Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Picture This: The Age of Video

Tips for making your smartphone videos look their best.

By Earl Nottingham

The evolution of the camera in the typical smartphone has reached the point where its photographic and video quality now meets or exceeds many professional cameras. Video journalists and independent film producers are now using these devices to produce high-definition imagery.

For most of us, however, video is just a lot of fun to use, and we quickly fill our camera’s albums with spontaneous videos of friends, family, pets and vacations and then usually share them through a plethora of social networking outlets. Here are a few tips that will make your videos look their best.

Lighting. Proper lighting is still king when it comes to getting a good image, whether shooting stills or video. For exteriors, this means shooting at the times of day when the light is aesthetically pleasing, such as morning or evening. If shooting close-ups of people, try to find softer and more flattering light (such as an overcast day or shade) to keep your subject from squinting.

Stability. Nothing screams “amateur” like shaky and jittery video. If a tripod or other stable support isn’t available, try holding the camera with both hands while bracing your elbows against your chest. This will provide support while still allowing you to twist your body to pan the camera slowly. Some third-party camera apps such as Filmic Pro or ProCamera feature stabilization modes that minimize much of the shake.

Gus Engeling deer

For smartphone videos, a horizontal orientation works better than a vertical one.

Composition. The screens on your computer monitor, home television and local movie theater are all oriented horizontally because we generally view the world around us in a landscape or horizontal fashion. Ideally, video should be oriented that same way in order to fill those types of screens. Unfortunately, when shooting videos with a smartphone, the urge (and the trend) is to shoot the video vertically since that is the way we are accustomed to holding the phone. However, by consciously rotating the camera horizontally, you will end up with more natural-looking video that will better fill the viewing area proportions of most monitors or TVs and have a more natural visual flow.

Composition also means getting physically close and filling the frame with your main subject while keeping extraneous and distracting objects out. This is especially important if you are recording sound from your subject using the in-camera microphone. If possible, avoid using the zoom feature on most smartphone cameras since they are not true zooms and only digitally enlarge the available pixels, degrading the overall image.

Sound. Good sound in a video is as important as the image. Nothing will turn a viewer off faster than inaudible sound or room echoes. If using the in-camera microphone to record someone speaking, try to keep the person as close to the camera as practical and eliminate any other environmental noises such as air conditioning, fans, TVs, etc. If shooting outside, try to avoid wind noise by blocking any direct wind from hitting the microphone.

Focus. Most cameras do a pretty good job with autofocus, and most will allow you to select the point of critical focus by tapping the screen over your subject. The third-party camera apps mentioned above will allow you to selectively move and lock the focus and/or exposure in a particular part of the frame.

Editing. Editing can be as simple as just shooting the minimum length of video needed to tell the story, or as involved as using an editing app to digitally trim and splice multiple clips along with multiple soundtracks to the final video. The goal is to create a video that keeps the viewer engaged without becoming boring. Try several short takes (clips) of no more than eight to 10 seconds each. Using wide, medium and close-up shots will be more interesting than shooting from one static position. Most built-in video camera apps now include the ability to trim unwanted portions from the beginning and end of a video. For full-featured editing, consider a third-party app such as iMovie (iOS), Splice (iOS), Magisto (iOS and Android) or VidTrim Pro (Android) or an online editing site such as WeVideo.

Battery. Video is very processor-intensive and will deplete a phone’s battery quickly. Always start with a fully charged battery (if possible) to avoid missing the last few seconds of an important shot.

Be ready. There’s nothing more aggravating than missing the one opportunity to record your alien encounter or potentially viral cat video, so keep your camera or third-party app’s icon front and center on your main screen so that it can be launched quickly and you don’t have to fumble around finding the app.


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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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