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6 Easy Steps to Shooting Cinematic Video With a Smartphone

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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!


Smartphone Filmmaking: 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 Smartphone?

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-center composition is more interesting to look at and looks more natural than one where the subject is placed in the center 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.


That wraps up my top 6 steps for shooting cinematic footage on a smartphone. Below, I've compiled some crucial tips and answers to frequently asked questions to help you elevate your smartphone videography.


Best Practices for Professional-Looking Smartphone Videos

Creating professional-looking videos with a smartphone is both an art and a science, demanding attention to detail and a keen eye for aesthetics. Here are some blogs I've written to help you elevate your essential filmmaking skills whether you're filming using a professional video camera or a smartphone camera:


Best Smartphone Video Editing Apps: Pro And Free

How do you edit a documentary on your phone? Thankfully, the app market is teeming with both professional-grade and free tools designed to make video editing on your phone a breeze. For those seeking the pinnacle of mobile editing capabilities, apps like LumaFusion and Adobe Premiere Rush stand out. It's tailored for professionals, offering a desktop-class experience on a smartphone. Adobe Premiere Rush caters to creators of all levels, with an intuitive interface and seamless integration with Adobe Creative Cloud, making it a versatile choice for high-quality editing on the go. For enthusiasts and beginners, free tools such as iMovie (for iOS users) and CapCut offer a wealth of features including clip trimming, transitions, and text overlays, without the steep learning curve. These apps democratise video editing, ensuring that even those with no prior experience can produce engaging, polished content. By leveraging these professional apps and free tools, creators can unlock the full potential of their smartphone footage, turning raw clips into captivating stories with just a few taps and swipes.


How To Film Yourself With a Phone

Filming yourself with a phone requires a blend of creativity and technical savvy to ensure the footage looks professional and engaging. Start by securing your phone in a stable position. Using a tripod with a phone holder can dramatically improve the quality of your video by preventing shaky footage. If you don't have a tripod, find a steady surface or a makeshift stand to keep your phone horizontal (landscape mode) for a more traditional, cinematic look, or vertical (portrait mode) if you're targeting social media platforms - I dive into this more in the next paragraph below. Good lighting is crucial; position yourself facing a natural light source, for example, a window. Check the framing by using the front-facing camera, ensuring you are centered and that the background is tidy and not distracting. Audio quality matters too, so consider using an external microphone as this will hugely improve the production value of your video. Rehearse what you want to say to minimise pauses and filler words, keeping your content concise and to the point. By doing this you'll be able to film yourself with a phone in a way that captures your message clearly and compellingly, even without having to spend thousands on professional equipment.


Which Way Should I Hold My Phone When Filming?

The orientation in which you hold your phone while filming—horizontal or vertical—plays a pivotal role in the visual impact and usability of your footage. Traditionally, the horizontal (landscape) format is preferred for most filmmaking and video production scenarios. This preference is due to the landscape orientation's natural fit with the human field of view and the standard aspect ratios used by televisions, computer screens, and cinemas. Filming horizontally ensures your videos will look great on most displays, providing a cinematic feel that fully utilises the screen real estate. On the other hand, the vertical (portrait) orientation has gained popularity with the rise of mobile-centric social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube Shorts, and Instagram Stories, where content is primarily consumed on smartphones held upright. Vertical videos cater to the viewing habits of mobile users, offering an immersive, full-screen experience on their devices. The choice between horizontal and vertical filming should thus be guided by your intended audience and platform. For traditional, cinematic, or long-form YouTube content, horizontal is the way to go. For social media, where engagement and immediate impact are key, then the vertical format is the way to go.


Common Smartphone Filming Mistakes

Smartphone filmmaking has opened the doors to a world where everyone can capture and share their stories, but navigating this landscape comes with its own set of challenges. Common mistakes often stem from overlooking the basics of videography, leading to a video that no one wants to watch. One frequent mistake when filming is neglecting the importance of sound quality, which is as crucial as visuals, sometimes even more important. Investing in an external microphone and monitoring audio levels during recording can significantly improve your final video. Another pitfall is poor lighting; relying solely on your phone's flash or filming in low-light conditions can result in grainy, unappealing footage. Utilising natural light whenever possible and exploring external lighting solutions can make a more cinematic video. Shaky footage is also a common issue, easily remedied by using a tripod or stabiliser to achieve smooth, professional-looking shots. Overlooking the power of composition and framing can make videos feel amateurish; understanding basic principles like the rule of thirds can transform your shots from mundane to compelling. Lastly, many budding filmmakers try to do too much in post-production, leading to over-edited videos that distract from the story. Keeping edits simple and purposeful, focusing on enhancing rather than overwhelming your footage, is key. By being mindful of these common mistakes and adopting a few strategic practices, smartphone filmmakers can elevate their work from amateur to exceptional.


Smartphone Cameras: Impact on Digital Filmmaking

The evolution of mobile camera technology has revolutionised the filmmaking landscape, democratising the art of cinema and blurring the lines between amateur and professional content creation. Just a decade ago, the idea of shooting high-quality films on a phone was unthinkable; today, it's not only possible but increasingly common. Advances in sensor technology, computer processing power, and optical image stabilisation have equipped smartphones with the capability to capture stunning 4K video, slow-motion, and even cinematic depth-of-field. These technological leaps have made filmmaking accessible to a broader audience, enabling creators with modest budgets to produce visually compelling content. The impact on the industry has been profound: filmmakers are now using smartphones for everything from shooting feature films and documentaries to creating content for social media platforms. This shift has encouraged innovation, pushing the boundaries of what's possible with mobile devices. The convenience and portability of smartphones have also allowed for spontaneous and intimate storytelling, capturing moments with an immediacy and authenticity that traditional cameras often cannot match. The evolution of mobile camera technology has not only transformed the tools of filmmaking but has also expanded the possibilities for what can be created, making the art form more inclusive and diverse than ever before.


Unlock Your Smartphone Filmmaking Skills

In the digital age, the power to create high-quality videos no longer rests solely in the hands of those with expensive camera equipment. Smartphones are now powerful tools for filmmakers. With 4K resolution, optical image stabilisation, and manual control over settings like exposure and focus, today's smartphones empower creators to produce professional-grade content right from their pockets. The key to unlocking this potential lies in understanding the capabilities of your mobile phone and applying a few fundamental principles of videography and cinematography. 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 Huntress. His 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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