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6 Easy Steps to Shooting Cinematic Video With a Smartphone

cinematic documentaries documentary filmmaking smartphone

The question I get asked most by beginner filmmakers is ‘What camera should I buy?”. I hear this constantly and the amount of times that not having the ‘right’ equipment has stopped someone from bringing their film idea to life is crazy!


Can You Film a Documentary on a Phone?

Smartphones have profoundly transformed documentary filmmaking, emerging as indispensable tools for capturing authentic, compelling stories with immediacy and accessibility. Their advanced camera technologies and robust software enable filmmakers to produce high-quality visuals and audio, matching professional filmmaking standards. Smartphones facilitate capturing the essence and spontaneity of moments as they unfold, ensuring that raw, unscripted emotions are preserved in their most authentic form. Their compact size and versatility allow filmmakers to shoot in diverse environments, enabling a readiness and flexibility that is crucial in documentary filmmaking. Accessories like gimbals and external microphones enhance these devices, allowing for improved stability and sound quality.


How do You Make a Documentary Video on Your Phone?

The truth is, to make great films, you don’t have to have the most expensive and fancy camera equipment. At the end of the day, how you use a camera is far more important than what camera you shoot with when making a film. And that's why I put together this free documentary training: 10 Secrets To Creating Cinematic Documentaries. To help you step up your filmmaking skills and make better documentaries using your smartphone.


Essential iPhone and Android Filmmaking Tips

In this blog, I’m going to be giving my top six tips on how to capture cinematic footage using your phone whether that's an iPhone, Android, or any other type of smartphone so you can get started making your film without having to spend thousands on camera equipment.


How to Film Cinematic Videos with Your Smartphone


1. Use a manual camera app when filming with your phone

Your phone has lots of auto camera settings turned on – like auto exposure, auto white balance, autofocus, auto stabilisation, and these tools are great for home videos, but if you want to achieve a more cinematic look, you’ll need to have control over your camera settings. There are lots of options out there for manual camera apps but the best one I’ve found and like to use is Filmic Pro, which costs about £15. Once you’ve downloaded the app, it’s time to change a few settings to achieve the best results when filming.




2. Change the frame rate on your phone

The default frame rate on mobile phones is 30fps but if you want the cinematic look, I’d recommend switching it to 24fps as this is what most Hollywood films are shot at. If you're wanting to film in slow motion, film at 60fps or for super slow-mo 120fps.




3. Set the exposure and focus on your phone

To set the exposure, click and drag the white circle on screen to the area you’d like the camera to expose to. Then hold it down until it goes red. This locks the exposure so it doesn’t change while you’re filming which is often a telltale sign of amateur filming.

Then to set the focus, move the white square on the object or person you’d like to focus on. You can move this box around while filming if you want to change the focus or you can also click the box until it goes red, to lock the focus position.




4. Use a stabiliser when filming on your phone

There are lots of great options out there for your phone, my favourite is the DJI OM-5. This is a 3 axis gimbal that will help you achieve super smooth shots and can also work as a tripod. Getting steady moving shots is a huge part in achieving cinematic footage. If you can’t afford to buy a stabilizer you can balance your phone on a table or any other household objects while holding it. If you do use a stabiliser you need to make sure you turn off the auto stabilisation within your Filmic Pro app or else it will warp the footage as the gimbal tries to fight the digital stabilisation.




5. Use multiple focal lengths when filming with your phone

This will help create emotion and give depth to a scene. Some mobile phones have multiple lenses built into them, like a 14mm (wide), 26mm (mid), and 52mm (close-up) lens which gives you three different focal length options for different scenarios when filming. You can easily switch between these three lenses in your Filmic Pro app. For those like me, who don’t have multiple lenses on their phone and want more options, you can buy third-party lenses to stick on the front of your phone. I’d recommend moment lenses which are excellent and have several options depending on the focal length you want.




6. Use a grid guide when filming with your phone

A grid guide divides up the width and height of your frame into thirds using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. You can then use the rule of thirds to compose your shots. This is where you position your subject or the important elements in your scene along one of the grid lines, or at the points where the two lines meet on the grid. In the Filmic Pro app you can bring the grid up by clicking the guide button in the bottom right of the app.

The reason to use the grid and rule of thirds when filming is that more often than not, an off-centre composition is more interesting to look at and looks more natural than one where the subject is placed in the centre of the frame and the grid helps you achieve this.

So, when framing your shot, think about what the focus of the scene is – whether that’s your main character, an object or a landscape – and try to position it on or near the lines and intersections of the grid. They don’t have to be perfectly lined up, as long as they’re close. And this will help make your shot look and feel more cinematic.


Unlock Your Smartphone Filmmaking Skills

So that’s it for my top six tips on how to shoot cinematic footage with a smartphone. If you found these tips useful and want more, check out my free filmmaking training where I share 10 secrets to creating cinematic documentaries.


Written by Sebastian Solberg

Sebastian is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include One Breath and the BAFTA-nominated film The Eagle HuntressHis passion for fostering emerging talent led to the creation of the Documentary Film Academy, an online community and educational platform designed to empower the next generation of filmmakers.

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