The camera phone has come a long way. From often blurry, poorly lit images of a few years ago, the latest generation of devices create photos and video that could actually be considered beautiful. This is best exemplified by an Oscar first – the 2013 Best Documentary award went to Searching for Sugar Man, a movie directed by Malik Bendjelloul and shot in part with an iPhone.
You don’t need to use the 8mm Vintage Camera iPhone app (pictured) to make a movie with your iPhone, but you might want to consider these tips to achieve the best possible recording.
Landscape or Portrait?
Always shoot in landscape mode was my mantra for smartphone videos for a very long time. For many use cases this is still the best recommendation. Your videos will look great on laptops and desktop monitors when you shoot with a matching aspect ratio in mind.
It feels natural to hold your phone in portrait mode, but recording video that way limits what you can capture and doesn’t take advantage of all the available playback screen space.
Depending on which video player software you use, shooting in portrait mode also results in video that plays sideways on your computer. Instead of creating more work for yourself later, turn your phone sideways and shoot in landscape mode so you are capturing something that will play well on a larger screen. If you’re guilty of shooting in portrait mode, you’re not alone – one of my most popular articles shows how rotate videos that playback sideways.
Having said that, several smartphone apps have started changing this paradigm. If you are shooting a video that’s intended to appear on Instagram or Snapchat, portrait mode is your best option.
Unless your smartphone is one of the few with an optical zoom built in, the ability to frame your shot is somewhat dependent on how close you get to the people, animals, or objects you are recording. Digital zoom on the latest model iPhones and Samsung devices keeps getting better, but digital zoom enlarges the pixels of the image and typically looks pretty ugly after very minimal zooming. While it won’t work 100% of the time, the best way to zoom with a smartphone is to walk closer to whatever you are recording.
If sound is important to what you are recording, getting closer improves the sound quality without using an external microphone.
Newer smartphones do a great job of stabilizing still images. For video, holding the phone for recording sometimes results in shaky video, even if you have a steady hand. While you could use a tripod-mountable phone case, you can also be your own tripod by finding something stable to lean against while you record. Whether it’s a tree, a wall, the bleachers at your daughter’s soccer game, or any other reasonably immobile object, leaning against a solid object reduces fatigue and eliminates the natural tendency to move. Also be sure to use both hands.
Bonus tripod tip: Holding your iPhone with your arms down and forearms perpendicular to your body is more relaxed and less likely to produce shaky video than holding the phone at eye level. The hard part when using a smartphone in this position is resisting the urge to tilt the phone so you can see the screen more easily.
Be Where the Action Is
This could also be titled something like “compose your shot,” but I find it easier to think about immersion in what you record. Compared to camcorders, smartphones give you very little control over camera settings, which is an advantage because you can focus on what you are recording instead of how you record.
One thing you control with any camera is composition. Turn on the Grid feature in your phone’s camera options to help you visualize the shot. Use your newly found sneaker zoom skills to fill the frame with your subject. If your dog or toddler is doing something amusing on the floor, get down on the floor with your camera instead of shooting from above. If you’re recording your kid playing baseball or soccer, get as close to the action as the rules allow. And always be open to ignoring the traditional rules of composition and making up your own.
If you record lots of video with your smartphone, be sure to have a external battery handy. While I like the Mophie cases for everyday use, they are less useful for video recording because they tend to partially block the microphone. This doesn’t impact call quality, but it can make the audio portion of your video recording slightly muffled. An external battery connected to your smartphone will make sure you get every moment of your child’s choir performance, soccer game, or any other extended event without killing your phone battery.