Four Times to Shoot with a Smartphone — and One Time You Shouldn’t

Smartphones. They are everywhere. And with new phones with even better cameras launching every year, it’s no wonder we are seeing more media produced with these handy devices — on our phones, our TVs and even at the movie theater. While shooting with your phone has its challenges and limitations, there are times when it may actually be the best option.

Shoot with a smartphone when…

…it’s the camera you have
The best camera is the camera you have with you, so if you happen upon a video-worthy moment and only have your phone, there’s no reason not to open your camera app and start recording. Likewise, even if you are toting a dedicated camera along with you, if a fleeting moment catches you off-guard, it can be a lot faster to pull your phone out of your pocket than to dig your camera out of its bag.

The best camera is the camera you have with you, so if you happen upon a video-worthy moment and only have your phone, there’s no reason not to open your camera app and start recording.

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…you need something smaller
A full set of production gear simply isn’t appropriate for some shooting situations. Even a smaller dedicated camera can be intimidating or intrusive in the eyes of some subjects. A phone, on the other hand, feels much more friendly and informal, giving you access to people and locations when it would normally be unacceptable to whip out a camera. On top of that, the slim profile of the smartphone allows it to physically squeeze into smaller spaces. Shooting inside a car or closet? The camera on your phone might be your best bet.

…you’re working on your eye for composition
Because your phone is always with you, it’s the perfect practice tool for cinematographers who want to develop a better eye for composition. Use your phone to experiment with different framing options whenever you encounter an intriguing scene or vista. This works especially well if you have a set of smartphone lenses to give you more flexibility in you field of view, but extra lenses are certainly not necessary. There are also apps available that mimic the functionality of a real director’s viewfinder, so you can be even more precise as you explore different compositions.

…you need to shoot vertically
Lots of people dismiss vertical video as the work of amateur videographers, and in many cases, that’s a valid reaction. But with the ubiquity of smartphones, more people than ever are consuming — and producing — video in a vertical format. What was once clearly a beginner mistake has become a viable option in the range of standard aspect ratios thanks to social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and more.

Don’t shoot with a smartphone when…

…you want total control
Modern smartphone cameras have come a long way in terms of image quality, and more phones than ever are offering handy features like dual-focal lengths and advanced recording modes. Precise exposure and focus control, however, is still elusive — even when you trade the standard camera app for one of the more robust apps available. If you’re working on a major project and need lots of flexibility in your image, you’re probably not going to get it with a phone. And even investing in an entire camera bag’s worth of accessories won’t get you a larger sensor.

Smartphones are surprisingly capable cameras when used in the right context, but they don’t replace professional video gear. Dedicated cameras will still trump smartphones in terms of image quality and, especially, usability. Consider your goals and the shooting situation when determining whether or not a smartphone is the right camera for the job.

Nicole LaJeunesse shoots more video with a smartphone than with a dedicated camera.

Nicole is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming, and beyond.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Curious as to what video editor the author uses since cellphones for the most part record at a variable frame rate.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Variable frame rates have a reputation for being to tricky to work with, especially with sync audio, but Premiere Pro recently added support for variable frame rates and there are a few workarounds out there if you’re not using Premiere. You can also shoot with more robust camera apps to get control over frame rate during production. Definitely something to consider, though!

  3. OOS (out of sync) is the biggest problem with using cellphone video with audio. It's fine if you do not use the cellphone audio for the most part. A lot of people who do use cellphons (in the horrid portrait position) are average consumers who want to later edit on a consumer editor. These consumer editors do not support variable frame rates, just as a lot of pro editors don't. You can use Handbrake to convert to constant frame rate, but most consumer cellphone users do not know this. They see the sticker on the phone "4K video" then try to edit and basically can't. They see "movies" made on cellphones that give the impression you do not need a "real" cameras, not knowing how much technical assistance was added like DP's, lighting, etc. and think they can do that too. Then they also find out that Apple's own FCP has problems with Apple iPhone video. I don't know how many cellphone shooters will opt to pay, learn and use Premiere.

    It's true, the best camera is the one you have. I have a cellphone and have never shot video with it. I carry around in my EDB (every day bag) a mirrorless camera that can shoot 4K and photos.

    I personally think the pros and cons should be layed out for people. The biggest "pro" is that you always have the cellphone with you.

  4. One topic that is never discussed when people discuss the use of smart 'phones or HDSLR cameras for shooting video, are the thermodynamics involved as a result of the camera warming up, as part of the normal operation of the image sensor and camera electronics.

    Smartphones and HDSLRs have smaller form factors compared with video cameras, and the heat has less volume within which it can maintain itself at a low enough temperature, whilst it escapes to the outside world through the camera cases' plastic and metal components. This leads to the necessity of the thermal monitoring circuit shutting down the image sensor to prevent damage from over heating.

    A video camera's larger form factor, permits more internal volume within which the heat can distribute itself making its way to the camera case, whilst it escapes through a larger surface area, keeping the internal temperature low enough, allowing the image sensor to keep recording for much longer times.

    I use a Sony NEX FS100U or a JVC GZ-EX515 depending on circumstances, and when I don't have either of these cameras handy, I do use a Sony Xperia Z1. With the FS100 and EX515 I can keep them running for up to two hours and they record without needing to stop for cooling down the image sensor; this is very useful when filming wild life, and reducing the chance of missing something interesting because animals don't always exhibit interesting behaviors on cue. When I shoot with the smart 'phone, especially on a hot day, the image sensor needs to shut down every five minutes or so, due to over heating.

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