iPhone Cinematography

Pictured: Steven Soderbergh shooting on an iPhone for “High Flying Bird”.

Written by John Klein

As most film productions have been effectively postponed by the pandemic, I thought it might be beneficial to discuss options available to us as storytellers and cinematographers from the comfort of our phones.  (Fair bias on my end: I use exclusive Apple products, so this article will be iPhone-specific.)  Most smartphones are capable of not only 4K imagery – albeit at highly compressed codecs – but also slow-motion frame rates, and there are a bevy of apps worth downloading to maximize their effectiveness as filmmaking tools.

We’ve already grown accustomed to using apps such as Artemis, the director’s viewfinder which gives a variety of aspect ratio, camera, and lens choices to go along with your preferred recording medium, and Helios or SunSeeker, which give real-time 3D mapping of the sun’s path across the sky.  Assistant-based utilities like various data calculator apps, for figuring out GB conversions to other codecs in the field, and MovieSlate – which can spit out spreadsheet-friendly camera logs after each shoot day – are in high use as well.  Tablets have allowed us to create overheads and shot lists in apps like Shot Designer, and Celtx and Final Draft Reader both allow us to write and break down scripts in the field.  Even light and color temperature metering are possible on smartphones for a slightly greater investment, and the phone itself can be a light source.  These tools on the production end are already in high use on even professional film sets.

But if you’re planning to use your iPhone as an actual recording device, it’s important to understand first what you’re getting and what you’re not.

First and foremost, iPhones record h.264 or h.265 Quicktime files that are highly compressed and challenging for editing software to work with, so usually some kind of proxy editing is helpful if you’re not editing right on your phone or tablet.   That also means less room to grade the image and less color space, so your images may appear more saturated or simply have a less gentle quality to things like skin tones.  Also, the low light deficiencies of iPhones versus Android phones are well-documented, and noise is a factor in working with phones regardless.

Given these, it’s important to have an app like Filmic Pro or Motion that allows you to control the settings of your camera, like ISO or shutter speed or color temperature (in addition to allowing 24p recording).  The cinematographer pack in Filmic Pro also gives you access to things like Log color space, which is handy when dealing with the limited color and dynamic range of compressed video.  And Motion, as a company, makes a variety of smartphone-specific lenses (including a sweet 1.33x anamorphic lens), as do companies like Moondog, Steven Soderbergh’s brand of choice on the Netflix movie High Flying Bird.  Using Filmic Pro gives you access to a waveform monitor and histograms as well for checking exposure, the ability to monitor audio levels, and so on.  (Pro tip: get a microphone, or have a separate audio recorder like a Zoom.)

Mentioning the lenses is important.  Obviously newer phones like the iPhone 11 Pro come with three lenses – a wide angle, regular, and telephoto lens – but realistically, the wide angle lens isn’t particularly sharp, and the telephoto doesn’t give you what would probably be the most important thing: shallower depth of field.  And lower-end phones won’t have those options anyway. In addition, the Portrait mode on various phones is a subpar substitute for actual shallow focus, but even mounting new lenses from Moment or Moondog to the camera won’t give you that.  These are wide-focus lenses, with no aperture control.

Does that mean you can’t get great imagery out of the phone?  Of course not – that’s silly.  It means you have to be aware of these things and make conscious creative choices that take full advantage of the camera you have!

  • It’s small. Find ways to squeeze it into places and get unique angles you couldn’t get with a Red or even a DSLR.  Mount it to cool places in a car or on set pieces that can move, like shopping carts or mic stands.  Small gimbals are easily found for a variety of phones that can allow for more stabilized Steadicam-esque images.  Even those ridiculous selfie sticks can be put to good use.  Be safe, but go incognito in public spaces – especially now, given how few people are out even in big cities.
  • Shallow focus isn’t for everything. We forget that in Hollywood’s heyday, deep focus was something sought after.  Filmmakers like Renoir and Wells took full advantage of it.  Find ways to make dynamic compositions using the wide depth of field these phones give you.  Also, close-ups take on a different life with a wider lens.  Architectural details feel grander.
  • The ability to go anywhere also means the ability to light with just about any DIY element you have.   LED strips.  Big windows.  Find locations that give you strong natural light and use your newfound exposure control on your phone to keep things from blowing out or banding.
  • Movement is a breeze. Most cameras have built-in stabilization, and as I said above, gimbals are great.  But even getting small tripods and creating makeshift dollies and sliders are more feasible with phones, and even if you can’t do that, remember: use what the phone gives you, which is that ability to go anywhere.

Sure, there are negatives to being stuck with the camera in our pocket.  But for the age we’re in, to have a camera in our pocket that outdoes the quality of the imagery on +$10k cameras of the previous decade is all kinds of magic.  And think of recent films like Tangerine or Unsane or Searching for Sugar Man, which would’ve felt totally different (or not even existed at all) without their unique brand of phone-based cinematography.  Figure out what the intimacy of that camera gives you and tell unique stories with it.


John KleinJohn Klein (www.windycitycamera.com) is a director, cinematographer, and producer in Chicago.  His directorial work includes the award-winning short horror film, “Cry It Out,” and the feature films, “Happily After” and “Chrysalis”, and he’s lensed projects of all shapes and sizes, from the micro-budget web series, “Young Couple” to the Lifetime movie, “Nightlights”.  He also teaches film production at DePaul University and Flashpoint Chicago.



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