Take Professional Video From Your Phone - Here's How

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"Be sure to orient your phone horizontally. 'When I'm watching the news and there's footage from a bystander that's in portrait mode,' says Christian Nachtrieb, a Boston-based corporate and wedding photographer, 'that's an immediate signal that it's an amateur video.'"

That comes from an article in The New York Times last week headlined A Beginner's Guide to Taking Great Video on Your Phone. I've written before that professional video can be taken very ably from your phone now—indeed, the director of last year's hit film The Florida Project, Sean Baker, came to fame that way. And Steven Soderbergh recently shot the film Unsane using a phone.  

Let's mix some tips from that article with how-tos from SIPA's own experts—one of whom, Brian Malone, president of Malone Media, will present a Pre-Conference Workshop, June 5 at SIPA Annual 2018  titled A Stream Come True: Using Facebook Live, YouTube and Streaming Tech to Gain Greater Exposure.

Plan. Malone once told me that the biggest mistake he sees in video is that not enough pre-production or planning goes into it. "Nobody has read a script, rehearsed anything; it's just an on-the-fly table read. You can't just start rolling."

Use good lighting. "You need to light your subjects, especially if you want them to come back," Josh Andersen, a communication specialist at Oregon Health and Science University, told us at a previous SIPA Annual. "Lighting will help them look good. One simple battery-operated light may suffice." Outdoor shooting can be ideal—with a microphone—but he said he might sometimes use a light with an orange gel in front of it to fill in shadows on people.

And experiment: From the NYT story: "Experiment with light and be aware of where your main light source is. For instance, noon sunlight on a cloudless day creates unflattering shadows on your subject's face, while an overcast or cloudy day produces a softer, more pleasant-looking light." Avoid back lighting.

Find your viewpoint: "Ask yourself 'Where am I pointing my camera lens and from what angle?' Consider point of view figuratively, as well: 'How will the video's point of view help me tell the story?'" asked Andersen: Know the message you want to convey. "What point do you want to get across? If you can't figure that out, nobody will get the message. Have a goal and message in mind. And don't let your message get lost in the technology."

Choose the right location. Do you want a quiet room, a noisy room? What are you going to see?

Edit strongly where needed. "You have to go through footage and make sense of it sometimes," Malone said.

Focus on focus: "Nachtrieb suggests tapping on your phone's LCD (on the point you want to focus on), which will lock focus on Google Android devices, or holding your finger in place, which locks focus on the Apple iPhone.'In low light, your phone's camera will hunt for focus.' That makes it look less professional. Most phones let you also lock or manually adjust the exposure, too."

Get your audio right. Microphones on smartphones have improved. Try using a second phone and putting that in the subject's pocket for the audio. You can sync it up later in editing. "And when interviewing subjects, don't interrupt their replies." Similarly, Andersen recommended lapel mics; clip it on and people will forget it's there. He favors hard-wired mics over wireless ones because so much less can go wrong.

Equipment recommendations from NYT article:

  • The Moment Wide-angle lens, $100. The lens attaches over a phone's camera lens to give you a wider shot without drastically degrading image quality.
  • The Shure MV5, $99, is a great microphone for use with a smartphone.
  • The Joby GorillaPod 1K Kit tripod, $35, keeps your phone steady when shooting in low light or time-lapse.
Lastly, say the experts, clean your lens.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…