Since every smartphone now comes with a pretty decent video camera, it seems like everyone has started using their phones to capture their favorite moments. But just because these phone cameras can record high definition, that doesn't mean they record high quality — at least not all by themselves. So here are some of my favorite tips and gadgets to help you improve the quality of yours.
First, a steady shot is critical — and that's hard to achieve with such a small, lightweight device as a phone. So lean against something sturdy to steady your body and your arm. Or better yet, buy a tripod attachment, like the gorillamobile or the PhoneBoat. One note of caution here: there are no tripod mounts on cell phones the way there are on cameras, so many of these tripods snap on. It's important to figure out if you're buying a universal tripod or a snap on case that is made specifically for your phone.
Next, capturing the moment is crucial. If it takes you five taps to turn your camera on, it may be too late. To launch the camera quickly from an iPhone, double click the home key, and then tap the camera icon that shows up only when you do this special double click. With Android phones, use an app like Lockmenu, and put your camera on one of the quick-launch spots on the lock screen. When you slide the camera icon to unlock, it takes you directly there.
All camera phones automatically adjust for factors like focus and exposure, but sometimes you want manual control. On an iPhone, double tap the where you want the camera to focus. You can have a soft focus on something in the foreground while focusing on a person in the back. Tapping the screen also resets the exposure — bright or dim — and the color balance, meaning: do skin tones look natural. If the light shifts while you're shooting (the sun goes behind a cloud, for example), a quick tap should tell the camera to rebalance.
On Android phones, tap the menu and you'll see a bunch of video and audio controls, including brightness, or exposure. Slide right to make dark scenes brighter. Left to darken. And remember, all phone cameras do better in bright light. So whenever possible, avoid shooting in low-light situations.
If you switch from camera to video mode on the iPhone, you'll see that the field of view gets smaller, but that's not actually what it's recording. If you double tap before you record, the image will widen out and show you the full cinema view.
Some phones have a zoom in the camera, but if it does, it's a digital zoom. Why does this matter? Optical zooming is the real deal; glass moves inside a lens and objects are magnified. But a digital zoom is like silly putty. Remember when you'd put silly putty on the comics and then stretch them out? The image gets bigger, but the resolution gets worse. So the best zoom you have is your feet. Getting closer is my number one tip for good video, especially with people — because not only do you shoot your subjects' faces tighter, you get the mic closer, to hear them better.
You can get everything from fish-eye and macro lenses like the olloclip to telephoto lenses like this one for the iPhone. These lenses are just OK. If it's really important to get high quality video, you'd be much better off using a camcorder with a more sophisticated lens. The Kogeto Dot records 360 video, but I was a bit disappointed in the image quality. Note that most of these devices are designed to fit to specific models of phones, so check for compatibility before buying.
So you've shot all this video… then what? I know how to edit in almost any program, but just because I can, doesn't mean I like to. Two pieces of advice: First, edit in the camera. Narrate an intro (and remember to talk quietly because you are closer to the mic than any of your subjects), capture the action up close, and keep it short! Another option is to use an automatic editor like Magisto. You upload all your raw footage to their site, and they automatically make a highlight reel. It may not come out perfectly, but it's far better than having hours of video entombed forever unseen in the recesses of your phone.