Comprehensive* Guide To Mobile Filmmaking
* 'Sort of' comprehensive
Filming with your iPhone may not make you feel like the most professional cinematographer in the world, but if used correctly the humble telecommunication device (usually reserved for selfies and keeping you awake at night) can produce some great results. Virtually everyone now owns a smartphone, and even the most budget options offer full HD video, so nothing is stopping you from getting out there and creating. As a wise, hyper-productive and permanently-sunglassed super-vlogger once said, ‘the best camera is the one that’s with you’.
(As cliché film sayings go, this one's pretty well-worn...)
However, filming with your phone isn't all sugarplums and dandelions. (what is? seriously what does that mean?) But thankfully, *this guy* has slaved over this blog post to share his excellent insights in how to squeeze the best out of your phone.
I’d like to add this disclaimer - a LOT of the people who tell you “just use your phone and get out there, man” are the same people who have a 5D hanging casually around their neck. If it makes you feel any better about this advice, I have actually used my phone as a production workhorse for the better part of two years, and with some pretty good results including: shooting in the Icelandic Interior; integrating iPhone footage into programmes broadcast on telly; and successfully taking part in the 2016 Reel Challenge! So working with your phone IS possible - and a lot easier if you follow these steps!
1. KNOW THE LIMITS - AND WORK AROUND THEM
Okay, so you’re working with your phone. Great. If you use it properly, you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed a camera in the first place. But there are limitations to be aware of. For example, the image you’ll get from an iPhone on a crisp, bright day is brilliant, and you’ll seldom want anything else. BUT, try to shoot at night and you may as well have used a potato. You have to know the limits of your tech.
If you’re using your phone in a set situation you should think about how you can control your lighting, so that your subject is properly lit. This can be as simple as making sure what you’re filming makes use of the natural light you’re getting. For
example, if there is a window behind your subject, the iPhone’s poor dynamic range will mean that you’ll either be filming a silhouette, or something that looks like that bit when Gandalf the White turns up in the forest (if you need reminding, which I hope you don't, see below!) If instead you film your subject facing the window, you will bathe them in natural soft light, which will look excellent on camera.
(Gandalf showing up like a total badass to show you what dynamic range is all about. FYI... On most phones, if you tap on the overly bright bit it’ll readjust.)
Equally, when you’re shooting on the move, think about where the light is coming from, and more generally, how to frame your shots so that you're getting the best out of the wide angle lens. Think about how that big angle can help you set the scene with a wide landscape shot. Think about what you place prominently in the foreground and why. And don't zoom. Never zoom. The digital zoom on phones will crop your resolution and ruin any shot, so use manual zoom only (aka your legs).
Unfortunately, your phone is never going to have an incredibly shallow depth of field (where the background is more blurry than the foreground), or produce insane bokeh (those out of focus light blobs people are crazy about). But if you pay attention to how you compose and plan your shots, you can get the best out of the camera, and still produce aesthetically pleasing results.
(Look at this. This is bokeh. You will never have this. Move on.)
Another limitation with the iPhone is the lack of control over the shooting options that you can get in the regular camera app. Although there are dedicated timelapse and slow motion modes, you don't get control of much else. You can get round this by working on apps like Filmic Pro, which allow you greater control over frame rates and resolution, and have nifty sliders that can adjust exposure and focus much more accurately and smoothly.
It's also worth thinking about how to use the separate modes in a way that is actually impactful to your story - the slo-motion will be a step down in quality, but if you use it to back up your film’s narrative, this will be much more easily forgiven than if you whacked everything in slomo because it looked cool.
2. "ACCESSORISE, GURL!"
Just because you’re starting with a phone doesn’t mean you can’t have decent audio and stable, professional looking footage. It’s very easy to customise and build up a rig that produces excellent quality results to the extent that the average punter wouldn't even be able to tell the difference. A couple of recommended accessories...
A tripod of some description
This could be anything from a full size monster to a teeny weeny Joby gorilla pod. Whatever suits and is best for your budget. Remember that your phone is lighter, so you can get away with lighter and cheaper tripods. You can mount your phone onto any tripod or screw mount with a phone clamp that cost as little as £2.80 on the line.
A microphone upgrade
Sound is an area where you can easily increase your production value. You can whack up the quality of your sound capture really easily by simply splurging on a external mic, such as a Rode VideoMic Pro or even a dedicated recording device like a Zoom H4n. However, if you have less pennies in the bank consider the Pro’s younger brother, the VideoMic Go. The Go is smaller and not as powerful, but is still a directional mic that will improve the quality of your recording massively.
If you team this with a camera flash bracket (here’s one for 6 quid), you can mount the mic above your camera, and still have another shoe mount for another accessory, like a lamp or battery pack. What’s more, these brackets will give you extra stability when shooting with your phone, smoothing out your shake-prone footage.
(A rigged-up iPhone being modelled by an exhausted Reel participant - i.e. Me.)
AND MUCH MORE!
You can get more and more accessories for phone videography these days, which although not necessary, can be worth considering. Clip-on lenses are a mixed bag - they can be useful, and give your phone that added versatility that the regular lens lacks. You can pick some up for under a fiver. That said, if you try to use them in anything other than brilliant sunlight you’ll get a very grubby, often distorted image. With iPhone lenses, the more you pay the better you’ll get, and the king of the hill are Moment Lenses. However, these are bordering on prices that make you question why you don't just… buy a camera. Similarly, brands like DJI are now producing handheld gimbals specifically for phones, that produce a beautifully stabilised image - at a higher financial outlay.
Overall, with even a tiny bit of investment, you can build a rig around your phone that improves the sound and makes it easier to hold, film with, and mount on a tripod. If you’re serious about making movies with your phone, it’s more than worth kitting it out.
3. BACK IT UP BACK IT IN... THEN BEGIN
Still got apps from 2009 on your phone? It’s time to get ruthless. Consider backing up your phone before each shoot then wiping it completely to maximise recording time. This is a pain, especially with iPhones where you can’t upgrade the storage. Remember that 10 minutes at full HD video takes up about 1GB of storage, which obviously increases if you switch to 4K. Unfortunately, this might mean losing your snapchat streak with your best mate, but it’s worth it for that extra storage flexibility if you’re on the move.
It can also be useful to have a laptop to hand, so you can constantly back up and clear out the phones as you go. This is the system we had on the Reel Challenge, and it worked, although it did mean that for a lot of the time one of the team (guess who) had to be stuffed in the back of the car with the luggage backing up footage (on a laptop hotter than the sun). If you’re in a more controlled environment, consider using iCloud storage which will back up your footage immediately on the interweb.
4. USE IT TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
You’re using a camera that is so discreet that people don't even really think of it as a camera. That can be incredibly useful if you’re filming on the move, in public spaces, or locations you’d rather go unnoticed. The phone camera is the perfect discreet camera, and that is a blessing for guerrilla filmmakers.
5. TREAT IT LIKE A CAMERA THOUGH...
If you’re going to use your phone as a camera, actually use it as a camera. You’ve gotta commit to it. That means no trawling through Facebook between takes (you’ve gotta save battery!), cranking up the brightness to full so you can definitely see what you're shooting, and keeping it on airplane mode to make sure a call from your mum doesn't ruin that perfect shot. And for god’s sake, don't be embarrassed. It’s your camera, so don't half heartedly hold it up as though you're some tourist taking a home video. Set up properly, and film properly. It’s the results that people will see so that’s what you need to think about. Oh, and film in landscape, you knob.
(Just 2 hours into our Reel Challenge Journey… "film in landscape, you knob.")
Well, there we are! Or at least, that’s all I can really think of right now (stay tuned for Part 2, which will inevitably arrive at some point!). But I hope that these pointers are useful if you’re someone that wants to up their film game but doesn't have the cash to splurge on a new camera.
In the end, you just have to remember some more wise words – ‘it’s all about the story’. No camera or piece of equipment alone can help you share your narrative, but if you plan your shots well, get creative, and always remember to think about how what you’re filming helps tell your story, you’ll nail it.
That’s the secret. Now go make.
Ted Simpson is a freelance filmmaker and the co-founder & Director of Just Trek, a production company specialising in expedition and adventure films and commercial projects. He first started making films about his adventures with his friend James Reilly in 2012, and in 2016 the pair created the Just Trek brand, which developed into the production outfit that Ted now runs full time. Ted and James took part in the 2016 Reel Challenge with friend and optimistic Scot Lewis Meadows and their film, ‘Life Lessons’, is available to watch here.