One of the first steps when getting more serious about producing video content with a smartphone is to look at the more advanced video recording apps from 3rd party developers. Popular favorites like „FilmicPro“ (available for both Android and iOS) usually offer way more image composition controls, recording options and helpful pro features that you find on dedicated video cameras than the native stock camera app provided by the maker of the smartphone. While quite a few stock camera apps now actually have fairly advanced manual controls when shooting photos (ability to set ISO and shutter speed might be the most prominent example), the video mode unfortunately and frustratingly is still almost always neglected, leaving the eager user with a bare minimum of controls and options. In 2015 however, LG introduced a game changer in this regard: the V10. For the first time in smartphone history, a phone maker (also) focused on a full featured video recording mode: it included among other things the ability to set ISO and shutter speed, lock exposure, pull focus seamlessly, check audio levels via an audio level meter, adjust audio gain, set microphone directionality, use external microphones, alter the bit rate etc. etc. Sure, for certain users there were still some things missing that you could find in 3rd party apps like the option to change the frame rate to 25fps if you’re delivering for a PAL broadcast but that’s only for a very specific use case – in general, this move by LG was groundbreaking and a bold and important statement for video production on a smartphone. But what about other phone makers? How good are their native camera apps when it comes to advanced options and controls for recording video? Can they compete with dedicated 3rd party apps?
First off, let me tell you why in most cases, you DO want to have a 3rd party app for recording video (at least if you have an Android phone): external microphones. With the exception of LG, Samsung (and I’m told OnePlus) in their recent flagship lines (plus Apple in general), no stock camera app I have come across supports the use of external microphones when recording video. Having good audio in a video is really important in most cases and external microphones (connected via headphone jack, microUSB, USB-C or Lightning connector) can be a big help in achieving that goal.
So why would you use a stock camera app over a dedicated 3rd party app at all? Familiarity. I guess many of us use the native camera app of a smartphone when snapping casual, everyday photos and maybe also videos in non-professional situations. So why not build on that familiarity? Simplicity. The default UI of most native camera apps is pretty straight-forward and simple. Some might prefer this to a more complex UI featured in more advanced 3rd party apps. Affordability. You don’t have to spend a single extra penny for it. I’m generally an avid advocate of supporting excellent 3rd party app developers by paying for their apps but others might not want to invest. The most important reason in my opinion however is: Stability/Reliability. This might not be true for every stock camera app on every phone (I think especially owners of Sony phones and lately the Essential Phone could beg to differ) but because of the fact that the app was developed by the maker of the phone and is usually less complex than 3rd party apps, chances are good that it will run more stable and is less prone to (compatibility) bugs, especially when you consider the plethora of Android devices out there. The V10’s stock camera app, despite being rather complex, is rock-solid and hasn’t crashed on me once in almost 2 years now.
Over the last months I have taken a closer look at a whole lot of stock camera apps on smartphones from LG, Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Sony, Motorola/Lenovo, Nokia (both their older Windows Phone / Windows Mobile offerings AND their new Android handsets), HTC, Nextbit, BQ, Wiko and Google/Nexus. It goes without saying that I wasn’t able to inspect stock camera apps on all the different phone models of a manufacturer. This is important to say because some phone makers give their flagships models a more advanced camera app than their budget devices while others offer the same native camera app across all (or at least most) of their device portfolio. Also, features might be added on newer models. So keep in mind, all I want to do is to give a rough overview from my perspective and offer some thoughts on which phone makers are paying more attention to pro features in the video recording department.
The lowest common denominator for recording video in a stock camera app on a smartphone at the moment is that you will have a button to start recording in full-auto mode with a resolution of 1920×1080 (1080p) (1280×720 on some entry level or older devices) at a frame rate of 30fps. „full-auto“ basically means that exposure, focus and white balance (color temperature) will be set and adjusted automatically by the app depending on the situation and the algorithm / image processing routine. While this might sound like a convenient and good idea in general to get things done without much hassle, the auto-mode will not always produce the desired results because it’s not „smart“ enough to judge what’s important for you in the shot and therefore doesn’t get exposure, focus and/or white balance right. It might also change these parameters while recording when you don’t want them to, like for instance when you are panning the camera. Therefore one of the crucial features to get more control over the image is the ability to adjust and lock exposure, focus and white balance because if these parameters shift (too wildly/abruptly/randomly) while recording, it makes the video look amateurish. So let’s have a look at a couple of stock camera apps. To be continued soon with “Part 2″…
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Thanks for your article, and looking forward to part 2. A comment and a question:
– You are totally right about the sound, I got a Rode VideoMicro for that. However, my OnePlus 5 stock app does not show any sign of being able to use an external mic. I have not tested it though, maybe the external mic is auto-detected? I use Cinema FV5 and OpenCamera, and both have an explicit setting to select audio input.
– The biggest issue I have with filiming on android phones is shooting longer events. I typically record conferences, ranging from 40mn to an hour. So I’m often bitten by the 4Gb/ 30mn of 1080p limit.
That is a very important thing to consider when comparing video apps. Most stock apps are not able to go above 4gb, even if the storage can (internal storage or SDXHC cards above 32gb). Cinema FV5, Open camera and others will restart a new file after hitting the 4Gb limit. They do lose a few seconds of speech at each filming stop/start sequence.
Can you mention if those stock apps (the LG one?) can do this, or better, can record longer than 4gb videos when provided with suitable storage?
So far, I have only been able to record 12Gb or more films using the internal storage of a OnePlus 5, with Cinema FV5 and OpenCamera.
thanks a lot for your detailed comment, very much appreciated! As for your talking points:
– I don’t have a OnePlus 5 myself but I was told by a competent friend that the native app on the OP5 supports the use of external mics. That’s why I included the info. You should try it out! The native apps of Samsung (at least on latest S-models, I have an S7) and Apple auto-detect when an external mic is connected and use it, there’s no specific option to select it (it’s different on LG’s premium native app where you have to select the external mic). So it could very well be that it’s the same on the OP5 and you just have to plug it in to work.
– It’s interesting that you would mention the file size limit on Android. Most MoJos (Mobile Journalists) usually don’t shoot longer sequences so they don’t care much about this limitation. Personally, I do care however because I often use smartphones as b or c cams when covering theater pieces and events with a bigger VJ camera. Apparently some Android phone makers have tweaked the OS to work around the file size limit. I was told by someone with a Sony Xperia XZ that he was able to record beyond 4GB with the native camera app … Hopefully, this Android limitation will be overcome soon in general as the introduction of 4K video recording on many phones definitely makes the issue more relevant. Depending on how data intensive your footage needs to be, you can influence the length of the recording by adjusting the recording bit rate. Of course almost none of the native camera apps allow changing the bitrate. LG’s on the V10 however does and I was able to squeeze out about an hour in 1080p if I remember correctly. Then again, you don’t want to lower the bit rate too much most of the time. Other than that, LG’s native app (at least on the V10 I have) can’t go beyond the 4GB limit unfortunately. Maybe they have changed that for the latest models like the V30 but I don’t have any information regarding this. Btw, ‘Filmic Pro’ just introduced an update that is supposed to offer seamless continuous recording when shooting beyond Android’s file size limit. Haven’t tested it yet though.
1 – Well noted for the One+5, I’ll test it out. Indeed there is no settings, so it has to be automatic.
2 – The thing is, Android per se has no such limit. Either internal storage (ext4) or external microSD cards formatted as exFat (which is the only option for cards bigger than 32GB) handle 4GB+ files. This piece is about native apps, and my readings tell me most are software-limited to 4GB. But on the phones I tested (Huawei P8 Lite 2017, Honor 9), even Cinema-FV5 and openCamera, which do not have such software 4GB built-in also stop after 4GB, because the OS tells them to do so. Very frustrating, and most importantly, very little “advanced” information available.
Reducing the FPS and bitrate is the obvious solution, but it’s not really a solution, as it would be hit and miss if the conference expands a bit, like 1h15 instead of the usual 45 to 60mns.
3 – Side note: I was also suprised to see the One+ 5 does not support Camera 2 API, which matters when ones wants more controls over exposure for instance. I guess the LG 10 has that too?
1 – Yes, check it out. It would contradict the findings of my friend if external mics don’t work in the native app. Let me know if that’s the case and I will check back with him.
2 – As you write later on “the OS tells them to do so”, so in a way it IS Android per se that limits this. You could argue however on the other hand as I mentioned in my last comment that because apparently some phone makers are able to tweak Android in a way that lets them go beyond the 4GB limit, it’s NOT Android per se, just the version provided by Google. Anyway I really wish Android in general would allow for recording bigger files as is right now. I first thought I could get around this with exFAT formatted SD cards but as the limit seems to be ingrained in the OS, this didn’t fix it unfortunately. I’ve been having discussions with the Android developer team of “Filmic Pro” about this. So far, 3rd party app developers had to offer a workaround with auto-restarting the recording but as you said, you lose a couple of seconds and you also get a whole bunch of clips instead of a single one which can be a bit annoying depending on how you handle your projects. As I mentioned “Filmic Pro” seems to have integrated a new solution regarding this with their latest update but I have yet to test it as it just came out. Have you tried “Filmic Pro”? It’s pretty amazing, gives you pro analysis tools like focus peaking and false color.
3 – From all I know the OP5 definitely does have proper Camera2 API support (as does the V10 btw). What makes you think otherwise? There are a couple of ways to find out about the Camera2 API support level (have you read my earlier article about Camera2 API btw?). One is to run a probing app like “Camera2 probe” (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=de.weis.camera2probe). If the hardware level support category shows as “Full” or “Level 3”, you can install apps like “Filmic Pro” and “Cinema 4K” or activate the pro mode with full exposure controls in some other apps (“Lumio Cam”, “Open Camera”). The current version of “Cinema FV-5” has not fully integrated the Camera2 API in its code so no matter what the Camera2 API support level of your device is, you don’t get control over shutter speed, but only ISO. The developer of “Cinema FV-5” however has resumed work on the app and mentioned that he looks into shutter speed control via the Camera2 API.