In many situations the only Christian “media producer” that is available may be a local believer equipped with nothing more than their simple camera phone. In such situations (as well as other times when a great opportunity arises but you are caught unprepared for taking video but have your trusty mobile phone with you) knowing how to get the most out a phone’s camera can make the difference between ending up with material that could be incorporated into a great media piece versus material fit only for the rubbish bin. Here are a few pointers that may help in getting more of the former and less of the latter:
1) Prepare Your Phone
If your phone’s settings can be altered make sure the video capture settings are at their highest setting. Sometimes you have to make a tradeoff between the fps (frames per second, 30 is best but 15 is fine if you will mainly use it on low-mid level feature phones) and image quality so it might pay to test various settings before you really need to film something important. If you need to shoot with a low frame rate try to keep movement in the video to a minimum.
If you’re filming with a more advanced phone, like an iPhone or Droid, you may want to put it in flight mode as this shuts off all those battery hungry features like Bluetooth and WiFi. This will also keep your phone from rudely interrupting your fabulous video shoot with a loud call ringing in.
If your phone uses an external memory card (like a microSD card) it would be good to have a large capacity card installed (say 2 GB or greater). Make sure the phone is set to record the video to the memory card rather than the phone’s onboard memory (typically much smaller). Although you may find yourself shooting at unexpected times and not have a spare with you, having a spare battery and memory card may prove to be a lifesaver at times you know that you will be shooting video.
2) Steady as She Goes!
One of the worst features of most video shot with small handheld devices is the shakes and jitters that appear in them. Tripods, monopods and even bean bags are wonderful for minimizing this but aren’t always available. To reduce the shakes and jitters make sure to hold the phone with two hands and with your upper arms pressed in against your chest while shooting standing. You can do even better by supporting the camera (or your elbows) on a steady surface like the back of a chair. If such a surface isn’t available you can try steadying your shot by leaning against something like a wall or pole or shooting while sitting with the camera resting on your upraised knee.
3) Zoom in With Your Legs, Not the Lens
If your phone camera has a zoom function it is best not to use it. Zooms move in and out with uncomfortable jerking and magnify your hand movements and consequently magnify the jitters and shakes in your video. Zoom is also often digital-only on phones and this creates badly pixelated images. If you need a zoomed shot move forward and then take more video from closer in.
4) Avoid Doing Pans and Other Movements with Your Phone
While handheld mobile devices seem to make it easy to follow a subject with the camera the resulting footage is typically quite shaky. As such, following your subject by moving your phone is best to be avoided- let subjects come into and go out of a shot rather than following them. It is also extremely difficult to produce a smooth pan or movement using a handheld unless it is supported by a tripod or on some kind of rolling device on a smooth surface.
5) But If You Really Must Have Movement and Pans…
If you really must follow a subject and move with your handheld try to steady your elbows in against your body and walk stepping lightly with your feet rolling from heel to toes to reduce the vibration traveling up towards your phone. If you can do your shoot on a flat smooth concrete floor you can use an office chair with rollers (make sure that they do not squeak) to make your movement smoother. Hold you phone steady and have a friend pull the chair with a rope from several meters away.
If you are doing a planned shot you can bring a swivel office chair and use it as a shooting platform for pans. Sit in the chair, hold the phone as steady as you can and turn the chair seat for your pan. To make this even smoother attach a broom handle to the chair and have a friend use that to swivel the chair seat while you shoot the picture.
If you need to pan and don’t have access to a swivel chair start out by standing with your feet pointing in the direction where you want your shot to end, twist your upper body towards where you want to start your shot and then take your video while letting your body slowly unwind back towards the direction your feet are pointing. This reduces shakiness in the pan and doing the opposite by starting the shot in the direction your feet are pointed will cause the final part of the pan to become increasingly shaky.
6) Let the Light Shine!
Video subjects for mobile phones need to be well lit as the phones’ camera optics are tiny and only capture a tiny percentage of the light. Make sure you have an abundance of light when shooting and make sure the light is coming at your subject from the right angles. If the light is coming in directly from behind the subject you will have issues with backlighting and the subject becoming not much more than a dark silhouette. A good primer on lighting for video can be found here (watch from 1:13 to 3:10).
7) Get More Than You Think You’ll Need!
You never know if you’ll get a second chance so make sure to use the chance you’ve got to the fullest. Take more video/photos than you think you need and from multiple angles to help ensure you’ve got plenty of good material to pull from (this will save your project and your day more than once). Follow the 5 shot system for with a minimum of 10 seconds taping of each shot when doing video to ensure you get the footage you need (5 Shots, Ten Seconds, other shots are described in 8 Great Shots and How to Use Them – Nokia N8 camera school). Additionally, it never hurts to get more than one shot or video-take of the same scene to ensure you really got what you wanted! Finally, remember your phone’s microphone generally does a pretty poor job of audio recording so you might want to make sure and get some extra recording of background noises, etc. from close-up which you can later edit into your production.
8) Consider creating separate audio and video elements that can be combined during the editing process
Unfortunately a mobile phone is most likely not going to allow you to get BOTH good audio AND video together. Shooting video of something like people acting out a scene with a mobile phone essentially gives you two choices- 1) Getting good video but distorted sound because the low-quality microphone on the phone was too far away OR 2) Getting good audio but poor or virtually non-existent video by putting the microphone up close and personal so that it really captures the audio. One way around this is to do separate recordings and then splice the audio and video together in editing but this is fraught with issues like video of people’s mouths moving out of sync with the timing the words are being said in the audio.
One way you might record a separate audio track is to have each of your actors have their phones recording audio, possibly with their phones on a string around their neck under their shirt or in a pocket on their upper body. This can capture the sound of their voice fairly well and give you a choice of audio clips to choose from. Another way to capture the audio is to hang a cell phone that is recording audio above the person speaking and just outside the image area you are filming. If you have people seated at a table you can place a cell phone that is recording audio on the table on top of a small soft cloth (this will reduce vibrations that are picked up).
9) Practice Makes Perfect!
Get out there and take lots of practice video with your phone. See what works and what doesn’t. The more you practice ahead of time the better the chance you’ll be able to get good video when you really want and need it!