Despite the relative youth of the smartphone, in just over a decade, it has become the most-used type of camera in history. That is a boon, of course — think of all the amazing moments you’ve seen on YouTube, Vine, and Vimeo. It also means our smartphones and hard drives are filled with, let’s be honest, unpolished, shaky, grainy streams of consciousness that probably bore family and Facebook friends. It isn’t hard to up your game, however, both by using better technique and free (or affordable) add-ons, apps, and accessories.
1. Shoot sideways.
As with TV and movie screens, a landscape view is the only way to shoot video (there are some exceptions for photos, arguably). The logic is, that’s the way our eyes are aligned, side by side and not on top of each other. Shooting with your phone sideways allows you to capture life the way we see it, which is also why TVs and movie screens are horizontal. So cut it out with the vertical nonsense.
2. Go to the light.
Go back and watch your prized digital videos from a decade ago. Besides the low pixel count and fuzzy image, the big difference is the ability to capture video in low light. Today’s cameras are infinitely better at this tricky task, and yet the best smartphone camera today still doesn’t hold a candle (or a Klieg) to a big-sensored and lensed camera like a DSLR, which can shoot rich images even in, well, candelight. The best way to get rich, sharp, colorful images without grain or fuzziness is to shoot in well-lit conditions, which usually means outside in daylight. Also, be sure to keep the sun at your back (and on your subject) so the image isn’t backlit and shadowy.
3. Alter your depth of field.
One of the easiest ways to film a quality video on your phone is to alter the depth of field — that is, making the area of focus in a shot shallow instead of having everything in your image equally sharp to infinity. Some smartphones have sophisticated enough lenses and a large enough aperture and sensor to create the effect, especially when shooting up close. But it’s far easier to create it using an add-on telephoto or macro lens (for up-close subjects). There are loads of options out there, but photojojo’s telephoto ($35) is the right price for novices. The goal is to get close enough to a subject without making it look distorted. The longer the lens, the easier it is (though you’ll need more light).
4. Consider using apps.
The ability to swipe a screen and instantly capture video is convenient, but rarely does it result in something that looks nice. And while most built-in camera apps are pretty solid now, there are plenty of third-party apps that are far more capable, allowing you to fiddle with exposure, fast- and slow-motion and time-lapse images, manual focus, and a raft of other settings and options. FiLMiC Pro ($8) is the best of the best for iOS, and the similarly versatile Cinema FV-5 ($2.50) is a top notch pro-level shooter for Android.
5. Pull it together, man.
As with original works of music, writing, and photography, the vast majority of video sitting on your smartphone probably isn’t worth sharing for anyone’s entertainment but your own. (That’s fine.) But if you do decide to share your video, take a few minutes to edit your footage into something worth watching. This once was a highly technical chore, but now it’s a cinch thanks to free or cheap software. Instagram (finally) lets you not only shoot video (or even take old videos off your phone), but chop away the fat and publish it online, all for free. If you want to reorder clips, you’ll need something more advanced. For iOS, Apple’s iMovie ($5) is hard to beat. It lets you quickly trim, combine, and swap clips, and share them without fiddling with DVDs and encoding shenanigans — and a built-in feature will even pull clips together with music that makes a pretty damn good trailer. For Android, WeVideo is a no-fuss editor, which syncs up with Google Drive for fast and easy sharing.