Smart phone taking photo of group of people

By Jerry Pearson
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Terry Campus

Whether you are recording live footage in your classroom to add to your teaching portfolio, making an educational demonstration for your students, or just snapping a quick video for fun–these tips should help you get the most out of your smart phone’s video recorder.

Battery ChargeTip #1: Charge Your Battery

Make sure you have enough battery power to record or will be able to plug it into an outlet. If you know you will be recording for some time you may want to bring some battery backup such as an external battery pack.

MemoryTip #2: Clear Up Some Memory

Video fills up memory extremely quickly. If your device has limited room or you have a lot of apps, photos, music, video or other data, you may want to remove unneeded items before you begin. If you device has a microSD card slot, make sure you are recording to that and that it has enough room. No one likes to run out of room and miss that once-in-a-moment shot.

Airplay.jpgTip #3: Place Your Device in Airplane Mode

Turning on Airplay during recording prevents unwanted distractions and interruptions and putting the device in this mode will also help with battery life.

Shoot in HDR.jpgTip #4: Shoot in HDR

If your camera has a high-dynamic-range (HDR) video setting, then try it. HDR video produce greater contrasts than standard shots which can bring outdoor scenes to life.

Shoot in Landscape.jpgTip #5: Shoot in Landscape Mode

If you shoot your video in portrait (vertical) mode, you are wasting 2/3 of your screen space. The best way to ruin great footage is having two large black bars along both sides of your video. Use landscape orientation and capture more of the actual scene in your video.

Use Proper Framing.jpgTip #6: Use Proper Framing

Video is generally a close-up medium but that does not mean you always have to fill the screen with your subject but understanding the rule of thirds will help guide you to a good composition of the scene.

Imagine that your scene is divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject. Many cameras and apps allow you to turn the “Use Grid” on to help you arrange your shots.

The rule of thirds is only a guideline among multiple other guidelines to follow to get great footage. Another one involves positioning your subject based on their direction. If your subject is looking to the right, place them on the left to give them room to look to. If they are moving to the left, place them on the right to give them room to walk to. You can learn more about video composition rules here.

Hold it Steady.jpgTip #7: Hold it Steady

Most smart devices today can take great HD footage if it is perfectly still, but once you start to you move the phone the image will begin to degrade. Plus, who likes to look at shaky video or a video that is going all over the place? The first tip to holding your device steady is to use a tripod. But since we don’t always carry a tripod along with us, try using a solid surface such as a table, wall, tree, post or something else that is steady. Placing the device on something soft such as a pillow or piece of clothing will minimize shakiness if you are hand-holding your device on a solid surface. Propping your device on a surface so you aren’t holding it is even better. Using objects such as small bean bags to hold the camera at the desired angle will help.

Of course there are many times when you don’t have anything available to you but your own body. In cases such as these, use both hands, keep the phone close to your body, and use your body to absorb bounces and shakes. And if you are recording video while moving, that takes even more practice. Fortunately, there are a multitude of stabilizers available for your device that will make your video appear smooth. Stabilizers mitigate unwanted movements like camera shake and help your final product look professional. Some common tools include a pistol grip handle, tripod mount, table top dolly, or selfie stick.

Avoid Using Your Camera Zoom.jpgTip #8: Get Close – Avoid Using the Camera’s Digital Zoom

To get the detail, you have to get close. Unless you have a device with a dual-lens such as the iPhone 7plus, avoid using the built-in camera zoom. Since you are not zooming using optics, you are just enlarging the picture digitally, which means you will quickly enter the world of pixelation. If you want to get a close-up shot, move closer to your subject. There are lenses you can purchase for optical zooming.

Make Sure Your Camera is in Focus.jpgTip #9: Make Sure it’s in Focus!

The first step in this tip is to make sure your lens is clean! Most phones will automatically focus your shot for you but while shooting video, the camera tends to keep adjusting and refocusing, which can lead to jittery- looking footage. If you device allows you to set your focus on a subject use it and try to keep that area on your screen that you place the focus marker on your subject.

Better still, use your app focus lock to keep the focus constant throughout your shot. This of course depends on your focus range remaining fairly constant between you and your subject.

Set Your Exposure.jpgTip #10: Set Your Exposure

Most phones will automatically expose your shot but while shooting video, the exposure setting may vary greatly, leading to a video that leave your subject in the dark or blown out. If you can set the exposure to an area of your screen, then place the marker over your subject and try keeping your subject with-in that area while filming.

Better still, use your devices exposure lock to keep the exposure constant throughout your shot. This of course depends on the lighting conditions remaining fairly constant on your subject throughout your shot.

Use Good Light.jpgTip #11: Use Good Light

Today’s smart phones are getting better all the time using low light, but there is no true substitute for good lighting. If you are indoors, light it up as much as possible and have your subject face the light source.

One thing to watch out for, especially indoors is mixing different types of light sources. There are many different types of light sources such as sunlight, florescent, LED, tungsten, and incandescent light. Each light source gives off a different color cast that your camera can not mix nearly as well as your eyes do.

Backlighting: One other item to keep in mind when shooting video is backlighting. That is when there is a more light behind the subject than shining on your subject. While you may be able to see the people and their faces when they’re backlit, your camera usually can’t and your video will be a dark figure with-in a bright background. In this case, try to reposition your shot or light your subject.

Avoid moving from dark to light areas in the same shot. Tracking a subject from a dark to light area will end up in bazar lighting situations that not only lead to overly dark or overly bright subject but crazy white balance results. Instead, try breaking the scene up into two or more shots that let you set the lighting correctly for each shot.

Set White Balance.jpgTip #12: Set White Balance Before Recording

Remember when I was talking about how the camera fails to mix different light sources as well as our eyes do. Well, this is why you should always set your white balance before recording.

What is white balance? It is basically telling your camera what light source you are shooting in and setting it so everything appears in its natural color. Your camera normally is set to automatic but using automatic will not always work. In those cases you can usually set it to one of the other settings or even set it manually.

Setting the white balance manually is commonly done by placing a white sheet of paper, while in the same lighting conditions you will be shooting a, in front of your camera and tapping the white balance button of your application.

Slow Down.jpgTip #13: Slow it Down

Camera can be movements one of the biggest culprits of bad video. Fast camera movements result in blurry and distorted shots. Keep the movement of your camera slow. It’s that simple.

Focus On Sound.jpgTip #14: Focus on Sound

One mistake most people make is neglecting the audio portion of their video. People are more likely to watch a poorly done video with excellent audio than sit through a video recorded with terrible sound. Poor audio is a quick way to make your video feel amateur.

Before you begin, make sure you know where the microphone is and don’t cover it up while recording. A critical rule is to keep the microphone as close to your subject as possible to help keep the audio as clear as possible. If you need to be farther away from your subject or want even better sound, then you will need an external microphone.

There are many options available to you from ones that fit right on your device to those that are cables or even wireless microphones. Other options are using a second device closer to the subject to record the audio.

Take Dynamic Shots.jpgTip #15: Take Dynamic Shots

Face it, most of your shots are recorded from eye level with the camera pointed straight at your subject. Try mixing in some shots from different perspectives such as higher up or lower down. Or perhaps even some moving shots. Some cool ways to shoot from a moving perspective are using a table top dolly, a skateboard, a wheelchair, or simply panning the area by rotating your body.

Slow Motion and Time Lapse.jpgTip #16: Use Slow-Motion and Time-Lapse

First, let’s make sure the motivation for using the slow-motion feature of your device is properly oriented. Sport shots are usually great opportunities for using slow-motion while a shot of someone sitting at a park is not quite as effective. In the camera settings you can choose to shoot up to 120 frames per second or greater to and play back at 30 frames per second to get the slow-motion effect.

Time-lapses are a great way to shoot nature or events but need a careful setup to get the best results. These include placing for lighting, using a tripod, locking focus and exposure settings for smooth and natural lighting changes, plugging your phone in to power or an external battery, and finally, placing your phone in airplane mode before you hit the record button.

Shoot to Edit.jpgTip #17: Shoot to Edit

Many people turn their camera on and wave their camera from one side of the shot to the other, up and down, or zooming in and out continuously. Don’t try to get the whole scene in one shot. Good video should have good structure to produce a good composition. Think about the shots you need before you take them and how you might combine them when you edit.

Another good point to remember is to always record a little longer than you need to give you added time at the start and end of a clip. This gives you flexibility during editing. Furthermore, try to use different shot types to better define your story. This also provides some added variety to keep your viewers interested. Some of the different shot types are listed below.

Wide Shot (WS): This type helps to frame your subject in their surroundings to help establish the subject’s location and situation they are in. It may also be needed to reveal the broad action involving a larger area. This shot is also called an Establishing Shot.

Full Shot (FS): Reveals your whole subject and a good deal of the background but may not give enough detail to establish just where they are.

Medium Shot (MS): Reveals most of your subject while still revealing some of the background. Shows the person from the waste up.

Close-up Shot (CU): Focuses your viewer’s attention on specific details. Typically from the person’s shoulders to the top of the head.

Extreme Close-up Shot (XCU): Frames only on a portion of your subject. A dramatic shot that concentrates your viewer’s interest on specific details. This shot is to be used sparingly.

Typically these shots are done in sequence to lead the viewer into an experience and back out gradually being careful not to jump too far between shots. You can learn more about composing basic camera shots here.

Edit On Your Computer.jpgTip #18: Edit On Your Computer

Although there are some pretty cool apps for editing on your device, nothing beats editing on a computer. So, when you are done shooting, offload your footage and use the video editor of your choice.

Apple: iMovie or Final Cut Pro

PC: Pinnacle Studio, Adobe Premiere Elements/Pro, Lightworks (free)

Add a Music Background.jpgTip #19: Add a Music Background

This is a simple way to add depth to your video as well as enhance or change the mood. Be careful not to add music that detracts from the audio in your video or making it too loud.

That was a lot of information, and you probably would have a hard time implementing it all at once. Instead of overloading yourself with too much to think about, the next time you take out your smart phone to snap a video, just try to use one or two of these tips to make an amazing video. You can even print out this single sheet summary of the tips to keep in your back pocket.

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