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Photography

How To Use Your iPhone Like A Pro Video Camera

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This post is part of a series called How To Use Your iPhone Like a Pro.
5 Smart Ways to Use Your iPhone in the Photo Studio
Noiseware Image Processing: Real-World Noise Reduction for iPhone and iPad

Taking great photos with your iPhone is a lot easier than recording good-quality video. You certainly can make good video with an iPhone—filmmakers have created some great films with the device—but you need to approach it in the right way if you want to do it consistently, repeatably, and creatively. In this article you'll learn the key strategies for making great, high-quality video with an iPhone.

Pushing the Limits

An image is a single instant frozen in time. It doesn’t matter if there’s a screaming baby in the background, trucks driving through the frame every few seconds or you’re bouncing on a trampoline; if you take the picture at the right moment no one will ever know. With video it’s different: a 30-second clip taken in our same theoretical circumstances would be a video of trucks with a horrible, noisy background track—and everyone will get motion sick from watching.

I’ve already considered some of the times when you should, or shouldn’t, use your iPhone as your primary camera. Everything I said there applies to making video, too.

filmic pro screen
FiLMiC Pro being used to shoot a sunset. Image: FiLMiC Pro.

There are, however, two groups of people pushing the limits of smartphone videography. First, there is a growing community of people shooting short films—and even feature films—with iPhones. Second, there are journalists recording stories and documentary style videos. Most people looking to get great footage from their iPhone lean towards one of these two categories. While the information in this article will be relevant to everyone, it’s people in these groups that I’m focussing on.

Use The Right App

When it comes to shooting video on an iPhone there’s really only one app to use: FiLMiC Pro. At a recent conference in Dublin I got the chance to talk to a number of iPhone film makers. The one thing they could all agree on was that FiLMiC Pro was the only app worth considering. In a blind audience test, viewers ranked the quality of footage from an iPhone with FiLMiC Pro and a $13,000 Canon C300 equally highly. While the iPhone isn’t without its limits, in the right circumstances you can capture stunning footage with it. Each new generation gets better and better.

The best thing about FiLMiC Pro is that it gives you manual control over everything from white balance to focus. Without this sort of fine-grained control it’s very difficult to get quality footage. If you want to take professional calibre video with your iPhone, you need to be using FiLMiC Pro.

Build Off Solid Foundations

It’s easy to take handheld photos with your iPhone. As long as the shutter-speed is faster than about 1/30th of a second you won’t see any blur from camera shake. Taking video is a different story. Unless the iPhone is supported it’s going to be very noticeable that you’re shooting handheld. If this is the effect you’re after it’s one thing, but if you’re looking to get stable footage you’ll need to use either a monopod, tripod, or steadicam.

Go Light for Mobile Journalism

If you’re a journalist or documentary filmmaker looking to create stable footage but still be able to move around quickly, then a monopod will be ideal. While it certainly won’t be as stable as a full tripod, it’s a lot better than just holding your iPhone in your hands. Mobile journalists like the flexibility of a monopod for work in the field.

Get a Tripod for Smartphone Filmmaking

For footage where you need to be in shot, or there can’t be any movement at all, a monopod isn’t going to cut it. Instead you’ll need to use a tripod. This is true for both journalists and filmmakers. While you can get tripods designed especially for smartphones they tend to be light and flimsy. It’s far better to use a regular video tripod, or at least something like a GorillaPod.

There are even steadicams—the gimbal-based stabilisation rig used in movies—that are designed for use with the iPhone. I’ve seen these iPhone-steadicam rigs in action and I’m not 100% convinced of their usefulness. If you’re going to the effort of setting up a steadicam then you need to consider whether an iPhone is the right tool for the job.

Get Your Sound Locked Down

The difference between amateur and professional video production is almost always the sound quality. Too many people shooting footage with their iPhone ignore the importance of capturing high quality sound. Using the built-in microphone isn’t good enough. Instead, you need to look, at the very base level, at adding a microphone like the RØDE VideoMic GO, which works with FiLMiC Pro.

The RØDE VideoMic GO. Image: RØDE.

Before you start filming, make sure you test your sound. Reshooting something because the microphone wasn’t plugged in properly, or the audio levels weren’t set, is extremely embarrassing.

When recording audio, it’s important to get the microphone as close to the subject as possible. This can be at odds with the shots you’re trying to capture. For that reason, it’s a good idea, if you can, to use a second iPhone or other external audio recorder to capture sound. Then you can have the microphone close to the subject, without limiting your shooting options.

Mix It Up

An iPhone isn’t limited to shooting regular video. The last few generations can all capture time-lapses and slow-motion footage. When you’re using a tool that has this sort of flexibility, make sure to use it. If you’re shooting a short film, a time-lapse can be the perfect establishing shot. They also make for great behind the scenes footage.

Awesome slow-motion footage is no longer limited to multi-thousand dollar cameras. An iPhone 6 can record at 240 frames-per-second. Slowed down to 24 frames-per-second, a single second of action will give you ten seconds of screen time. Whether you’re recording an action short or a documentary, try and think how you can include slow-motion footage. Sometimes it won’t add anything but often, for things like cutaways, it can be perfect.

A Camera is a Camera is a Camera

When you’re shooting video with an iPhone it’s important to remember that the rules of filmmaking haven’t changed. If you use your iPhone properly, no one should even think that the footage came from a smartphone. Don’t neglect composition, framing, story and everything else that goes into a great short film, documentary, interview or whatever else you’re creating, just because you are using your phone instead of a larger camera. Instead, the simplicity of using an iPhone should allow you to spend more time focussing on the basics.

Except When it is a Phone: Use Airplane Mode

This should be a given but I’m including it just in case. When you’re recording a video with your iPhone, put it into airplane mode. Having your camera start making noise and vibrating in the middle of a shoot isn’t a good idea. It also has the added advantage of helping conserve battery life which, with iPhones, is always a good thing.

Back It Up

When it comes to footage, one copy is none, and two is one. An iPhone is far more fragile and more likely to be stolen than a compact flash card. As soon as you’ve captured footage with your iPhone, it’s important to get it backed up somewhere.

One is none, and two is one.

One of the advantages of shooting with an iPhone is that, with a data plan, you can use cloud services like Dropbox or iCloud. Simply turn off airplane mode and upload the videos to your backup service. If you’ve your computer on set, you can also just copy the files directly to it.

Warning: Don’t Go Too Far

The iPhone is an amazing tool, and the quality of footage you can capture with it was unimaginable just a few years ago. It isn’t, however, always the best tool for the job. It has limitations, especially when you are working in low-light conditions. You’re also limited in your choice of lenses. There are many manufacturers that are creating add-ons to overcome these problems, however, sometimes they can go too far.

Even though an audience couldn’t distinguish between footage captured with FiLMiC Pro and a Canon C300, there’s a reason Canon aren’t going out of business.

If you are attaching five or six different things to your iPhone in order to get the kind of footage you’re looking for you need to consider whether it’s the tool you should be using. Even though an audience couldn’t distinguish between footage captured with FiLMiC Pro and a Canon C300, there’s a reason Canon aren’t going out of business.

Wrapping Up

In this tutorial I've covered a lot of ground, so let's recap the main takeaways:

  • The iPhone has limits as a camera; be aware of them.
  • The only app really worth recording video with is FiLMiC Pro.
  • Your iPhone needs support if you want to get stable footage. A monopod is perfect if you want to be able to move around. A tripod is better if you're looking for real stability.
  • Great movies have great sound. Don't neglect this fundamental.
  • The iPhone can record time-lapses and slow motion video. Why not use them as establishing shots or cutaways in your films?
  • Just because you're using your iPhone, don't neglect the building blocks of film making. 
  • Airplane mode: use it.
  • One is none, and two is one. Backup your footage as soon as possible.

The iPhone won't always be the best, or even an appropriate, tool for the job. Don't be married to the idea of using it if something else you can use would be better. Don’t get too caught up on the idea of using your iPhone at the expense of everything else.

Ultimately, the iPhone has its advantages and disadvantages but it is a capable, even uniquely capable, video camera for the money. If it’s the right camera for what you’re doing then great! Use it without hesitation. However, know the limits of the tool: if it isn’t the right camera, accept the limitations and don’t try to force it.

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