If you own an iPhone, you already have what you need to make professional-looking videos. Whether you're just dabbling or a video wizard, you can shoot videos so good-looking that people won't believe you used a phone. Here's how.
You probably already know that iPhones (or any smartphone for that matter) are capable of shooting awesome videos, but I wonder if you truly get just how awesome. Here take a moment to watch this trailer for Tangerine, a full-length, 87-minute movie that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Looks great, right? It was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. Tangerine is proof that you don't need a big Hollywood budget to create a quality cinematic experience. However, we can't overlook the creativity and skill of the film's creators either. While you can use any smartphone to shoot great-looking video, the extras and features we're about to discuss are mostly for the iPhone.
Understand Filmmaking Basics and Your iPhone's Features
Even top-of-the-line equipment is still only as good as the person who uses it. It's crucial to learn basic filmmaking techniques, including the principles behind camera angles, capturing movement, and lighting.
Lighting, in particular, is important for creating mood and emphasising certain details. Your iPhone's video looks best with ample natural lighting. If your budget allows, you should get and learn to use a good lighting kit, like this one by StudioPRO. Alternatively, you can make your own for less than $US100 ($132). Here are other tips to take note of:
- Always shoot in landscape mode. This is the most basic tip, since portrait mode gives you those ugly black borders in your final video clip.
- Clean your camera lens regularly. Wiping dust or grease away with a microfiber cloth takes literally 10 seconds and doesn't hurt to do.
- Don't use the zoom function. The zoom on your iPhone is digital zoom, not optical zoom, which is no good for detail or image quality. Using it will likely make your video look grainy. If you have the iPhone 7 Plus, however, its dual camera lens lets you zoom in a bit more without compromising quality.
- Use the exposure lock. The iPhone automatically focuses on the subject in your shot and adjusts to the proper amount of lighting your camera "lets in", or exposure. If you're shooting a video with someone talking, the constant automatic adjustments can make the footage choppy. Use your Auto Exposure/Auto Focus (AE/AF) lock feature by tapping on the screen and holding it until AE/AF box appears. Once it does, the focus is locked and you can adjust exposure by dragging your finger up or down. Both of these keep the video looking consistently sharp.
- Put your phone in Aeroplane mode. This is to avoid getting unnecessary interruptions and sounds from notifications while you're shooting. You can do that in Settings or by swiping up on your screen to bring up the Control Center and hitting the aeroplane symbol.
- Mix it up with lens attachments. Many third-party companies make lenses that you can physically attach to your iPhone to distort the look of your photo or video. For example, you can get a fisheye or wide-angle lens for added flair. You don't need these, but they do expand the creative and stylistic possibilities. You could look into something like a multi-lens kit like olloclip.
- Take advantage of time-lapse and slow-motion video features. In addition to normal video, you can take time-lapses and slow-motion sequences, which are built into the iPhone's Camera app. When you open Camera, scroll to the left to find these options. When you record a time-lapse or slow-motion video, it's important to hold your camera still on a tripod (or this DIY phone holder made out of empty toilet paper rolls) to avoid choppy-looking sequence.
The beauty of the iPhone lies in its combination of power and simplicity. It's good for professional-looking video and its easy-to-use interface lets you spend more time mastering the basics.
Grab a Gimbal or Tripod to Keep Your iPhone Steady
Professional cameramen typically rock sophisticated rigs, like steadicams and gimbals, to hold their camera steady and make the footage come out more polished. The latest iPhone features optical image stabilisation, which automatically tries to offset any shakiness, but nothing beats having something like a tripod to hold your phone steady.
Steadicams and gimbals are ideal if you want to shoot video on the move or really want to go the extra mile, but they're just more expensive than a simple tripod. I use a JOBY GripTight GorillaPod ($US19.95 ($26)), which works well on a variety of terrains and environments, and is easy to set up.
If you do need to hold your phone, you can make it more steady by holding the phone with both hands, as close to your body as possible, and/or propping your elbows against or on something.
Give Your Video Quality Sound with a Microphone Upgrade
Unfortunately, the iPhone's built-in mic alone isn't great, especially if you're shooting in noisy environments or want to focus on specific sounds (like your voice, and not the birds chirping or cars passing behind you.) You can invest in either a lavalier microphone or a shotgun microphone (some people get both) to get good, solid, directional sound. If you had to go with one, consider the type of video you want to make. Are you doing an interview or making an explainer? Or are you doing a travel video? Depending on your video, each has its pros and cons:
- Lavalier Microphone: You've likely seen lavalier microphones on TV news shows and in interviews. They're omnidirectional, and while a wired lav mic is a cheap option, hiding it from viewers is tricky. You can attach a lav mic to your shirt collar and run the wire under the shirt, but if you fidget too much, you pick up annoying noise from your shirt rubbing against the mic. Some people get around this by wrapping the head of the mic with moleskin, but lav mics are best when people sit or stand still. The Giant Squid Audio Lab mic is a good starting point if you want a quality lav mic.
- Shotgun Microphone: A shotgun microphone makes your audio sound more natural. It's a directional mic, and since you point the shotgun mic in the direction of the sound you want to pick up, it's best for recording whatever is in front of it. It's also great to block out sounds from the sides, while being invisible on camera. If you're shooting outdoors, you'll need some sort of wind blocker to handle the harsh sounds from the slightest of winds. RODE VideoMic Me and The Mighty Mic are both mini shotgun mics that attach to your phone.
Ideally, you need to be as close to your audio source as possible. That can get complicated if you want a specific shot, but you also want great-sounding audio. You can get around this by using another iPhone just for your audio, or using external microphone or audio recorder like the Zoom H1, popular among podcasts and field journalists alike.
Make sure to test your mic before you start shooting. Reshooting something because you skipped a simple equipment check sucks. And here's a pro tip: Clap loudly to establish a reference point when you're editing your audio tracks later. It will make it easier to sync your multiple audio tracks later.
Use a Better Video App to Shoot than the Default Camera
While you can just press record in the Camera app to start filming, apps like FiLMic Pro (available on both iOS and Android) give you a finer level of control over how your video looks, from focus to white balance to frame rate, and then some. It also gives you control of some audio options and is compatible with external mics like the RODE VideoMic GO. It's what let the creators of Tangerine achieve their highly stylised look, and there are other examples of amazing video created with it here.
At $US10 ($13), though, the app is pricey, especially if you're just starting out, and beware: FiLMic Pro is so full of tweaks and features that it takes time to learn.
It's easy to start shooting really great-looking videos with your iPhone — or any smartphone — without breaking the bank. Best of all, once you have everything you need, your setup is portable and you can shoot virtually anywhere. Just make sure you have enough storage for your movie projects, and back up your data regularly. Partially to save your videos and make room for more, but also to make sure you never lose anything.
Illustration by Sam Woolley. Image by sridgway.