Why Shooting on Your Smartphone is Not Good for Your Filmmaking Career

September 8, 2017
Gear News and Ideas
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As the appeal of new smartphones increasingly centers on camera technology as opposed to, you know, phone technology, filmmaker curiosity has naturally grown with it. Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a masterful indie gem shot entirely on iPhones, cemented smartphones as the most of accessible filmmaker challenges. Are you talented enough to shoot a good film on your phone?

Then the narrative flipped.

As of writing this article, there are so many smartphone-centered film festivals that one of them has to label itself “The Original iPhone Film Festival.” If your news feed is as overloaded with indie filmmaking publications as mine, you know that every fifth article or video is dedicated on getting the most out of your smartphone’s camera. We used to view smartphones as minimalist challenges, but now we’re obsessed with maxing out their potential as our new B-cameras or, God forbid, a go-to A-camera.

Slow your roll, filmmakers! Pun intended.

It’s Not as Convenient as It Looks

While a smartphone is built to fit in a pocket, its filmmaking accessories aren’t. Smartphones require the same shooting gear as any other camera - you still have to lug around tripods, steadicams, grip, lighting, and audio all in the name of trying to get footage that looks and sounds decent. When you add in the time it takes to assemble everything on set, your filmmaking experience ends up being very similar to shooting with a mirrorless camera.

Moreover, think about the last time you just whipped out your camera and effortlessly got a great take. It sounds nice, but it’s not how filmmakers operate. Even the most improvisational filmmaker has to prepare their set for success. If you’re still going to use your phone like a regular camera, why not just shoot with a regular camera?

Well, if it’s cheaper...  

It Isn’t Cheaper

Let’s assume you already own the smartphone you want for your project, so we don’t need to add its cost to our final tally. You still need a lot of accessories to make the phone functional as an on-set camera, and their cost adds up.

Apps: FiLMiC Pro gives you a dynamic camera interface that allows you to fine-tune features on your phone like focus, exposure, and color. That’s $15.

Lenses: There are a lot of lens kits you can get for mobile devices. The lowest price I could find for decently reviewed lenses is $22.99 for a set of five Camkix lenses. Different lenses come at higher prices and quality, but I’ve got a budget in mind.

Tripod Adapter: You’re going to need a special tripod adapter to mount your phone well, a basic adapter from Amazon will cost $7.

Additional Storage: Your phone most likely won’t hold enough storage to last a long shoot, so you will need extra. Sandisk offers an iXpand flash drive that plugs right into your iPhone. 64 gigabytes costs $52.84 on Amazon.

Additional Battery: That phone isn’t going to last you very long, especially shooting video. You’ll need a battery extender that will last you through a shoot. The cheapest I could find was made by PowerBank and costs $29.99.

Steadicam: Smartphones don’t have the ergonomics for handheld work, so you’re going to need something for handheld shots. The cheapest quality steadicam I could find was by Fantaseal for $40.

At the very cheapest, you’ll be spending an additional $168 to bring your phone to a functional level as a camera, and that’s putting frugality before quality and having no in-camera audio options. This is not a rugged setup built to last you a few years, and upgrades to any of those variables can add hundreds of dollars to your bottom line, not including any extra money you might have spent upgrading your phone for video purposes. Think about it this way. For $168, you can rent a Sony a7SII cinema package.

Am I cheating by bringing a rental price to a purchase fight? No, because if the point of shooting on smartphones is to show what filmmakers can do with minimal resources, then we should actually be maximizing the resources we have. It’s counterintuitive to spend time and money tricking out low quality video when you have access to significantly better video at your fingertips.

The Quality Still Isn’t There

The future?

Yes, smartphone camera technology is improving and, if RED has anything to say about it with the Hydrogen, it might catch up sooner than we think. Right now, though, smartphone video is still behind new entry-level mirrorless and DSLR options, and is about on par with a GoPro Hero5.

Except, in the full context, it isn’t. The specs are similar, but GoPro offers filmmakers access to the kinds of action shots they can’t get anywhere else (on a budget). It’s easy to forgive substandard video quality when the camera is offering a different perspective. This isn’t how we talk about shooting on iPhones, though. No, we’re tricking out phones to behave like traditional cameras, which is where they fail.

Most notably, smartphones are built for the present. Even with extra features, the video on your new smartphone will look noticeably poor in two to three years, forcing you to make upgrades just to tread water at the bottom of acceptable image quality. Any camera you buy with a detachable lens is better suited for the long term because, as a million YouTube videos have taught us, great lenses still do great things even on not-so-great cameras. A filmmaker with money for a phone upgrade would be better off buying a better lens for their Canon 60D than they would be upgrading to the newest Samsung Galaxy for video purposes.

Here’s a cheat sheet for iPhone alternatives. Ask yourself these questions.

Do I have to own my camera?

No. Rent for what you need. The GH4, a7s II, and Blackmagic Pocket cameras all offer better image quality and make your set life much easier.

Yes. Ask yourself:

What is my budget?

I have no budget! Rethink renting.

Around $300. Get a GoPro. If the wide-angle action shot isn’t what you need, you can find a used Canon T3i with a lens for about $350.

Between $400-$700. The DJI OSMO will give you cinematic movement at an inexpensive cost (and use your phone as a monitor, something it’s good at). For something more traditional, look at low-cost camera bodies like the GH3 or T3i and diversify/upgrade your lens lineup.

Over $700. The world is your oyster! Why are were you even considering shooting on your smartphone again? Get a GH4.

I’m making a stink out of this because a filmmaker’s evolution is always tied, to some degree, to the evolution of the gear they shoot on. We learn more about filmmaking as we adapt to new gear but, in this respect, not all gear is created equal.

It’s a Pretty Terrible Learning Tool

Sean Baker, Steven Soderberg, Michel Gondry, and the folks at Film Riot excluded, it’s reasonable to assume that people shooting films on their smartphones are, to some degree, still developing elemental filmmaking skills. I don’t say this with condescension. For a lot of young filmmakers, Instagram filters will provide a basic introduction to film stocks and color grading. Smartphone video is no different, as long as filmmakers eventually move on.

Smartphones don’t liberate movement like GoPros and drones do, they don’t offer lessons in lens choice and crop factor the way mirrorless cameras and DSLR’s do, and their footage can’t be pushed in post the way something like a Blackmagic Pocket Camera can. Instead, the form and functionality of a smartphone video rig is exclusive to smartphones. Encouraging young filmmakers to stick with their smartphones limits their abilities to hone their craft.

Because It’s a Gimmick

Film Riot, which is a great YouTube channel for current and aspiring filmmakers, recently released a video called “iPhone Filmmaking: Your Camera Doesn’t Matter.” In it, they show how they made a short sketch using an iPhone mounted on a tripod. To introduce the video, host Ryan Connolly says:

“The gear you use does not dictate the content you make.”

 

Connolly is right, filmmakers should never feel restricted by the gear they have. In the video, though, Connolly discusses limitations the crew endured while shooting on the iPhone, including having trouble focusing, losing audio to flimsy dongles, and getting footage that looked different between takes, forcing a reshoot and major post-production backbends. While every camera will come with certain issues, the iPhone was proving inconsistent at things even an entry-level DSLR will get right.

That’s because shooting with a smartphone is, as of now, a gimmick. The biggest advantage a smartphone gives you over a similarly-priced alternative is the ability to advertise that you shot with a smartphone. It doesn’t give you the best quality for your money, won’t sharpen your skills as a filmmaker, and won’t justify the effort you put into actually making it work properly.

Can there be an artistic justification for shooting a film on your smartphone? Absolutely. Todd Haynes broke out by casting his first film with Barbie dolls, but it doesn’t mean we all have to try it. Filmmaking is as much about pragmatism as it is about artistic ambition and, if your film doesn’t demand it, you have much better options than shooting your next project on your phone.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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