Smartphone Shooting

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Smartphone Shooting

Hello! Kristin here, one of the happy Peas at The Pod.  I have pursued making media since as far back as I can remember, from vivid memories of kindergarten art class to teaching media production classes at Florida State University.  While a lot of my drawing skills haven’t graduated passed K-1 levels, I get positively giddy when asked about media production.  I encourage anyone who is interested in it to just go for it!  My first dabble in video production was a clay-mation of a little worm that got scared by a ladybug.  Took me 4 hours and it was 10 seconds.  And this was long before the days of non-linear video editing programs like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere or even Windows Media Maker.  Armed with a Sony Hi-8 Handycam, there was no stopping me.  These days there’s no need to lug around any extra bulky items everywhere you go.  If you have a smartphone, chances are you have a robust image capturer right there in your pocket or purse. 

But wait! Don’t just hit record and assume you got the master shot of your daughter blowing out her first candle that will be worth saving for her wedding video.  There should be some things you consider.  From operating DSLRs and robust videocameras, the principles are the same for shooting with your phone.  There might be a couple of differences, but for the most part these tips should help you in most situations in which you’re tasked with capturing memories.

1. Shoot Horizontal

This is first because it’s critical.  The best way to explain this is with a highly-entertaining PSA by Glove and Boots:

No time to watch the video?  No worries! The skinny is: hold your phone horizontally when shooting video.  This may not be necessary for taking pictures, especially with Instagram cropping to squares automatically.  High Definition (HD) video is widescreen; look at any of YouTube’s players: a rectangle.  If you shoot upright you end up with “columns” or “pillarboxing” and this can be a nightmare for any video editor you toss your footage at to create a masterpiece.  There is only so much we can do.  Do us a solid: shoot horizontally.

2. Brace Yourself

If you don’t have the luxury of some cool peripheral like the gorillapod then try to lean against a tree, rest your elbows on the table, tuck your arms in tight against your body, whatever you have to do to maintain as steady a shot as you can get.  Your body is a wonderful stabilizer, provided you aren’t running after your subject.  Use your body’s ergonomics and keep things stable.

3. Breathe

Slowly, controlled.  Consider inhaling deeply and as you begin exhaling hit the record button and then focus on staying steady. Breathe quietly though.  That takes me to the next point.

4. Try Not To Talk

How many videos have you seen where all you hear is the commentary from the peanut gallery behind the camera?  Yeah, probably many.  Unless you are interviewing someone, it’s generally a good idea to refrain from speaking.  Your voice will be much louder since you are closer to the microphone, completely throwing off audio levels.  If you can attach a microphone to your device it will most certainly help, but 9 times out of 10 you weren’t really prepared to rig up for a whole production.  You saw something happening (or about to happen, thank you Fail Compilations! NSFW by the way) and you rummaged in your pocket or bag for your phone and just started shooting.  Be mindful of wind and other sounds.  Unless you have the luxury of an external mic, you’re getting EVERYTHING, including your hand moving on the device.  With DSLRs you will hear the lens mechanism as you zoom.  On-board mics are terrible, but they are better than nothing.  

5. Stay Level

Much like bracing yourself, you can cheat by using what you see your camera capturing to stay level.  Window frames, a horizon, a door, any straight line in your shot can help you align your frame so that it’s not crooked.  Those are called dutch or canted angles, and usually they are reserved in films to connote psychological struggles.  Pay attention to the next scary movie you see, the canted angle will most likely happen when the protagonist is disoriented, afraid, or undergoing some other uncomfortable torment.  Unless you are trying to infuse some deep Tim Burton into your video of Grandma saying Happy Birthday to her grandson, stick to keeping things straight.

6. Pan and Tilt

Right up there with shooting horizontally is being mindful of your pans and tilts. If you watch that video, notice what the first thing he does when he goes to shoot: uses his other hand to brace under the camera.  Just sayin’. I put this halfway down the list in hopes that you aren’t really planning to shoot video that will require a lot of moving camerawork, but if it does then some general guidelines are to keep it slow.  The unwritten law is 7-seconds for an object to clear the screen when panning from one side to the other.  This decreases “jittering” and won’t require your audience to take Dramamine.  If you have to whip around to capture something then that’s a different story, but if you are purposefully trying to show off a landscape or anything requiring the camera to pan across an area or tilt up/down a space, then keep all the above tips in mind and then slow it down.  You can always speed it up in editing if you have to.

7. But HOOOOOLD at the Beginning and End of Your Shots

This is something to try and always do.  Whether you are shooting a static shot that won’t require moving the camera, or if you are panning/tilting or tracking a subject, you should do your best to hold for a few seconds at the beginning and end of your shots.  If you are going to edit the footage later, you’ll thank yourself for not having started right at the beginning of the action.  Chances are your camera will hiccup and delay the recording so you're missing the first few seconds and now have either lost the opening or will have to ask everyone to do it over.  Same goes for the tail, you’ll undoubtedly find that you have clipped off the end because the device was quick to stop rolling as soon as it could feel the warmth of your finger approaching the button.

8. Compose Your Shot

Talking about shot composition is a lecture all by itself itself.  Without taking you down a journey to study all the different types of shots, remember the rule of thirds:

Rule of Thirds from Wikipedia

Break up your image into 9 squares, like a tic-tac-toe board.  Where the lines meet is where the point of interest should lie, whether it’s someone’s eyes or a flower.  While it’s not a hard-fast rule, it does provide the option for more interestingly-framed shots.  There’s nothing wrong with framing a subject in the center though, if that is your point of interest, then by all means set it up how you feel is right.  If you have some room to play though, try out different compositions and then in editing you can decide which one is more effective or aesthetic.

9. Back Up the Original Footage

Oh backing up…  This has saved me numerous times.  And yes, I learned the hard way many times over before I forced myself to back up more regularly.  What I do immediately though is backup my source footage.  When I dump it from my camera I will automatically dump it somewhere else.  Now that we can’t store hundreds of tapes with our original footage we are forced to rely on technology to save our behinds.  There are apps that you can install which will automatically send your recorded footage to the proverbial cloud.  I use Dropbox and Google Drive. Shop around and see what works for your budget.

10. Cheating, but You Can Stabilize in Post

Some video editing software has built-in features that will stabilize your footage.  Even on an automated level it can be just what you need to remove that little bit of shake and have your footage look smooth as butter. But you can’t fix things.  You can only enhance.  If you were swinging your hand around all over the concert, recording your favorite song and swaying away, then you are not going to dump your footage into Adobe After Effects and have it perform miracles.  Your footage needs to be as steady as you can make it first during shooting.  

So there you have it, ten quick tips to improve your smartphone shooting.  My hope is that you can take these tips with you (mentally!) the next time you’re recording and enjoy watching it because you can actually see and hear what it is you were trying to capture.  If you have any other questions about shooting with your phone drop me a line and I’ll get right back to you!