Shooting video on a smartphone: The dos and don’ts

A smartphone is a viable substitute for a real digital video camera when an impromptu shoot presents itself, expert Paolo Tosolini says, but the devices have their limitations.


“The best camera is always the one you have with you.”

So says enterprise social video consultant Paolo Tosolini. And the one type of camera more and more people are carrying around, pretty much all the time, are smartphones. A smartphone can be a good substitute for a Flip camera or other digital cameras. Indeed, many communicators are using them for their corporate videos.

But shooting video is simply not a phone’s primary function. Communicators need to be aware of what they can and can’t do, he says. It’s worthwhile to invest in some add-ons to make the quality of your smartphone videos better, Tosolini advises.

The rig

Last week, Tosolini posted a video to YouTube demonstrating how a fairly basic rig—a $12 bracket, a $15 to $18 tripod mount, a $24 microphone and $24 connector cable, and a $46 light panel—can vastly improve the quality of videos shot with smartphones.

“The rig shows the potential of capturing good video,” Tosolini says. “All the pieces of the rig respond to a particular need.”

With that in mind, he notes, you don’t always need every piece. For instance, the light panel is required only in places where the lighting is dim. One piece is almost always essential, however.

“The microphone is probably the highest-priority accessory,” Tosolini says. “It makes a total difference when you are in a noisy environment. The microphone in the camera picks up sound all around you.”

The microphone’s even more important than the tripod, which reduces shakiness, he says. “People will forgive bad video, but they won’t forgive bad audio.”

The good and the bad

Smartphones are great for shooting video on the go, Tosolini says. “You can edit on your phone and upload to YouTube. You don’t need a computer.”

You can cover a lot of scenarios with your phone’s camera, he says, but if you know you’re going on a shoot, it’s probably better to use a dedicated video camera.

Drew Keller of StoryGuide says the quality of smartphone videos is getting better all the time, but for now, the video sensors in phones just aren’t that great. “This makes sense, because in the hierarchy of features, video has traditionally fallen down the list somewhere near the bottom,” he says.

For example, it’s almost impossible to shoot video from a distance using a phone, Tosolini says. Not only will it be difficult to pick up audio from across a room, most phone video cameras can’t zoom in or out.

Dos and don’ts

Before you shoot anything with a smartphone, do some tests, Tosolini suggests. Find out just how close you need to be to an interview subject to see and hear them well. Keller says the distance is generally around arm’s length, closer if the room is noisy.

But what if you don’t need audio? If you’re thinking of shooting something and setting it to music, Tosolini says to consider not shooting a video at all. Instead, make an animated slideshow with still photos and an app such as Animoto, he says. That way, you won’t end up with shaky images. “Let’s halve the risk,” he says.

If you’re sticking with video, don’t let your subject stand in front of a window or a white wall, Keller says.

“The image is almost certainly going to be a silhouette, and the result will look more like an interview with someone under witness protection. As a photographer, position the window to your back with your subject facing you.”

Avoid shooting complex videos on smartphones, Tosolini says. Editing tools on phones are “not meant to edit documentaries,” he warns. “Shoot with editing in mind. Shoot in sequence so it’s easy to just trim and put together your story.”

When you’re shooting, hold your camera horizontally. Don’t hold the phone as though you’re taking a call, says Keller.

“Televisions and Web interfaces present video as a horizontal canvas,” he says. “Rotate your camera so the widest part of the image goes from side to side, not up and down. It seems simple, but if you want your video to play on a Web service like YouTube or Vimeo, capture the content in a UI-friendly format.”

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.

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