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Photography

How (and When) to Shoot News Video With Your Smartphone

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This post is part of a series called Social and Smartphone Photography.
The Complete Guide to Instagram for Professional Photographers

Watch any press conference or media “scrum” these days, and chances are you’ll see someone recording the action with a smartphone.

Tech-savvy journalists have discovered the many benefits of using a smartphone for reporting. It’s small, light and easy to use. It has a high-definition camera capable of capturing beautiful images. But most all—it’s connected to the internet.

That’s a game changer. Journalists now have the ability to shoot, edit and upload video right from their smartphone. They can even go live with the help of apps like Periscope.

But just because you can shoot news video with a smartphone, doesn't mean you should. These devices have limitations, and are better suited for certain types of news coverage than others.

Here are three situations where smartphones really shine:

1. Live Event Coverage

Once upon a time if you wanted to broadcast live video on location, you needed a satellite or microwave truck, a camera operator, and lots of cable. Not anymore.

Journalists can “go live” with just a smartphone and a free app like Periscope or a Facebook or YouTube account—as long as they have a cell signal or WiFi.

Meteorologist Mark Robinson of Canada’s The Weather Network uses Periscope frequently to document severe weather, whenever and wherever it happens. It allows him to provide real time information on the ground to viewers.

Screen capture of Periscope showing storm
Meteorologist Mark Robinson gives viewers a front row seat for spectacular storms/Periscope

Smartphones give journalists the freedom to broadcast live from places they never could before: in a moving vehicle, on a boat in the middle of a lake, atop a building, you name it.

2. Breaking News

When news breaks, speed is of the essence. Event if you can’t or don’t need to go live, you can still deliver video from the scene faster than ever.

With a smartphone, you can record a couple of shots and sound bites to document what's happening as soon as you arrive, then upload them immediately to your social media networks or to the newsroom. The video doesn’t have to be perfect or polished; its impact and value comes from immediacy, not quality.

Screen capture of Facebook video by Francis DSouza
Citytv reporter Francis D'Souza shares video from the newsroom window in Toronto/Facebook

Another advantage of a smartphone in breaking news situations is that it’s compact and discreet. It doesn’t scream “I’m a journalist!” This allows you to get close to the action and reduces the chance that people will change their behavior because they spot a video camera.

3. Go Behind the Scenes

Journalists get to go places and see things that the average person doesn’t. You can bring the audience into your world by capturing short “behind the scenes” video clips with your smartphone for sharing on social media.

Maybe it’s a quick sound bite with a star athlete as he warms up for the big game, or a shot of roadies setting up for a concert, or even a peek into your own newsroom. People love to feel like an insider!

Smartphone video is authentic and intimate, which makes it the perfect medium for connecting with your audience.

Reporter uses smartphone for interview
Photo by Glenn Francis of www.PacificProDigital.com /Wikipedia

When "Not" to Record With a Smartphone

As amazing as these mobile devices are, they do have their downsides when it comes to shooting video. Here are three instances where a traditional video camera or DSLR might be a better choice:

If You're Too Far Away From the Action

Smartphones have a fixed lens, meaning the only way you can get a closer shot is to “zoom with your feet,” or physically move closer to the action. That’s not always possible.

Yes, you can pinch the screen to zoom in—but this is what’s known as a digital zoom, not an optical zoom. All you’re really doing is enlarging and cropping the image, which makes it more pixelated and blurry. 

Smartphone hack: Olloclip makes a variety of lenses—from wide angle to macro—that just clip on to your smartphone. They can't compete with professional glass, but they're better than no zoom at all. iPro (made by Schneider) and Moment lenses offer higher quality, for a price. The Wirecutter has a good rundown on your smartphone lens options.

Olloclip lens
Photo from Olloclip

If It's Too Dark or Dim

Low light conditions are a challenge for any video camera, but especially for smartphones. That's because mobile devices have tiny sensors. Image sensors consist of millions of light-sensitive spots, called photosites, which record information about what's seen through the lens. 

The small the sensor, the fewer the photosites, and the more densely packed they are. When a location has low light to begin with, the photosites can’t pick up enough information to make a good image. The result is a dark or grainy shot.

Smartphone hack: Attach an external light, like the iBower LED light, to your smartphone. It won’t illuminate a room, but it will help you capture better close ups and interview clips.

External light attached to smartphone
Photo from Bower USA

You Absolutely Need Good Sound

Good audio is essential for news video, but it can be difficult to capture with a smartphone alone. Your mobile device’s built-in microphone is pretty decent, but only if you’re very close to the action or to the person who’s speaking.

If you’re in a noisy environment, forget it. Those built-in mics are omni-directional, meaning they pick up sound from all around you. You won’t be able to make out what your subject is saying over the noise in the background.

Smartphone hack: Use an external microphone like the Rode smartlav+ to capture quality audio, as Harry Guinness showed in his lapel mic tests.

smartlav microphone
Photo from Rode

Conclusion

It’s important to remember that mobile video is not built for long-form documentary storytelling. Short video clips (think 30 to 60 seconds) work best. They'll take up less space on your smartphone, are faster to upload and publish, connect best with audiences, and use less data when they’re downloaded.

How are you using your smartphone to record news video? Let us know in the comments below!

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