Many people have it nowadays: a mobile phone that includes a camera that you can use to shoot film. While the output quality of such a device is not great compared to a camcorder, DSLR or videocamera, it has one prime advantage: you always carry it with you. So, why not use it? Below are some tips for more effectively using your mobile device to shoot better videos.
Tip #1: Always record in the highest quality
Mobile phones have plenty of space available from the get go, and if not: they can easily be extended with a larger memory card. Hence, there is no compelling reason to use low quality video recording settings. As a rule of thumb: always set your mobile video application to the highest recording quality available, on modern phones this is usually 720p.
Tip #2: Leave the other camera settings alone
Camera applications come with a variety of manual settings, such as toning the image, tweaking contrast and brightness, or using digital zoom. I suggest that you stay away from these options unless you really know what you are doing. Most of these settings apply effects that are usually better applied in post-production during the editing process. By selecting some fancy looking effect you risk ruining your source material, as the effect of filters can often be difficult to see very well on a small screen. There can be circumstances where it is useful to manually adjust the white balance setting, but most of the time the built-in software will do fine on its own.
Tip #3: Record with sufficient light
The portability of cameras in phones comes at a cost: a tiny sensor – the part that actually captures the image. Unfortunately, small sensors make it very difficult to shoot nice film in the dark without significantly sacrificing image quality. Less light means that the exposure time will need to be longer to actually capture enough light. Mobile phones bring down the video frame rate dynamically in order to do this which results in choppy video: not exactly a feast for the eye. Besides this they usually also crank up the gain on the sensor which makes the image very noisy. So, it is best to record in sunlight if you can, or bright indoor light. Of course: sometimes this is impossible and you’ll have to compromise quality in order to actually capture a moment.
Tip #4: Keep it steady
Many people record while holding their mobile device with only one hand. My advice: don’t do that! Instead hold your phone firmly on both sides between your thumb and index finger. Some people have a steady hand and don’t require anything beyond this technique. However, if you are a particularly shaky person, try to lock your elbows against your sides, stand with your legs slightly spread and try to hold your breath for a couple of seconds to get a really steady shot.
Tip #5: But, use gentle motion as well
Any motion in your video should be a deliberate choice. Try to avoid jerky movements and keep it nice and smooth. You’ll primarily want to use panning motions: rotating the camera from left to right or right to left. Other motion includes tilting: up-down. Optically zooming is impossible with at least all mobile phones I know of, and: please do not use the digital zoom as it leads to really poor quality video. Although with a fixed lens you can’t really zoom, you can use your arms to create a limited dolly-shot effect1: move them outwards from your body to the subject your filming to dolly in and back towards your body to dolly out.
You can’t really use a tripod or monopod with most of these devices, but you can be creative and use other tools or your own body to create great shots. For example: bend your knees and from that position slowly stand upright while you pan or tilt the camera. You can get very nice motion shots with this technique. Try to avoid walking if you can, or walk very slowly. Also, if you have a car kit or dock you can reverse mount your mobile phone in these to create shots from fixed spots, but: take care not to damage your phone.
Mobile phone camera’s, like many professional camera’s nowadays use CMOS sensors. The downside of these sensors is that they are subject to rolling shutter. This means that when you pan the camera quickly, or something moves quickly, an object that is standing straight in reality appears skewed in the recording. This is the reason why your movements should not be too fast. See this video for a demonstration of this effect.
Tip #6: Frame properly with the rule of thirds
A simple rule of thumb famous in both photography and film is the rule of thirds. Imagine two equally spaced lines in your image horizontally and two vertically as shown here:
The idea is to use these orientation lines to properly align your subject. For a close-up shot the top horizontal line should be aligned with the eyes of the subject and either the left eye should be aligned with the leftmost vertical line, or the right eye with the rightmost vertical line. When taking wider shots the whole body may line up with one of the vertical lines, whereas the head is placed at one of the top intersections as in the image below. Of course, your subject need not be a person, but can be any object.
Tip #7: Don’t rely on the phone for quality audio
The biggest caveats of shooting film with a mobile telephone is not so much the image quality, but rather the abysmal sound. Most phone manufacturers seem to think that people play back film shot on a mobile phone with that same mobile phone, and for those instances the audio is just fine. However, for listening on the Internet, let alone playback on home theatre equipment, the sound just plain sucks. Unfortunately, there is not so much you can do about this. However, if you have the money you can consider buying a portable audio recorder. Many people, including me, own a Zoom H1 for such occasions. Devices like these are also pocket-sized and can easily be used to record high quality audio anywhere. You need to sync it up in post-production of course, but this can make your recording of a gig you went to that much more memorable.
So, now you have enough tips: start shooting some video 🙂 As with anything, the trick to getting better at this is doing it a lot, making mistakes and learning from them.
1) Technically speaking a dolly is a construction of some sort that allows the camera to move forward or backward, usually on a rail. While things shot with a phone are all strictly handheld the shot type is still a dolly shot.