smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#38 How to anonymize persons or objects in videos on a smartphone – new app makes things a lot easier! — 16. January 2021

#38 How to anonymize persons or objects in videos on a smartphone – new app makes things a lot easier!

There are times when – for reasons of privacy or even a person’s physical safety – you want to make certain parts of a frame in a video unrecognizable so not to give away someone’s identity or the place where you shot the video. While it’s fairly easy to achieve something like that for a photograph, it’s a lot more challenging for video because of two reasons: 1) You might have a person moving around within a shot or a moving camera which constantly alters the location of the subject within the frame. 2) If the person talks, he or she might also be identifiable just by his/her voice. So are there any apps that help you to anonymize persons or objects in videos when working on a smartphone?

KineMaster – the best so far

Up until recently the best app for anonymizing persons and/or certain parts of a video in general was KineMaster which I already praised in my last blog about the best video editing apps on Android (it’s also available for iPhone/iPad). While it’s possible to use just any video editor that allows for a resizable image layer (let’s say just a plain black square or rectangle) on top of the main track to cover a face, KineMaster is the only one with a dedicated blur/mosaic tool for this use case. Many other video editing apps have a blur effect in their repertoire, but the problem is that this effect always affects the whole image and can’t be applied to only a part of the frame. KineMaster on the other hand allows its Gaussian Blur effect to be adjusted in size and position within the frame. To access this feature, scroll to the part of the timeline where you want to apply the effect but don’t select any of the clips! Now tap on the “Layer” button, choose “Effect”, then “Basic Effects”, then either “Gaussian Blur” or “Mosaic”. An effect layer gets added to the timeline which you can resize and position within the preview window. Even better: KineMaster also lets you keyframe this layer which is incredibly important if the subject/object you want to anonymize is moving around the frame or if the camera is moving (thereby constantly altering the subject’s/object’s position within the frame). Keyframing means you can set “waypoints” for the effect’s area to automatically change its position/size over time. You can access the keyframing feature by tapping on the key icon in the left sidebar. Keyframes have to be set manually so it’s a bit of work, particularly if your subject/object is moving a lot. If you just have a static shot with the person not moving around a lot, you don’t have to bother with keyframing though. And as if the adjustable blur/mosaic effect and support for keyframing wasn’t good enough, KineMaster also gives you a tool to add an extra layer of privacy: you can alter voices. To access this feature, select a clip in the timeline and then scroll down the menu on the right to find “Voice Changer”, there’s a whole bunch of different effects. To be honest, most of them are rather cartoonish – I’m not sure you want your interviewee to sound like a chipmunk. But there are also a couple of voice changer effects that I think can be used in a professional context.

What happened to Censr?

As I indicated in the paragraph above, a moving subject (or a moving camera) makes anonymizing content within a video a lot harder. You can manually keyframe the blurred area to follow along in KineMaster but it would be much easier if that could be done via automatic tracking. Last summer, a closed beta version of an app called “Censr” was released on iOS, the app was able to automatically track and blur faces. It all looked quite promising (I saw some examples on Twitter) but the developer Sam Loeschen told me that “unfortunately, development on censr has for the most part stopped”.

PutMask – a new app with a killer feature!

But you know what? There actually is a smartphone app out there that can automatically track and pixelate faces in a video: it’s called PutMask and currently only available for Android (there are plans for an iOS version). The app (released in July 2020) offers three ways of pixelating faces in videos: automatically by face-tracking, manually by following the subject with your finger on the touch-screen and manually by keyframing. The keyframing option is the most cumbersome one but might be necessary when the other two ways won’t work well. The “swipe follow” option is the middle-ground, not as time-consuming as keyframing but manual action is still required. The most convenient approach is of course automatic face-tracking (you can even track multiple faces at the same time!) – and I have to say that in my tests, it worked surprisingly well! 

Does it always work? No, there are definitely situations in which the feature struggles. If you are walking around and your face gets covered by something else (for instance because you are passing another person or an object like a tree) even for only a short moment, the tracking often loses you. It even lost me when I was walking around indoors and the lens flare from the light bulb at the ceiling created a visual “barrier” which I passed at some point. And although I would say that the app is generally well-designed, some of the workflow steps and the nomenclature can be a bit confusing. Here’s an example: After choosing a video from your gallery, you can tap on “Detect Faces” to start a scanning process. The app will tell you how many faces it has found and will display a numbered square around the face. If you now tap on “Start Tracking”, the app tells you “At least select One filter”. But I couldn’t find a button or something indicating a “filter”. After some confusion I discovered that you need to tap once on the square that is placed over the face in the image, maybe by “filter” they actually mean you need to select at least one face? Now you can initiate the tracking. After the process is finished you can preview the tracking that the app has done (and also dig deeper into the options to alter the amount of pixelation etc.) but for checking the actual pixelated video you have to export your project first. While the navigation could/should be improved for certain actions to make it more clear and intuitive, I was quite happy with the results in general. The biggest catch until recently was the maximum export resolution of 720p but with the latest update released on 21 January 2021, 1080p is also supported. An additional feature that would be great to have in an app that has a dedicated focus on privacy and anonymization, is the ability to alter/distort the voice of a person, like you can do in KineMaster.

There’s one last thing I should address: The app is free to download with all its core functionality but you only get SD resolution and a watermark on export. For 720p watermark-free export, you need to make an in-app purchase. The IAP procedure is without a doubt the weirdest I have ever encountered: The app tells you to purchase any one of a selection of different “characters” to receive the additional benefits. Initially, these “characters” are just names in boxes, “Simple Man”, “Happy Man”, “Metal-Head” etc. If you tap on a box, an animated character pops up. But only when scrolling down it becomes clear that these “characters” represent different amounts of payment with which you support the developer. And if that wasn’t strange enough by itself, the amount you can donate goes up to a staggering 349.99 USD (Character Dr. Plague) – no kidding! At first, I had actually selected Dr. Plague because I thought it was the coolest looking character of the bunch. Only when trying to go through with the IAP did I become aware of the fact that I was about to drop 350 bucks on the app! Seriously, this is nuts! I told the developer that I don’t think this is a good idea. Anyway, the amount of money you donate doesn’t affect your additional benefits, so you can just opt for the first character, the “Simple Man”, which costs you 4.69€. I’m not sure why they would want to make things so confusing for users willing to pay but other than that, PutMask is a great new app with a lot of potential, I will definitely keep an eye on it!

As always, if you have questions or comments, drop them below or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this article, also consider subscribing to my Telegram channel (t.me/smartfilming) to get notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter about important things that happened in the world of mobile video.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

Download PutMask on GooglePlay.

#37 Best video editors / video editing apps for Android in 2021 — 10. January 2021

#37 Best video editors / video editing apps for Android in 2021


Ever since I started this blog, I wanted to write an article about my favorite video editing apps on Android but I could never decide on how to go about it, whether to write a separate in-depth article on each of them, a really long one on all of them or a more condensed one without too much detail or workflow explanations, more of an overview. So I recently figured there’s been enough pondering on this subject and I should just start writing something. The very basic common ground for all these mobile video editing apps mentioned here is that they allow you to combine multiple video clips into a timeline and arrange them in a desired order. Some might question the validity of editing video on such a relatively small screen as that of a smartphone (even though screen sizes have increased drastically over the last years). While it’s true that there definitely are limitations and I probably wouldn’t consider editing a feature-length movie that way, there’s also an undeniable fascination about the fact that it’s actually doable and can also be a lot of fun. I would even dare to say that it’s a charming throwback to the days before digital non-linear editing when the process of cutting and splicing actual film strips had a very tactile nature to it. But let’s get started…

KineMaster


When I got my first smartphone in 2013 and started looking for video editing apps in the Google PlayStore, I ran into a lot of frustration. There was a plethora of video editing apps but almost none of them could do more than manipulate a single clip. Then, in late December, an app called KineMaster was released and just by looking at the screenshots of the UI I could tell that this was the game changer I had been waiting for, a mobile video editing app that actually aspired to give you the proper feature set of a (basic) desktop video editing software. Unlike some other (failed) attempts in that respect, the devs behind KineMaster realized that giving the user more advanced editing tools could become an unpleasant boomerang flying in their face if the controls weren’t touch-friendly on a small screen. If you ever had the questionable pleasure of using a video editing app called “Clesh” on Android (it’s long gone), you know what I’m talking about. To this date, I still think that KineMaster has one of the most beautiful and intuitive UIs of any mobile app. It really speaks to its ingenuity that despite the fact that the app has grown into a respectable mobile video editing power house with many pro features, even total editing novices usually have no problem getting the hang of the basics within a couple of hours or even minutes.

While spearheading the mobile video editing revolution on Android, KineMaster dared to become one of the first major apps to drop the one-off payment method and pioneer a subscription model. I had initially paid 2€ one-off for the pro version of the app to get rid of the watermark, now you had to pay 2 or 3€ a month (!). I know, “devs gotta eat”, and I’m all for paying a decent amount for good apps but this was quite a shock I have to admit. It needs to be pointed out that KineMaster is actually free to download with all its features (so you can test it fully and with no time limit before investing any money) – but you always get a KineMaster watermark in your exported video and the export resolution doesn’t include UHD/4K. If you are just doing home movies for your family, that might be fine but if you do stuff in a professional or even just more ambitious environment, you probably want to get rid of the watermark. Years later, with every other app having jumped on the subscription bandwagon, I do feel that KineMaster is still one of the apps that are really worth it. I already praised the UI/UX, so here are some of the important features: You get multiple video tracks (resolution and number are device-dependend) and other media layers (including support for png images with tranparency), options for multiple frame rates including PAL (25/50), the ability to select between a wide variety of popular aspect ratios for projects (16:9, 9:16, 1:1, 2.35:1 etc.) and even duplicate the project with a different aspect ratio later (very useful if you want to share a video on multiple platforms), you can use keyframes to animate content, have a very good title tool at hand, audio ducking, voice over recording, basic grading tools and last but not least: the Asset Store. That’s the place where you can download all kinds of helpful assets for your edit: music, fonts, transitions, effects and most of all (animated) graphics (‘stickers’) that you can easily integrate into your project and make it pop without having to spend much time on creating stuff from scratch. Depending on what you are doing, this can be a massive help! I also have to say that despite Android’s fragmentation with all its different phones and chipsets, KineMaster works astonishingly well across the board.

There are still things that could be improved (certain parts of the timeline editing process, media management, precise font sizes, audio waveforms for video clips, quick audio fades, project archives etc.) and development progress in the last one or two years seems to have slowed down but it remains a/the top contender for the Android video editing crown, although way more challenged than in the past. Last note: KineMaster has recently released beta versions of two “helper” apps: VideoStabilizer for KineMaster and SpeedRamp for KineMaster. I personally wish they would have integrated this functionality into the main app but it’s definitely better than not having it at all.

PowerDirector


The first proper rival for KineMaster emerged about half a year later in June 2014 with Cyberlink’s PowerDirector. Unlike KineMaster, PowerDirector was already an established name in the video editing world, at least on the consumer/prosumer level. In many ways, PowerDirector has a somewhat (yet not completely) equal feature set to that of KineMaster with one key missing option being that for exporting in PAL frame rates (if you don’t need to export in 25/50fps, you can ignore this shortcoming). The UI is also good and pretty easy to learn. After KineMaster switched to the subscription model, PowerDirector did have one big factor in its favor: You could still get the full, watermark-free version of the app by making a single, quite reasonable payment, I think it was about 5€. That, however, changed eventually and PowerDirector joined the ranks of apps that you couldn’t own anymore, but only rent via a subscription to have access to all features and watermark-free export. Despite the fact that it’s slightly more expensive than KineMaster now, it’s still a viable and potent mobile video editor with some tricks up its sleeve.

It was for instance – until recently – the only mobile video editor that has an integrated stabilization tool to tackle shaky footage. It’s also the only one with a dedicated de-noise feature for audio and unlike with KineMaster you can mix your audio levels by track in addition to just by individual clips. Furthermore, PowerDirector offers the ability to transfer projects from mobile to its desktop version via the Cyberlink Cloud which can come in handy if you want to assemble a rough cut on the phone but do more in-depth work on a bigger screen with mouse control. Something rather annoying is the way in which the app tries to nudge or dare I say shove you towards a subscription. As I had bought the app before the introduction of the subscription model, I can still use all of its features and export without a watermark but before getting to the edit workspace, the app bombards you with full-screen ads for its subscription service every single time – I really hate that. One last thing: There are a couple of special Android devices on which PowerDirector takes mobile video editing actually to another level but that’s for a future article so stay tuned.

Adobe Premiere Rush


Even more so than Cyberlink, Adobe is a well-known name in the video editing business thanks to Premiere Pro (Windows/macOS). More than once I had asked myself why such a big player had missed the opportunity to get into the mobile editing game. Sure, they dipped their toes into the waters with Premiere Clip but after a mildly promising launch, the app’s development stagnated all too soon and was abandoned eventually – not that much of a loss as it was pretty basic. In 2018 however, Adobe bounced back onto the scene with a completely new app, Premiere Rush. This time, it looked like the video editing giant was ready to take the mobile platform seriously.

The app has a very solid set of advanced editing features and even some specialties that are quite unique/rare in the mobile editing environment: You can for instance expand the audio of a video clip without actually detaching it and risking to go out of sync, very useful for J & L cuts. There’s also a dedicated button that activates multi-select for clips in the timeline, another great feature. What’s more, Rush has true timeline tracks for video. What do I mean by “true”? KineMaster and PowerDirector support video layers but you can’t just move a clip from the primary track to an upper/lower layer track and vice versa which isn’t that much of a problem most of the time but sometimes it can be a nuisance. In Rush you can move your video clips up and down the tracks effortlessly. The “true tracks” also means that you can easily disable/mute/lock a particular track and all the clips that are part of it. One of Rush’s marketed highlights is the auto-conform feature which is supposed to automatically adapt your edit to other aspect ratios using AI to frame the image in the (hopefully) best way. So for instance if you have a classic 16:9 edit, you can use this to get a 1:1 video for Instagram. This feature is reserved for premium subscribers but you can still manually alter the aspect ratio of your project in the free version. For a couple of months, the app was only available for iOS but premiered (pardon the pun!) on Android in May 2019. Like PowerDirector, you can use Adobe’s cloud to transfer project files to the desktop version of Rush (or even import into Premiere Pro) which is useful if the work is a bit more complex. It’s also possible to have projects automatically sync to the cloud (subscriber feature). Initially, the app had a very expensive subscription of around 10€ per month (and only three free exports to test) unless you were already an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber in which case you got it for free), but it has now become more affordable (4.89€ monthly or 33.99 per year) and the basic version with most features including 1080p export (UHD/4K is a premium feature) is free and doesn’t even force a watermark on your footage – you do need to create a (free) account with Adobe though.

The app does have its quirks – how much of it are still teething aches, I’m not sure. In my personal tests with a Google Pixel 3 and a Pocophone F1, export times were sometimes outrageously long, even for short 1080p projects. Both my test devices were powered by a Snapdragon 845 SoC which is a bit older but was a top flagship processor not too long ago and should easily handle 1080p video. Other editing apps didn’t have any problems rushing out (there goes another pun!) the same project on the same devices. This leads me to believe that the app’s export engine still needs some fine tuning and optimization. But maybe things are looking better on newer and even more powerful devices. Another head-scratcher was frame rate fidelity. While the export window gave me a “1080p Match Framerate” option as an alternative to “1080p 30fps”, surely indicating that it would keep the frame rate of the used clips, working with 25fps footage regularly resulted in a 30fps export. The biggest caveat with Rush though is that its availability on Android is VERY limited. If you have a recent flagship phone from Samsung, Google, Sony or OnePlus, you’re invited, otherwise you are out of luck – for the moment at least. For a complete list of currently supported Android devices check here.

VN


Ever since I started checking the Google PlayStore for interesting new apps on a regular basis, it rarely happens that I find a brilliant one that’s already been out for a very long time. It does happen on very rare occasions however and VN is the perfect case in point. VN had already been available for Android for almost two years (the PlayStore lists May 2018 as the release date) when it eventually popped up on my radar in March 2020 while doing a routine search for “video editors” on the PlayStore. VN is a very powerful video editor with a robust set of advanced tools and a UI that is both clean, intuitive and easy to grasp. You get a multi-layer timeline, support for different aspect ratios including 16:9, 9:16, 1:1, 21:9, voice over recording, transparency with png graphics, keyframing for graphical objects (not audio though, but there’s the option for a quick fade in/out), basic exposure/color correction, a solid title tool, export options for resolutions up to UHD/4K, frame rate (including PAL frame rates) and bitrate.

In other news, VN is currently the only of the advanced mobile video editing apps with a dedicated and very easy-to-use speed-ramping tool which can be helpful when manipulating a clip in terms of playback speed. It’s also great that you can move video clips up and down the tracks although it’s not as intuitive as Adobe Premiere Rush in that respect since you can’t just drag & drop but have to use the “Forward/Backward” button. But once you know how to do it, it’s very easy. While other apps might have a feature or two more, VN has a massive advantage: It’s completely free, no one-off payment, no subscription, no watermark. You do have to watch a 5 second full-screen ad when launching the app and delete a “Directed by” bumper clip from every project’s timeline, but it’s really not much of a bother in my opinion. In the past you had to create an account with VN but it’s not a requirement anymore. Will it stay free? When I talked to VN on Twitter some time ago, they told me that the app as such is supposed to remain free of charge but that they might at some point introduce certain premium features or content. VN recently launched a desktop version for macOS (no Windows yet) and the ability to transfer project files between iOS and macOS. While this is currently only possible within the Apple ecosystem (and does require that you register an account with VN), more cross-platform integration could be on the horizon. All in all, VN is an absolutely awesome and easily accessible mobile video editor widely available for most Android devices (Android 5.0 & up) – but do keep in mind that depending on the power of your phone’s chipset, the number of video layers and the supported editing/exporting resolution can vary.

CapCut

CapCut is somewhat similar to VN in terms of basic functionality (multiple video tracks, support for different frame rates including PAL, variety of aspect ratios etc.) and layout, but with a few additional nifty features that might come in handy depending on the use case. Like VN, it’s completely free without a watermark and you don’t have to create an account. CapCut was – following Cyberlink’s PowerDirector – the second advanced mobile video editing app to introduce a stabilization tool and it can even be adjusted to some degree.

Its unique standout double-feature however has to do with automatic speech-to-text/text-to-speech processing. As we all know, captions have become an integral part of video production for social media platforms as many or most of us browse their network feeds without having the sound turned on and so captions can be a way to motivate users to watch a video even when it’s muted. While it’s no problem to manually create captions with the title tool in basically any video editing app, this can be very time-consuming and fiddly on a mobile device. So how about auto-generated captions?  CapCut has you covered. It doesn’t work perfectly (you sometimes have to do some manual editing) and it’s currently only available in English, but it’s definitely a very cool feature that none of the other editors mentioned here can muster. Interestingly, it’s also possible to do it the other way around: You can let the app auto-generate a voice-over from a text layer. There are three different voices available: “American Male”, “American Female” and “British Female” (only English again). This can be useful if you quickly need to create a voice-over on the go and there’s no time or quiet place to do so or if you are not comfortable recording voice-overs with your own voice. Any cons? Generally, I would say that I prefer VN of the two because I like the design and UX of the timeline workspace better, it’s easier to navigate around, but that’s probably personal taste. What is an actual shortcoming however if you are after the highest possible quality is the fact that CapCut lacks support for UHD/4K export. Don’t get me wrong, you can import UHD/4K footage into the app and work with it but the export resolution is limited to 1080p and you also can’t adjust the bitrate. From a different angle, it should also be mentioned that CapCut is owned by Bytedance, the company behind the popular social video platform TikTok. While you don’t have to create an account for CapCut, you do have to agree to their T&Cs to use the app. So if you are very picky about who gets your data and kept your fingers off TikTok for that reason, you might want to take this into consideration.

Special mention (Motion Graphics): Alight Motion


Alight Motion is a pretty unique mobile app that doesn’t really have an equivalent at the moment. While you can also use it to stitch together a bunch of regular video clips filmed with your phone, this is not its main focus. The app is totally centered around creating advanced, multi-layered motion graphics projects, maybe think of it as a reduced mobile version of Adobe After Effects. Its power lies in the fact that you can manipulate and keyframe a wide range of parameters (for instance movement/position, size, color, shape etc.) on different types of layers to create complex and highly individual animations, spruced up with a variety of cool effects drawn from an extensive library. It takes some learning to unleash the enormous potential and power that lies within the app and fiddling around with a heavy load of parameters and keyframes on a small(ish) touch screen can occasionally be a bit challenging but the clever UI (designed by the same person that made KineMaster so much fun to use) makes the process basically as good and accessible as it can get on a mobile device. The developers also just added effect presets in a recent update which should make it easier for beginners who might be somewhat intimidated by manually keyframing parameters. Pre-designed templates for graphics and animations created by the dev team or other users will make things even more accessible in the future – some are already available but still too few to fully convince passionate users of apps such as the very popular but discontinued Legend. Alight Motion is definitely worth checking out as you can create amazing things with it (like explainer videos or animated info graphics), if you are willing to accept a small learning curve and invest some time. This is coming from someone who regularly throws in the towel trying to get the hang of Apple’s dedicated desktop motion graphics software Motion. Alight Motion has become the first application in this category in which I actually feel like I know what I’m doing – sort of at least. One very cool thing is that you can also use Alight Motion as a photo/still graphics editor since it lets you export the current timeline frame as a png, even with transparency! The app is free to download but to access certain features and export without a watermark you have to get a subscription which is currently around 28€ per year or 4.49 on a monthly basis.

Special mention (Automated Editing): Quik


Sometimes, things have to go quik-ly and you don’t have the time or ambition to assemble your clips manually. While I’m generally not a big fan of automated video editing processes, GoPro’s free Quik video editing app can come in handy at times. You just select a bunch of photos or videos, an animation style, your desired aspect ratio (16:9, 9:16, 1:1) and the app creates an automatic edit for you based on what it thinks are the best bits and pieces. In case you don’t like the results you have the option to change things around and select excerpts that you prefer – generally, manual control is rather limited though and it’s definitely not for more advanced edits. It’s also better suited for purely visual edits without important scenes relying on the original audio (like a person talking and saying something of interest). GoPro, who acquired the app in the past, is apparently working on a successor to Quik and will eventually pull this one from the Google PlayStore later in 2021 but here’s hope that the “new Quik” will be just as useful and accessible.

Special mention (360 Video Editing): V360

While 360 video hasn’t exactly become mainstream, I don’t want to ignore it completely for this post. Owners of a 360 camera (like the Insta360 One X2 I wrote about recently) usually get a companion mobile app along with the hardware which also allows basic editing. In the case of the Insta360 app you actually get quite a range of tools but it’s more geared towards reframing and exporting as a traditional flat video. You can only export a single clip in true 360 format. So if you want to create a story with multiple 360 video clips and also export as true, immersive 360 video with the appropriate metadata for 360 playback, you need to use a 3rd party app. I have already mentioned V360 in one of my very early blog posts but I want to come back to it as the landscape hasn’t really changed since then. V360 gives you a set of basic editing tools to create a 360 video story with multiple clips. You can arrange the clips in the desired order, trim and split them, add music and titles/text. It’s rather basic but good for what it is, with a clean interface and exports in original resolution (at least up to 5.7k which I was able to test). The free version doesn’t allow you to add transition effects between the clips and has a V360 branded bumper clip at the end that you can only delete in the paid version which is 4.99€. There are two other solid 360 video editors (Collect and VeeR Editor) which are comparable and even offer some additional/different features but I personally like V360 best although it has to be said that the app hasn’t seen an update in over two years.

What’s on the horizon?

There’s one big name in mobile editing town that’s missing from the Android platform so far – of course I’m talking about LumaFusion. According to LumaTouch, the company behind LumaFusion, they are currently probing an Android version and apparently have already hired some dedicated developers. I therefore suspect that despite the various challenges that such a demanding app like LumaFusion will encounter in creating a port for a different mobile operating system, we will see at least an early beta version in 2021. Furthermore, despite not having any concrete evidence, I assume that an Android version of Videoleap, another popular iOS-only video editor, might also be currently in the works. Not quite as advanced and feature-packed as LumaFusion, it’s pretty much on par in many respects with the current top dogs on Android. So while there definitely is competition, I also assume that the app’s demands are certainly within what can be achieved on Android and the fact that they have already brought other apps from their portfolio to Android indicates that they have some interest in the platform.

As always, if you have questions or comments, drop them below or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this article, also consider subscribing to my Telegram channel (t.me/smartfilming) to get notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter about important things that happened in the world of mobile video.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

Download KineMaster on GooglePlay
Downlaod PowerDirector on GooglePlay
Download Adobe Premiere Rush on GooglePlay
Download VN on GooglePlay
Download CapCut on GooglePlay
Download Alight Motion on GooglePlay
Download Quik on GooglePlay
Download V360 on GooglePlay

#36(0) The Insta360 One X2 – fun & frustration — 5. January 2021

#36(0) The Insta360 One X2 – fun & frustration

A couple of years ago, 360° (video) cameras burst onto the scene and seemed to be all the new rage for a while. The initial excitement faded relatively quickly however when producers realized that this kind of video didn’t really resonate as much as they thought it would with the public – at least in the form of immersive VR (Virtual Reality) content for which you need extra hardware, hardware that most didn’t bother to get or didn’t get hooked on. From a creator’s side, 360 video also involved some extra and – dare I say – fairly tedious workflow steps to deliver the final product (I have one word for you: stitching). That’s not to say that this extraordinary form of video doesn’t have value or vanished into total obscurity – it just didn’t become a mainstream trend. 

Among the companies that heavily invested in 360 cameras was Shenzen-based Insta360. They offered a wide variety of different devices: Some standalone, some that were meant to be physically connected to smartphones. I actually got the Insta360 Air for Android devices and while it was not a bad product at all and fun for a short while, the process of connecting it to the USB port of the phone when using it but then taking it off again when putting the phone back in your pocket or using it for other things quickly sucked out the motivation to keep using it.

Repurposing 360 video

While continuing to develop new 360 cameras, Insta360 however realized that 360 video could be utilized for something else than just regular 360 spherical video: Overcapture and subsequent reframing for “traditional”, “flat” video. What does this mean in plain English? Well, the original spherical video that is captured is much bigger in terms of resolution/size than the one that you want as a final product (for instance classic 1920×1080) which gives you the freedom to choose your angle and perspective in post production and even create virtual camera movement and other cool effects. Insta360 by no means invented this idea but they were clever enough to shift their focus towards this use case. Add to that the marketing gold feature of the “invisible selfie-stick” (taking advantage of a dual-lens 360 camera’s blindspot between its lenses), brilliant “Flow State” stabilization and a powerful mobile app (Android & iOS) full of tricks, you’ll end up with a significant popularity boost for your products!

The One X and the wait for a true successor

The one camera that really proved to be an instant and long-lasting success for Insta360 was the One X which was released in 2018. A very compact & slick form factor, ease of use and very decent image quality (except in low light) plus the clever companion app breathed some much-needed life into a fairly wrinkled and deflated 360 video camera balloon. In early 2020 (you know, the days when most of us still didn’t know there was a global pandemic at our doorstep), Insta360 surprised us by not releasing a direct successor to everybody’s darling (the One X) but the modular One R, a flexible and innovative but slightly clunky brother to the One X. It wasn’t until the end of October that Insta360 finally revealed the true successor to the One X, the One X2.

In the months prior to the announcement of the One X2, I had actually thought about getting the original One X (I wasn’t fully convinced by the One R) but it was sold out in most places and there were some things that bothered me about the camera. To my delight, Insta360 seemed to have addressed most of the issues that me (and obviously many others) had with the original One X: They improved the relatively poor battery life by making room for a bigger battery, they added the ability to connect an external mic (both wirelessly through Bluetooth and via the USB-C port), they included a better screen on which you could actually see things and change settings in bright sunlight, they gave you the option to stick on lens guards for protecting the delicate protruding lenses and they made it more rugged including an IPX8 waterproof certification (up to 10m) and  a less flimsy thread for mounting it to a stick or tripod. All good then? Not quite. Just by looking at the spec sheet, people realized that there wasn’t any kind of upgrade in terms of video resolution or even just frame rates. It’s basically the same as the One X. It maxes out at 5.7k (5760×2880) at 30fps (with options for 25 and 24), 4k at 50fps and 3k at 100fps. The maximum bitrate is 125 Mbit/s. I’m sure quite a few folks had hoped for 8k (to get on par with the Kandao Qoocam 8K) or at the very least a 50/60fps option for 5.7k. Well, tough luck.

While I can certainly understand some of the frustration about the fact that there hasn’t been any kind of bump in resolution or frame rates in 2 years, putting 8K in such a small device and also have the footage work for editing on today’s mobile devices probably wasn’t a step Insta360 was ready to take because of the possibility of a worse user experience despite higher resolution image quality. Personally, I wasn’t bothered too much by this since the other hardware improvements over the One X were good enough for me to go ahead and make the purchase. And this is where my own frustrations began…

Insta360 & me: It’s somewhat difficult…

While I was browsing the official Insta360 store to place my order for the One X2, I noticed a pop-up that said that you could get 5% off your purchase if you sign up for their newsletter. They did exclude certain cameras and accessories but the One X2 was mentioned nowhere. So I thought, “Oh, great! This just comes at the right time!”, and signed up for the newsletter. After getting the discount code however, entering it during the check-out always returned a “Code invalid” error message. I took to Twitter to ask them about this – no reply. I contacted their support by eMail and they eventually and rather flippantly told me something like “Oh, we just forgot to put the X2 on the exclusion list, sorry, it’s not eligible!”. Oh yes, me and the Insta360 support were off to a great start!

Wanting to equip myself with the (for me) most important accessories I intended to purchase a pair of spare batteries and the microphone adapter (USB-C to 3.5mm). I could write a whole rant about how outrageous I find the fact that literally everyone seems to make proprietary USB-C to 3.5mm adapters that don’t work with other brands/products. E-waste galore! Anyway, there’s a USB-C to 3.5mm microphone adapter from Insta360 available for the One R and I thought, well maybe at least within the Insta360 ecosystem, there should be some cross-device compatibility. Hell no, they told me the microphone adapter for the One R doesn’t work with the One X2. Ok, so I need to purchase the more expensive new one for the X2 – swell! But wait, I can’t because while it’s listed in the Insta360 store, it’s not available yet. And neither are extra batteries. The next bummer. So I bought the Creator Kit including the “invisible” selfie-stick, a small tripod, a microSD card, a lens cap and a pair of lens guards.

A couple of weeks later, the package arrived – no problem, in the era of Covid I’m definitely willing to cut some slack in terms of delivery times and the merchandise is sent from China so it has quite a way to Germany. I opened the package, took out the items and checked them to see if anything’s broken. I noticed that one of the lens guards had a small blemish/scratch on it. I put them on the camera anyway thinking maybe it doesn’t really show in the footage. Well, it did. A bit annoying but stuff like that happens, a lemon. I contacted the support again. They wanted me to take a picture of the affected lens guard. Okay. I sent them the picture. They blatantly replied that I should just buy a new one from their store, basically insinuating that it was me who damaged the lens guard. What a terrible customer service! I suppose I would have mustered up some understanding for their behaviour if I had contacted them a couple of days or weeks later after actually using the X2 for some time outdoors where stuff can quickly happen. But I got in touch with them the same day the delivery arrived and they should have been able to see that since the delivery had a tracking number. Also, this item costs 25 bucks in the Insta360 store, probably a single one or a few cents in production and I wasn’t even asking about a pair but only one – why make such a fuss about it? So there was some back-and-forth and only after I threatened to return the whole package and asked for a complete refund they finally agreed to send me a replacement pair of lens guards at no extra cost. On a slightly positive note, they did arrive very quickly only a couple of days later.

Is the Insta360 One X2 actually a good camera?

So what an excessive prelude I have written! What about the camera itself? I have to admit that for the most part, it’s been a lot of fun so far after using it for about a month. The design is rugged yet still beautifully simplistic and compact, the image quality in bright, sunny conditions is really good (if you don’t mind that slightly over-sharpened wide-angle look and that it’s still “only” 5.7k – remember this resolution is for the whole 360 image so it’s not equivalent to a 5.7k “flat” image), the stabilization is generally amazing (as long as the camera and its sensor are not exposed to extreme physical shakes which the software stabilization can’t compensate for) and the reframing feature in combination with the camera’s small size and weight gives you immense flexibility in creating very interesting and extraordinary shots.

Sure, it also has some weaknesses: Despite having a 5.7k 360 resolution, if you want to export as a regular flat video, you are limited to 1080p. If you need your final video to be in UHD/4K non-360 resolution, this camera is not for you. The relatively small sensor size (I wasn’t able to find out the exact size for the X2 but I assume it’s the same as the One X, 1/2.3″) makes low-light situations at night or indoors a challenge despite a (fixed) aperture of f/2.0 – even a heavily overcast daytime sky can prove less than ideal. Yes, a slightly bigger sensor compared to its predecessors would have been welcome. The noticeable amount of image noise that is introduced by auto-exposure in such dim conditions can be reduced by exposing manually (you can set shutter speed and ISO) but then of course you just might end up with an image that’s quite dark. The small sensor also doesn’t allow for any fancy “cinematic” bokeh but in combination with the fixed focus it also has an upside that shouldn’t be underestimated for self-shooters: You don’t have to worry about a pulsating auto-focus or being out of focus as everything is always in focus. You can also shoot video in LOG (flatter image for more grading flexibility) and HDR (improved dynamic range in bright conditions) modes. Furthermore, there’s a dedicated non-360 video mode with a 150 degree field-of-view but except for the fact that you get a slight bump in resolution compared to flat reframed 360 video (1440p vs. 1080p) and smaller file sizes (you can also shoot your 5.7k in H.265 codec to save space), I don’t see me using this a lot as you lose all the flexibility in post.

While it’s good that all the stitching is done automatically and the camera does a fairly good job, it’s not perfect and you should definitely familiarize yourself with where the (video) stitchline goes to avoid it in the areas where you capture important objects or persons, particularly faces. As a rule of thumb when filming yourself or others you should always have one of the two lenses pointed towards you/the person and not face the side of the camera. It’s fairly easy to do if you usually have the camera in the same position relative to yourself but becomes more tricky when you include elaborate camera movements (which you probably will as the X2 basically invites you to do this!).

Regarding the audio, the internal 4-mic ambi-sonic set up can produce good results for ambient sound, particularly if you have the camera close to the sound source like when you have it on a stick pointing down and you are walking over fresh snow, dead leaves, gravel etc. For recording voices in good quality, you also need to be pretty close to the camera’s mics, having it on a fully extended selfie-stick isn’t ideal. If you want to use the X2 on an extended stick and talk to the camera you should use an external mic, either one that is directly connected to the camera or plugged into an external recorder, then having to sync audio and video later in post. As I have mentioned before, the X2 now does offer support for external mics via the USB-C charging port with the right USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter and also via Bluetooth. Insta360 highlights in their marketing that you can use Apple’s AirPods (Pro) but you can also other mics that work via Bluetooth. The audio sample rate of Bluetooth mics is currently limited to 16kHz by standard but depending on the used mic you can get decent audio. I’ll probably make a separate article on using external mics with the X2 once my USB-C to 3.5mm adapter arrives. Wait, does the X2 shoot 360 photos as well? Of course it does, they turn out quite decent, particularly with the new “Pure Shot” feature and the stichting is better than in video mode. It’s no secret though that the X2 has a focus on video with all its abilities and for those that mainly care about 360 photography for virtual tours etc., the offerings in the Ricoh Theta line will probably be the better choice.

The Insta360 mobile app

The Insta360 app (Android & iOS) might deserve its own article to get into detail but suffice it to say that while it can seem a bit overwhelming and cluttered occasionally and you also still experience glitches now and then, it’s very powerful and generally works well. Do note however that if you want to export in full 5.7k resolution as a 360 video you have to transfer the original files to a desktop computer and work with them in the (free) Insta360 Studio software (Windows/macOS) as export from the mobile app is limited to 4K. You should also be aware of the fact that neither the mobile app nor the desktop software works as a fully-fledged traditional video editor for immersive 360 video where you can have multiple clips on a timeline and arrange them for a story. In the mobile app, you do get such an editing environment (“Stories” – “My Stories” – “+ Create a story”) but while you can use your original spherical 360 footage here, you can only export the project as a (reframed) flat video (max resolution 2560×1440). If you need your export to be an actual 360 video with according metadata, you can only do this one clip at a time outside the “Stories” editing workspace. But as mentioned before, Insta360 focuses on the reframing of 360 video with its cameras and software, so not too many people might be bothered by that. One thing that really got on my nerves while editing within the app on an iPad: When you are connected to the X2 over WiFi, certain parts of the app that rely on a data connection don’t work, for instance you are not able to browse all the features of the shot lab (only those that have been cached before) or preview/download music tracks for the video. This is less of a problem on a phone where you still can have a mobile data connection while using a WiFi connection to the X2 (if you don’t mind using up mobile data) but on an iPad or any device that doesn’t have an alternative internet connection, it’s quite annoying. You have to download the clip, then disconnect from the X2, re-connect to your home WiFi and then download the track to use.

Who is the One X2 for?

Well, I’d say that it can be particularly useful for solo-shooters and solo-creators for several reasons: Most of all you don’t have to worry much about missing something important around you while shooting since you are capturing a 360 image and can choose the angle in post (reframing/keyframed reframing) if you export as a regular video. This can be extremely useful for scenarios where there’s a lot to see or happening around you, like if you are travel-vlogging from interesting locations or are reporting from within a crowd – or just generally if you want to do a piece-to-camera but also show the viewer what you are looking at the same moment. Insta360’s software stabilization is brilliant and comparable to a gimbal and the “invisible” selfie-stick makes it look like someone else is filming you. The stick and the compact form of the camera also lets you move the camera to places that seem impossible otherwise. With the right technique you can even do fake “drone” shots. Therefore it also makes sense to have the X2 in your tool kit just for special shots, even if you neither are a vlogger, a journalist nor interested in “true” 360 video.

A worthy upgrade from the One X / One R?

Should you upgrade if you have a One X or One R? Yes and no. If you are happy with the battery life of the One X or the form factor of the One R and were mainly hoping for improved image quality in terms of resolution / higher frame rates, then no, the One X2 does not do the trick, it’s more of a One X 1.5 in some ways. However, if you are bothered by some “peripheral” issues like poor battery life, very limited functionality of the screen/display, lack of external microphone support (One X) or the slightly clunky and cumbersome form factor / handling (One R) and you are happy with a 5.7k resolution, the X2 is definitely the better camera overall. If you have never owned a 360 (video) camera, this is a great place to start, despite its quirks – just be aware that Insta360’s support can be surprisingly cranky and poor in case you run into any issues.

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