shoots. They can be as cheap as you like, as long as they have the ability to clamp onto your phone.

If you’re not quite at the iOgrapher stage, a more cost-effective solution is to purchase a universal smartphone mount (under $5) and a flexible tripod from eBay (under $20).

This won’t provide the same height as a regular tripod, or the bells and whistles of the iOgrapher rig, but it will give you a steady base from which to shoot on a flat surface. The tripod even wraps around objects like poles to provide different angles.

Apps

You can always shoot with your smartphone’s standard video app, but you’ll be selling yourself short.

For $15AUD you can get your hands on FiLMiC Pro, which gives you the ability to control your focus and aperture (which effects lighting) with more precision.

FiLMiC Pro gives you greater control and higher quality than your smartphone's on-board video camera app.

FiLMiC Pro gives you greater control and higher quality than your smartphone’s on-board video app.

You can also increase the video quality to be much higher than the default provided by your smartphone’s in-built video app.

It comes with a small learning curve, but definitely worth a look.

Camera placement and framing
  • Need a closer shot of something? Get your smartphone as near to your subject as you need. Don’t be tempted to use the digital zoom as it will degrade your video quality.
  • Aim to have your phone’s lens around your subject’s eye-line. This helps foster feelings of comfort and builds trust with your viewers. It’s also a basic height for interviews.
  • Try not to frame your subject in the dead centre of your screen. Instead, have them slightly off to one side of the frame.
  • Try to avoid ‘busy’, cluttered backgrounds. Something that doesn’t compete for attention with your main area of focus will do the trick. You don’t want people counting how many opened manila folders and coffee cups are on the desk behind your subject if that’s not your specific intention.
Not a good backdrop. Unless your story is about messy Lego scientists.

Not a good backdrop. Unless your story is about messy Lego scientists.

Getting funky with your smartphone video

After you master the basics, try adding a little flair to your videos with the below techniques.

B Roll

One of the most important things you can do during a shoot is capture enough B Roll.

What is B Roll?

It refers to the shots you (or your editor) place in between vision of your interviewee on screen.

Think about interviews you’ve watched on a news program like 60 Minutes (or literally any documentary on the planet).

You’ll notice vision of the surrounding building or area, close-up shots of objects relevant to the interview, the subject walking down a street, interacting with other people or objects in their environment.

This is all B-Roll, and it helps make your interview more interesting by showing context around the topic being discussed.

Nothing is worse than 2-3 minutes of a boring, static talking head.

Here’s an example of B Roll footage we recently shot for a construction project.

Slow motion

An awesome technique to pull out of the arsenal when you’re filming scenes with medium-fast movement.

What’s more, the quality of slow motion on smartphone cameras has accelerated at a phenomenal rate.

As of early 2017, the iPhone 7 can shoot full HD video at 120 frames per second (fps), and standard HD at 240fps.

This is mind-bogglingly good.

How good? Our professional, $10,000 Sony FS5 rig delivers full HD at 240fps.

To get an idea of what that looks like, check out the below clip.

This is a TV commercial we produced for Hawthorn Football Club’s 2016 membership campaign, featuring 240fps footage of crowds at the MCG.

It’s slow enough to capture the pulsing lights of the ticket scanners …

Timelapse

Timelapse is great to use if there is medium-slow movement in a scene you’re filming.

Most smartphones now include a timelapse function that allows you to capture and compress a long series of events into a single, short scene to use in your videos.

The on-board timelapse function works well, but you can download a range of apps that give you more control over the number of pictures you take in your timelapse, and the quality of those pictures (like Lapse It Pro, which enables you to shoot your timelapse in full HD 1080p).

Here’s a timelapse we shot in northern India. This is the kind of thing you can capture around busy streets, warehouses or office blocks.

Hyperlapse

Hyperlapse can be mindblowing if you put some thought into planning your shot.

Thanks to apps like the cleverly titled Hyperlapse from Instagram, almost anyone with a smartphone can create beautiful, flowing timelapse while moving (i.e. hyperlapse).

The secret sauce is the app’s stabilisation function, which makes your otherwise jerky morning walk or car ride look like a silky smooth freeway to happiness.

Here’s a sample of a dash-mounted hyperlapse we shot recently with Hyperlapse from Instagram.

Avoid these things

Recording video while your camera is vertical

This is a cardinal sin and a video killer. Why? You waste about half of the entire frame with dead, black space.

You also get jerkier vision because you tend to hold it the way you hold your phone for texting – with one hand.

So, hold your smartphone horizontally and with both hands. For the love of god.

Still don’t think it’s an issue? Watch this PSA on Vertical Video Syndrome.

Digital zoom

Do you like grainy, blurry, poor-quality video? Then use your digital zoom to its maximum effect!

If not, simply move your camera closer to your subject if you need a tighter shot.

Your vision will look a thousand times better for it.

Forgetting to switch to aeroplane mode

You don’t want that call from nanna or a text from your significant other popping up and interrupting your shoot just when the interviewee is hitting their key messages.

Turn aeroplane mode on every time you’re recording to avoid distractions coming between you and your shoot.

Take-aways

While the world’s film-makers won’t be turfing their expensive kits in favour of a smartphone rig just yet, small businesses can produce professional-standard video within hours thanks to the advances in camera technology.

So get your smartphone out and start experimenting. Maybe purchase some of the kit listed in the article and see how it enhances what you’re doing.

Every time you test something and have a little win, you’ve learned a new technique you can deploy on your next shoot.

If you only take three things from this piece, please consider the following points:

  • Shoot more B Roll than you think you’ll use. It’s better to have too much than be left scrounging around to fill dead space or to hide a cut.
  • Invest in an external mic and marvel at how much better it is than your smartphone’s on-board version.
  • For the love of god, hold your phone horizontally when shooting !

Want a deeper look into making professional smartphone video?

Find out by watching our seven-part short video series on how to do it for under $100.

Click here to access the 7-part video series

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