smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#35 Using external microphones with iPhones when shooting video — 1. December 2020

#35 Using external microphones with iPhones when shooting video

I usually don’t follow the stats for my blog but when I recently did check on what articles have been the most popular so far, I noticed that a particular one stuck out by a large margin and that was the one on using external microphones with Android devices. So I thought if people seem to be interested in that, why not make an equivalent for iOS, that is for iPhones? So let’s jump right into it.

First things first: The Basics

A couple of basic things first: Every iPhone has a built-in microphone for recording video that, depending on the use case, might already be good enough if you can position the phone close to your talent/interviewee. Having your mic close to the sound source is key in every situation to get good audio! As a matter of fact, the iPhone has multiple internal mics and uses different ones for recording video (next to the lens/lenses) and pure audio (bottom part). When doing audio-only for radio etc., it’s relatively easy to get close to your subject and get good results. It’s not the best way when recording video though if you don’t want to shove your phone into someone’s face. In this case you can and should significantly improve the audio quality of your video by using an external mic connected to your iPhone – never forget that audio is very important! While the number of Android phone makers that support the use of external mics within their native camera app is slowly growing, there are still many (most?) Android devices out there that don’t support this for the camera app that comes with the phone (it’s possible with basically every Android device if you use 3rd party camera apps though!). You don’t have to worry about this when shooting with the native camera app of an iPhone. The native camera app will recognize a connected external mic automatically and use it as the audio input when recording video. When it comes to 3rd party video recording apps, many of them like Filmic Pro, MoviePro or Mavis support the use of external mics as well but with some of them you have to choose the audio input in the settings so definitely do some testing before using it the first time on a critical job. Although I’m looking at this from a videographer’s angle, most of what I am about to elaborate on also applies to recording with audio recording apps. And in the same way, when I say “iPhone”, I could just as well say “iPad” or “iPod Touch”. So there are basically three different ways of connecting an external mic to your iPhone: via the 3.5mm headphone jack, via the Lightning port and via Bluetooth (wireless).

3.5mm headphone jack & adapter

Left: iPhone SE 2020 with Lightning port only, Right: iPhone 6 with Lightning port and 3.5mm headphone jack.

With all the differences between Android and iOS both in terms of hardware and software, the 3.5mm headphone jack was, for a while, a somewhat unifying factor – that was until Apple decided to drop the headphone jack for the iPhone 7 in 2016. This move became a wildly debated topic, surely among the – let’s be honest – comparatively small community of mobile videographers and audio producers relying on connecting external mics to their phones but also among more casual users because they couldn’t just plug in their (often very expensive) headphones to their iPhone anymore. While the first group is definitely more relevant for readers of this blog, the second was undoubtedly responsible for putting the issue on the public debate map. Despite the considerable outcry, Apple never looked back. They did offer a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter – but sold it separately. I’m sure they have been making a fortune since, don’t ask how many people had to buy it more than once because they lost, displaced or broke the first one. A whole bunch of Android phone makers obviously thought Apple’s idea was a progressive step forward and started ditching the headphone jack as well, equipping their phones only with a USB-C port. Unlike with Apple however, the consumer still had the choice to choose a new phone that had a headphone jack and in a rather surprising turn of events, some companies like Huawei and Google actually backtracked and re-introduced the headphone jack, at least for certain models. Anyway, if you happen to have an older iPhone (6s and earlier) you can still use the wide variety of external microphones that can be connected via the 3.5mm headphone jack without worrying much about adapters and dongles.

Left: 3.5mm connector with 2 rings / 3 conductors (TRS) / Right: 3.5mm connector with 3 rings / 4 conductors (TRRS – smartphone compatible)

Be aware of the fact though that 3.5mm connectors on microphones/audio interfaces come in two varieties (TRS and TRRS) of which only one (TRRS) works directly with smartphones. They basically look the same upon first glance but the TRRS pin has three small black rings whereas a TRS pin (which is made for ‘regular’ cameras) only has two. You can however use TRS mics on smartphones with a TRS-to-TRRS adapter like the SC4 from Rode. A very popular mic solution in this regard is Rode’s Wireless Go ultra-compact wireless system. The cable that is included to connect the receiver to a device has a TRS connector for use with DSLRs/DSLMs. It won’t work out of the box with your iPhone despite the fact that it fits perfectly into the phone’s headphone jack (or the Lightning-to-3.5 adapter). You will need the aforementioned SC4 adapter or buy a dedicated TRS-to-TRRS cable like Rode’s SC7. The same goes for another Rode bestseller, the VideoMicro shotgun mic. Other companies like Saramonic (Blink 500 Pro wireless system) and Sennheiser (MKE 200, shotgun mic) were mindful enough to include both a TRS and TRRS cable so it’s easy to use with both DSLRs/DSLMs and mobile devices. There are also many mobile-focused mics that come exclusively with a TRRS connector: Rode’s popular smartLav+ lavalier mic, IK Multimedia’s classic iRig Mic and the company’s groundbreaking audio interface iRigPre which lets you use any XLR mic with your phone, just like Saramonic’s SmartRig II – both interfaces also have 3.5mm headphone jacks that allow for audio monitoring. The Saramonic SmartRig+ even lets you connect two XLR mics and adjust their input gain separately. Rode on the other hand has an adapter (SC6) that lets you connect two smartLavs (or other TRRS mics) to your mobile device and even monitor the audio via a third 3.5mm port. Unlike with Saramonic’s SmartRig interfaces though, you can’t control the input gain, neither for the audio input in general nor separately for each of the two connected mics. The signal also isn’t split into different channels so you can’t adjust the levels independently in post. It still can come in handy for interview situations where you have to interviewees or just one but also want the audio from the interviewer.

Lightning port

Lightning connector and Lightning port.

While most Android users probably still have fairly fresh memories of a different charging port standard (microUSB) from the one that is common now (USB-C), only seasoned iPhone aficionados will remember the days of the 30-pin connector that lasted until the iPhone 5 introduced the Lightning port as a new standard in 2012. And while microUSB mic solutions for Android could be counted on one hand and USB-C offerings took forever to become a reality, there were dedicated Lightning mics even before Apple decided to kill the headphone jack. The most prominent one and a veritable trailblazer was probably IK Multimedia’s iRig Mic HD and its successor, the iRig Mic HD 2. IK Multimedia’s successor to the iRigPre, the iRigPre HD comes with a Lightning cable as well. But you can also find options from other well-known companies like Zoom (iQ6, iQ7), Shure (MV88/MV88+), Sennheiser (HandMic Digital, MKE 2 Digital), Rode (Video Mic Me-L), Samson (Go Mic Mobile) or Saramonic (Blink 500). The Saramonic Blink 500 comes in multiple variations, two of them specifically targeted at iOS users: the Blink 500 B3 with one transmitter and the B4 with two transmitters. The small receiver plugs right into the Lightning port and is therefore an intriguingly compact solution, particularly when using it with a gimbal. Saramonic also has the SmartRig Di and SmartRig+ Di audio interfaces that let you connect one or two XLR mics to your device. IK Multimedia offers two similar products with the iRig Pro and the iRig Pro Duo. Rode recently released the USB-C-to-Lightning patch cable SC15 which lets you use their Video Mic NTG (which comes with TRS/TRRS cables) with an iPhone. There’s also a Lightning connector version of the SC6 breakout box, the SC6-L which lets you connect two smartLavs or TRRS mics to your phone. I have dropped lots of product names here so far but you know what? Even if you don’t own any of them, you most likely already have an external mic at hand: Of course I’m talking about the headset that comes included with the iPhone! It can’t match the audio quality of other dedicated external mics but it’s quite solid and can come in handy when you have nothing else available. One thing you should keep in mind when using any kind of microphone connected via the iPhone’s Lightning port: unless you are using a special adapter with an additional charge-through port, you will not be able to charge your device at the same time like you can/could with older iOS devices that had a headphone jack.

Wireless/Bluetooth

Using the Instamic as a wireless Bluetooth mic with Filmic Pro.

I have mentioned quite a few wireless systems before (Rode Wireless Go, Saramonic Blink 500/Blink 500 Pro, Samson Go Mic Mobile) that I won’t list here (again) for one reason: While the TX/RX system of something like the Rode Wireless Go streams audio wirelessly between its units, the receiver unit (RX) needs to be connected to the iPhone via a cable or (in the case of the Blink 500) at least a connector. So strictly speaking it’s not really wireless when it comes to how the audio signal gets into the phone. Now, are there any ‘real’ wireless solutions out there? Yes, but the technology hasn’t evolved to a standard that can match wired or semi-wired solutions in terms of both quality and reliability. While there could be two ways of wireless audio into a phone (wifi and Bluetooth), only one (Bluetooth) is currently in use for external microphones. This is unfortunate because the Bluetooth protocol that is used for sending audio back from an external accessory to the phone (the so-called Hands Free Profile, HFP) is limited to a sample rate of 16kHz (probably because it was created with headset phone calls in mind). Professional broadcast audio usually has a sample rate of 44.1 or 48kHz. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any situations in which using a Bluetooth mic with its 16kHz limitation can actually be good enough. The Instamic was primarily designed to be a standalone ultra-compact high quality audio recorder which records 48/96 kHz files to its internal 8GB storage but can also be used as a truly wireless Bluetooth mic in HFP mode. The 16kHz audio I got when recording with Filmic Pro (here’s a guide on how to use the Instamic with Filmic Pro) was surprisingly decent. This probably has to do with the fact that the Instamic’s mic capsules are high quality unlike with most other Bluetooth mics. One maybe unexpected option is to use Apple’s AirPods/AirPods Pro as a wireless Bluetooth mic input. According to BBC Mobile Journalism trainer Marc Blank-Settle, the audio from the AirPods Pro is “good but not great”. He does however point out that in times of Covid-19, being able to connect to other people’s AirPods wirelessly can be a welcome trick to avoid close contact. Another interesting wireless solution comes from a company called Mikme. Their microphone/audio recorder works with a dedicated companion video recording app via Bluetooth and automatically syncs the quality audio (44.1, 48 or 96kHz) to the video after the recording has been stopped. By doing this, they work around the 16kHz Bluetooth limitation for live audio streaming. While the audio quality itself seems to be great, the somewhat awkward form factor and the fact that it only works with its best feature in their own video recording app but not other camera apps like Filmic Pro, are noticeable shortcomings (you CAN manually sync the Mikme’s audio files to your Filmic or other 3rd party app footage in a video editor). At least regarding the form factor they have released a new version called the Mikme Pocket which is more compact and basically looks/works like a transmitter with a cabled clip-on lavalier mic. One more important tip that applies to all the aforementioned microphone solutions: If you are shooting outdoors, always have some sort of wind screen / wind muff for your microphone with you as even a light breeze can cause noticeable noise.

Micpocalpyse soon?

Looking into the nearby future, some fear that Apple might be pulling another “feature kill” soon, dropping the Lightning port as well and thereby eliminating all physical connections to the iPhone. While there are no clear indications that this is actually imminent, Apple surely would be the prime suspect to push this into the market. If that really happens however, it will be a considerable blow to iPhone videographers as long as there’s no established high-quality and reliable wireless standard for external mics.

To wrap things up, I have asked a couple of mobile journalists / content creators using iPhones what their favorite microphone solution is when recording video (or audio in general):

Wytse Vellinga (Mobile Storyteller at Omrop Fryslân, The Netherlands): “When I am out shooting with a smartphone I want high quality worry-free audio. That is why I prefer to use the well-known brands of microphones. Currently there are three microphones I use a lot. The Sennheiser MKE200, the Rode Wireless Go and the Mikme Pocket. The Sennheiser is the microphone that is on the phone constantly when taking shots and capturing the atmospheric sound and short sound bites from people. For longer interviews I use the wireless microphones from Mikme and Rode. They offer me freedom in shooting because I don’t have to worry about the cables.”

Philip Bromwell (Digital Native Content Editor at RTÉ, Ireland): “My current favourite is the Rode Wireless Go. Being wireless, it’s a very flexible option for recording interviews and gathering localised nat sound. It has proven to be reliable too, although the original windshield was a weakness (kept detaching).”

Nick Garnett (BBC Reporter, England & the world): “The mic I always come back to is the Shure MV88+ – not so much for video – but for audio work: it uses a non proprietary cable – micro usb to lightning. It allows headphones to plug into the bottom and so I can use it for monitoring the studio when doing a live insert and the mic is so small it hides in my hand if I have to be discrete. For video work? Rode VideoMicro or the Boya clone. It’s a semi-rifle, it comes with a deadcat and an isolation mount and it costs €30 … absolute bargain.”

Neal Augenstein (Radio Reporter at WTOP Washington DC, USA): “If I’m just recording a one-on-one interview, I generally use the built-in microphone of the iPhone, with a foam windscreen. I’ve yet to find a microphone that so dramatically improves the sound that it merits carrying it around. In an instance where someone’s at a podium or if I’m shooting video, I love the Rode Wireless Go. Just clipping it on the podium, without having to run cable, it pairs automatically, and the sound is predictably good. The one drawback – the tiny windscreen is tough to keep on.”

Nico Piro (Special Correspondent for RAI, Italy & the world): “To record ambient audio (effects or natural as you want to name it) I use a Rode Video Mic Go (light, no battery needed, perfect for both phones and cameras) even if I must say that the iPhone’s on-board mic performs well, too. For Facebook live I use a handheld mic by Polsen, designed for mobile, it is reliable and has a great cardioid pickup pattern. When it comes to interviews, the Rode Wireless Go beats everything for its compact dimensions and low weight. When you are recording in big cites like New York and you are worried about radio interferences the good old cabled mics are always there to help, so Rode’s SmartLav+ is a very good option. I’m also using it for radio production and I am very sad that Rode stopped improving its Rode Rec app which is still good but stuck in time when it comes to file sharing. Last but not least is the Instamic. It takes zero space and it is super versatile…if you use native camera don’t forget to clap for sync!”

Bianca Maria Rathay (Freelance iPhone videographer, Germany): “My favorite external microphone for the iPhone is the RODE Wireless Go in combination with a SmartLav+ (though it works on its own also). The mic lets your interviewee walk around freely, works indoors as well as outdoors and has a full sound. Moreover it is easy to handle and monitor once you have all the necessary adapters in place and ready.”

Leonor Suarez (TV Journalist and News Editor at RTPA, Spain): “My favorite microphone solutions are: For interviews: Rode Rodelink Filmmaker Kit. It is reliable, robust and has a good quality-price relationship. I’ve been using it for years with excellent results. For interviews on the go, unexpected situations or when other mics fail: IK Multimedia iRig Mic Lav. Again, good quality-price relationship. I always carry them with me in my bag and they have allowed me to record interviews, pieces to camera and unexpected stories. What I also love is that you can check the audio with headphones while recording.”

Marcel Anderwert (Mobile Journalist at SRF, Switzerland): “For more than a year, I have been shooting all my reports for Swiss TV with one of these two mics: Voice Technologies’ VT506Mobile (with it’s long cable) or the Rode Wireless Go, my favourite wireless mic solution. The VT506Mobile works with iOS and Android phones, it’s a super reliable lavalier and the sound quality for interviews is just great. Rode’s Wireless Go gives me more freedom of movement. And it can be used in 3 ways: As a small clip-on mic with inbuilt transmitter, with a plugged in lavalier mic – and in combination with a simple adapter even as a handheld mic.”

As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to drop them below or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you would like to be notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Takeaways Telegram newsletter about what happened in the world of mobile videography / content creation during the last four weeks, subscribe to my Telegram channel.

#34 Apple is about to give us 25fps in the iPhone’s native camera app (finally catching up to Windows Phones) — 17. November 2020

#34 Apple is about to give us 25fps in the iPhone’s native camera app (finally catching up to Windows Phones)

One of the things that has mostly remained a blindspot in video recording with the native camera app of a smartphone, is the ability to shoot in PAL frame rates, i.e. 25/50fps. The native camera apps of smartphones usually record with a frame rate of 30/60 fps. This is fine for many use cases but it’s not ideal under two circumstances: a) if you have to deliver your video for traditional professional broadcast in a PAL broadcast standard region (Europe, Australia, parts of Africa, Asia, South America etc.) b) If you have a multi-camera shoot with dedicated ‘regular’ cameras that only shoot 25/50fps. Sure, it’s relatively easy to capture in 25fps on your phone by using a 3rd party app like Filmic Pro or Protake but it still would be a welcome addition to any native camera app as long as this silly global frame rate divide (don’t get me started on this!) continues to exist. There was actually a prominent example of a phone maker that offered 25fps as a recording option in their (quasi)-native camera app very early on: Nokia and later Microsoft on their Lumia phones running Windows Phone / Windows Mobile. But as we all know by now, Windows Phone / Windows Mobile never really stood a chance against Android and iOS (read about its potential here) and has all but disappeared from the smartphone market. When LG introduced its highly advanced manual video mode in the native camera app of the V10, I had high hopes they would include a 25/50fps frame rate option as they were obviously aiming at more ambitious videographers. But no, the years have passed and current offerings from the Korean company like the G8X, V60 and Wing still don’t have it. It’s probably my only major gripe with LG’s otherwise outstanding flagship camera app. It was up to Sony to rekindle the flame, giving us 25fps natively in the pro camera app of the Xperia 1 II earlier this year. 

And now, as spotted by BBC multimedia trainer Mark Robertson yesterday, Apple has added the option to record with a frame rate of 25fps in the native camera app on their latest iOS public beta 14.3. So far, you were only able to record video at 24, 30 and 60fps (if you exclude the dedicated slow-motion options 120/240fps). This is a pretty big deal and I honestly didn’t expect Apple to make that move. But of course this is a more than welcome surprise! Robertson is using a new iPhone 12 Pro Max but his colleague Marc Blank-Settle also confirmed that this feature trickles down to the very old iPhone 6s, that is if you run the latest public beta version of iOS. The iPhone 6 and older models are excluded as they are not able to run iOS 14. While it’s not guaranteed that all new beta features make it to the finish line for the final release, I consider it to be very likely. So how do you set your iPhone’s native camera app to shoot video in 25fps? Go into your iPhone’s general settings, scroll down to “Camera” and then select “Record Video”. Now locate the “Show PAL Formats” toggle switch and activate it, then choose either “1080p HD at 25fps” or “4K at 25fps”. Unfortunately, there’s no 50fps option at this moment, I’m pretty sure it will come at some point in the future though. I recorded several clips with my iPhone SE 2020 and tested the frame rate via the MediaInfo app which revealed a clean 25.000fps, Marc Blank-Settle on the other hand apparently got some minimal deviation in his testing, nothing to write home about though I suppose. What other implications does this have? Well, many interested in this topic have been complaining about Apple’s own iOS editing app iMovie not supporting 25/50fps export. You can import and edit footage recorded in that frame rates no problem but it will be converted to 30/60fps upon export. I believe that there’s a good chance now that Apple will support 25/50fps export in a future update of iMovie because why bother integrating this into the camera app when you can’t deliver in the same frame rate? Android phone makers in the meantime should pay heed and consider adding 25/50fps video recording to their native camera apps sooner than later. It may not be relevant for the majority of conventional smartphone users but it also doesn’t hurt and you can make certain “special interest” groups very happy! Why exactly Apple has finally decided to make this move now is anybody’s guess. If you are not part of the iOS public beta program you can follow this guide by Lifewire to sign up. I highly recommend that you don’t run the beta on your daily driver phone as beta versions often still contain bugs that can cause trouble in everyday usage. If you have an older secondary iOS device that is eligible for the iOS 14.3 beta, then go ahead!

As always, feel free to comment here or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this blog post, do consider subscribing to my Telegram channel to get notified about new blog posts and also receive my Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter including 10 interesting things that happened during the past four weeks in the world of mobile content creation/tech.

#27 No, you don’t need a second video track for storytelling! (… and why it really doesn’t matter that much anymore) — 25. June 2020

#27 No, you don’t need a second video track for storytelling! (… and why it really doesn’t matter that much anymore)

As I pointed out in one of my very first blog posts here (in German), smartphone videography still comes with a whole bunch of limitations (although some of them are slowly but surely going away or have at least been mitigated). Yet one central aspect of the fascinating philosophy behind phoneography (that’s the term I now prefer for referring to content creation with smartphones in general) has always been one of “can do” instead of “can’t do” despite the shortcomings. The spirit of overcoming obvious obstacles, going the extra mile to get something done, trailblazing new forms of storytelling despite not having all the bells and whistles of a whole multi-device or multi-person production environment seems to be a key factor. With this in mind I always found it a bit irritating and slightly “treacherous” to this philosophy when people proclaimed that video editing apps without the ability to have a second video track in the editing timeline are not suitable for storytelling. “YOU HAVE TO HAVE A VIDEO EDITOR WITH AT LEAST TWO VIDEO TRACKS!” Bam! If you are just starting out creating your first videos you might easily be discouraged if you hear such a statement from a seasoned video producer. Now let me just make one thing clear before digging a little deeper: I’m not saying having two (or multiple) video tracks in a video editing app as opposed to just one isn’t useful. It most definitely is. It enables you to do things you can’t or can’t easily do otherwise. However, and I can’t stress this enough, it is by no means a prerequisite for phoneography storytelling – in my very humble opinion, that is. 

I can see why someone would support the idea of having two video tracks as being a must for creating certain types of videography work. For instance it could be based on the traditional concept of a news report or documentary featuring one or more persons talking (most often as part of an interview) and you don’t want to have the person talking occupying the frame all the time but still keep the statement going. This can help in many ways: On a very basic level, it can work as a means for visual variety to reduce the amount of “talking heads” air time. It might also help to cover up some unwanted visual distraction like when another person stops to look at the interviewee or the camera. But it can also exemplify something that the person is talking about, creating a meaningful connection. If you are interviewing the director of a theater piece who talks about the upcoming premiere you could insert a short clip showing the theater building from the outside, a clip of a poster announcing the premiere or a clip of actors playing a scene during the rehearsal while the director is still talking. The way you do it is by adding the so-called “b-roll” clip as a layer to the primary clip in the timeline of the editing app (usually muting the audio of the b-roll or at least reducing the volume). Without a second video track it can be difficult or even impossible to pull off this mix of video from one clip with the audio from another. But let’s stop here for a moment: Is this really the ONLY legitimate way to tell a story? Sure, as I just pointed out, it does have merit and can be a helpful tool – but I strongly believe that it’s also possible to tell a good story without this “trick” – and therefore without the need for a second video track. Here are some ideas:

WYSIWYH Style

Most of us have probably come across the strange acronym WYSIWYG: “What you see is what you get” – it’s a concept from computational UI design where it means that the preview you are getting in a (text/website/CMS) editor will very much resemble the way things actually look after creating/publishing. If you want a word to appear bold in your text and it’s bold after marking it in the editor, this is WYSIWYG. If you have to punch in code like <b>bold</b>  into your text editing interface to make the published end result bold, that’s not WYSIWYG. So I dare to steal this bizarre acronym in a slightly altered version and context: WYSIWYH – “What you see is what you hear” – meaning that your video clips always have the original sound. So in the case of an interview like described before, using a video editing app with only one video track, you would either present the interview in one piece (if it’s not very long) or cut it into smaller chunks with “b-roll” footage in between rather than overlaid (if you don’t want the questions included). Sure, it will look or feel a bit different, not “traditional”, but is that bad? Can’t it still be a good video story? One fairly technical problem we might encounter here is getting smooth audio transitions between clips when the audio levels of the two clips are very different. Video editing apps usually don’t have audio-only cross-fades (WHY is that, I ask!) and a cross-fade involving both audio AND video might not be the preferred transition of choice as most of the time you want to use a plain cut. There are ways to work around this however or just accept it as a stylistic choice for this way of storytelling. 

One-Shot Method

Another very interesting way that results in a much easier edit without the need for a second video track (if any at all) but includes more pre-planning in advance for a shoot is the one-shot approach. In contrast to what many one-man-band video journalists do (using a tripod with a static camera), this means you need to be an active camera operator at the same time to catch different visual aspects of the scene. This probably also calls for some sort of stabilization solution like phone-internal OIS/EIS, a rig, a gimbal or at least a steady hand and some practice. Journalist Kai Rüsberg has been an advocate of this style and collected some good tips here (blog post is in German but Google Translate should help you getting the gist). As a matter of fact, there’s even a small selection of noticeable feature films created in such a (risky) manner, among them “Russian Ark” (2002) and “Viktoria” (2015). One other thing we need to take into consideration is that if there’s any kind of asking questions involved, the interviewer’s voice will be “on air” so the audio should be good enough for this as well. I personally think that this style can be (if done right!) quite fascinating and more visually immersive than an edited package with static separate shots but it poses some challenges and might not be suited for everybody and every job/situation. Still, doing something like that might just expand your storytelling capabilities by trying something different. A one-track video editing app will suffice to add some text, titles, narration, fade in/out etc.

Shediting

A unique almagam of a traditional multi-clip approach and the one-shot method is a technique I called “shediting” in an earlier blog post. This involves a certain feature that is present in many native and some 3rd party camera apps: By pausing the recording instead of stopping it in between shots, you can cram a whole bunch of different shots into a single clip. Just like with one-shot, this can save you lots of time in the edit (sometimes things need to go really fast!) but requires more elaborate planning and comes with a certain risk. It also usually means that everything needs to be filmed within a very compact time frame and one location/area because in most cases you can’t close the app or have the phone go to sleep without actually stopping the recording. Nonetheless, I find this to be an extremely underrated and widely unknown “hack” to piece together a package on the go! Do yourself a favor and try to tell a short video story that way!

Voice-Over

A way to tackle rough audio transitions (or bad/challenging sound in general) while also creating a sense of continuity between clips is to use a voice-over narration in post production, most mobile editors offer this option directly within the app and even if you happen to come across one that doesn’t (or like Videoshop, hides it behind a paywall) you can easily record a voice-over in a separate audio recording app and import the audio to your video editor although it’s a bit more of a hassle if you need to redo it when the timing isn’t quite right. One example could be splicing your interview into several clips in the timeline and add “b-roll” footage with a voice-over in between. Of course you should see to it that the voice-over is somewhat meaningful and not just redundant information or is giving away the gist / key argument of an upcoming statement of the interviewee. You could however build/rephrase an actual question into the voice-over. Instead of having the original question “What challenges did you experience during the rehearsal process?” in the footage, you record a voice-over saying “During the rehearsal process director XY faced several challenges both on and off the stage…” for the insert clip followed by the director’s answer to the question. It might also help in such a situation to let the voice-over already begin at the end of the previous clip and flow into the subsequent one to cover up an obvious change in the ambient sound of the different clips. Of course, depending on the footage, the story and situation, this might not always work perfectly.

Text/Titles

Finally, with more and more media content being consumed muted on smartphones “on the go” in public, one can also think about having text and titles as an important narrative tool, particularly if there’s no interview involved (of course a subtitled interview would also be just fine!). This only works however if your editing app has an adequate title tool, nothing too fancy but at least covering the basics like control over fonts, size, position, color etc. (looking at you, iMovie for iOS!). Unlike adding a second video track, titles don’t tax the processor very much so even ultra-budget phones will be able to handle it.

Now, do you still remember the second part of this article’s title, the one in parentheses? I have just gone into lengths to explain why I think it’s not always necessary to use a video editing app with at least two video tracks to create a video story with your phone, so why would I now be saying that after all it doesn’t really matter that much anymore? Well, if you look back a whole bunch of years (say around 2013/2014) when the phoneography movement really started to gather momentum, the idea of having two video tracks in a video editing app was not only a theoretical question for app developers, thinking about how advanced they WANTED their app to be. It was also very much a plain technical consideration, particularly for Android where the processing power of devices ranged from quite weak to quite powerful. Processing multiple video streams in HD resolution simultaneously was no small feat at the time for a mobile processor, to a small degree this might even still be true today. This meant that not only was there a (very) limited selection of video editing apps with the ability to handle more than just one video track at the same time, but even when an app like KineMaster or PowerDirector generally supported the use of multiple video tracks, this feature was only available for certain devices, excluding phones and tablets with very basic processors that weren’t up to the task. Now this has very much changed over the last years with SoCs (System-on-a-chip) becoming more and more powerful, at least when it comes to handling video footage in FHD 1080p resolution as opposed to UHD/4K! Sure, I bet there’s still a handful of (old) budget Android devices out there that can’t handle two tracks of HD video in an editing app but mostly, having the ability to use at least two video tracks is not really tied to technical restraints anymore – if the app developers want their app to have multi-track editing then they should be able to integrate that. And you can definitely see that an increasing number of video editing apps have (added) this feature – one that’s really good, cross-platform and free without watermark is VN which I wrote about in an earlier article.

So, despite having argued that two video tracks in an editing app is not an absolute prerequisite for producing a good video story on your phone, the fact that nowadays many apps and basically all devices support this feature very much reduces the potential conflict that could arise from such an opinion. I do hope however that the mindset of the phoneography movement continues to be one of “can do” instead of “can’t do”, exploring new ways of storytelling, not just producing traditional formats with new “non-traditional” devices.

As usual, feel free to drop a comment or get in touch on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this blog, consider signing up for my Telegram channel t.me/smartfilming.

#26 Checking detailed properties of video clips on Android and iOS — 16. June 2020

#26 Checking detailed properties of video clips on Android and iOS

Have you ever had sleepless nights wondering whether the video recording app you are using really shoots in the frame rate and bitrate that it says it does? What’s the codec of the video file that was just sent to me? And (how much) does my editing app of choice crunch the bitrate (“quality”) of the original clips when exporting the project? No? Good for you, you may skip this article! But since you are already here you might as well read it anyway! I’m going to look at three different apps, one Android-only, one iOS-only and one that is available for both Google’s and Apple’s mobile platform.

You might ask, “Do I really need an extra app to get some basic info about a video file? I can do that with a keyboard shortcut on my desktop computer!”. Well, yes and no. That depends on what you consider to be “basic info”. Generally speaking, it’s a lot easier to access some standard file properties on Android than on iOS. Not only does pretty much every device come with a file manager that actually deserves the name but you will also be able to get file size, file container format and the resolution from the device’s Gallery app. Usually, an option labeled “Details” or “Info” is available in a menu after selecting a video clip. One would think that such trivialities should also be accessible from iOS’s Camera Roll, but … no. In case you don’t know, “Gallery” (Android) and “Camera Roll” (iOS) refer to the “image bucket” where all photos and videos go unless they are stored directly within an app. The only info about a video you get in Apple’s Camera Roll is the length of the video. Yes, there’s a way to get a little bit more data without installing a 3rd party app: Select a clip in the Camera Roll and share-copy it to iOS’s “Files” app by choosing “Save to Files” from the share options. Tap on “On My iPhone/iPad” and select any folder (or create a new one!) where you want the copy to go, then tap on “Save” in the top-right corner. Next, open the Files app, locate the file and long press on it. From the pop-up menu, select “Info”. You will now at least know the file size and the resolution (“Dimensions”) of the video. A tad tedious? Seriously? Ok…

“Metapho” for iOS.

Head on over to the Apple AppStore and download an app called Metapho (shout-out to Mr Marc Blank-Settle who initially pointed me towards it). The app is free (never mind the App Store always telling you that it’s “processing payment” when downloading an app, even if it’s free!) and will give you the following info for video files: File container format (usually it’s a Quicktime Movie aka .mov), length, frame rate, resolution, file size and video codec (in most cases either H.264 or the newer HEVC/H.265). There’s an in-app purchase for 4.49€ but it doesn’t give you more in-depth specs, “only” other additional features like removing or altering the metadata. If you need to dig deeper and are curious about video and audio bitrates, audio codec, audio sample rate etc. you will need another app though.

“VidTrim” for Android.

But first, let’s move on to Android for a second. If you want more detailed information about a video file than you can pull from the system’s Gallery app or file manager, go have a look at an app called VidTrim. VidTrim is primarily meant to be a simple one clip video editor with which you can trim a clip, transcode it or extract the audio as an mp3 file. But I don’t think I have ever used it for such purposes. Instead, it’s my go-to app for moderately detailed info about a video’s properties: resolution (“Picture Size”), file size, rotation, frame rate, audio codec, video codec, video bitrate and audio bitrate. There’s a paid version for 3.29€ by the name of VidTrim Pro but unless you are bothered by the ads or want to export a video from the app without a watermark, you are totally fine with the free version.

“MediaInfo” for Android and iOS.

If the metadata available in VidTrim is still not good enough for you, you should check out the app MediaInfo which is also available for iOS (although with a little catch). MediaInfo is a well-known standard tool on desktop computers for many video production professionals. There was a time when I wished, MediaInfo would launch a mobile app. And well, they did in late 2018! The UI isn’t really pretty to look at when viewed in portrait orientation (scaling needs to be improved!) so unless you are using it on a tablet, you should always hold the device in landscape mode when working with MediaInfo. I will refrain from listing every single video file property that MediaInfo gives you because, taking the risk I might be wrong on that after all, it appears to me that it basically exposes every bit of metadata there is. So if you really want to go down the rabbit hole, have at it! MediaInfo is free without any ads and full core functionality. There’s the option to support the development of the app with a subscription of 5€ per year, the bonus features including the use of a dark mode are not really spectacular though. Before wrapping this up, I need to add a quick note about using the iOS version of MediaInfo, coming full circle so to speak. While the app’s functionality is no different from the Android version, accessing files can be really painful if the file you want to check out is located within the Camera Roll and not the Files app. For some reason, MediaInfo doesn’t access the Camera Roll, but only the Files app. It’s also not possible to share to MediaInfo from the Camera Roll. This basically means that you need to copy the file you want to inspect from the Camera Roll to the Files app to access it from MediaInfo. As you might remember I explained how to do just that earlier on. It ain’t pretty, but that’s the way it is at the moment. I have contacted the developer about this and they have acknowledged the problem so there might be a fix in the near future.

One last thing: If you only need certain file properties of a video, you might be able to see those in the media library of advanced camera apps already, but the info is usually limited and it’s also good to double check outside the app you shot your footage with.

As usual, comments and questions are welcome here or on Twitter @smartfilming. If you like my blog in general, consider signing up for my Telegram channel t.me/smartfilming.

Download Metapho for iOS

Download VidTrim for Android

Download MediaInfo for Android or iOS

#25 Transferring big (video) files wirelessly between Android and iOS with mobile apps — 12. June 2020

#25 Transferring big (video) files wirelessly between Android and iOS with mobile apps

One of the most fascinating and convenient things about a good modern smartphone is that it lets you do a whole video production workflow involving capturing, editing and publishing on a single device, thereby offering the opportunity to eliminate the tedious but usually mandatory process of having to transfer media files between several devices to get all this done. Depending on the situation however, there’s still a certain need for file transfer solutions. You might be shooting on a phone but want to edit on a tablet with a larger screen, someone else could be the one editing your captured footage or you want to receive footage from another person to incorporate into your phone edit. Of course, nowadays, we want everything to be wireless if possible.

Both major mobile platforms, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android include the option to wirelessly transfer files to another (nearby) device running the same operating system, using Bluetooth for the devices to find and connect to each other and a WiFi protocol for the actual transfer – no internet connection required! Apple provides the easier and more straight-forward way with its AirDrop feature baked right into the OS while Google requires you (and the receiver) to install its Files by Google app (they also seem to be working on an AirDrop equivalent called “Nearby Sharing” that could launch with the next official version of Android, Android 11). Things get a bit more complicated however if you want to transfer files between the two platforms. Don’t despair though, you do have options depending on what kind of transfer method you prefer.

There are basically four different ways: cloud, temp cloud, device-to-device with internet and device-to-device without internet. You will need an active internet connection for the first three options, you won’t need one for the fourth.

Cloud

I’m sure most of us are pretty familiar with some kind of cloud storage service: Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive, Box etc. You can upload files to a cloud server and access/download them from anywhere, anywhere with an internet connection that is. The good thing is that no matter what mobile platform you are on, you already have some free cloud storage at your fingertips: Google gives you 15GB of free cloud storage on Google Drive and unless you are rocking a very recent Huawei phone, using an Android device basically means you already have a Google account and Google Drive pre-installed on your phone. Apple is a bit more stingy and gives you only 5GB of free iCloud storage. And even if we ignore the amount of free storage, Google Drive is the better cross-platform choice because it’s also available for iOS while there’s no iCloud app for Android. All other major cloud storage solutions including Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive or Box have apps for both Android and iOS, so no problem there. Another somewhat uncommon choice could be the messenger app Telegram. As I pointed out in my last blog post, Telegram gives you unlimited cloud storage for free. However, while the maximum file size of 1.5GB per file is huge compared to what you can send with other messenger apps, it can’t compete with dedicated cloud storage services in this regard, Google Drive and Dropbox for instance have no file size limit at all, OneDrive recently expanded from 15 to 100GB per file which should cover most common use cases. Generally, you should be aware of the fact that unlike with the device-to-device solutions mentioned later on, the file is not transferred directly to the other device’s storage. Once it’s been uploaded into the cloud from device A, device B needs to download it from there if you (or another person) want(s) to work with it. If you/someone else are/is not using the same cloud service account on both devices this involves the sharing of a download link. Things to consider here are also the available upload/download speed and the consumption of data if you are using mobile internet. Uploading/downloading big video files via mobile data can wreak havoc on your data plan – at least in certain countries… So better make sure you’re connected to a fast wifi network. All mentioned services send files in their original quality without compression as far as I could see.

Temp Cloud

I don’t think “temp cloud” is an actual term but I was looking for a word to describe file transfer services that allow you to temporarily store something in their cloud and create a shareable download link but where the file will be automatically deleted after a short period of time. The most popular service like that on the web is probably WeTransfer. They used to have mobile apps for Android and iOS as well but they discontinued them some time ago, replacing them with an app called Collect. The all-new UI and different structure have generated a lot of backlash from WeTransfer fans though. While it’s true that the whole “Boards” layout can be confusing, one can get the same transfer job done with Collect adding files to a “Board” within the app and then sharing the “Board” with a download link which expires automatically within 90 days. And that’s not all, unlike with the web service there’s no file size limit! In case Collect remains a mystery to you, WeTransfer is still available as a web service with the option to send files of up to 2GB in the free version (20GB in the paid pro version). If you want to send your files encrypted for security reasons, you should have a look at an offering from Mozilla’s popular Firefox brand: Firefox Send. You can send files with up to 1GB and an expiration time of one day without creating a free account, up to 2.5GB and an expiration time of seven days with a free account. It’s still in beta and only available as a mobile app on Android, you can however access the service on iOS as well via a web browser. A popular choice for all kinds of file transfers is Send Anywhere (which will pop up again in the coming paragraphs). While I mostly use Send Anywhere for device-to-device file transfer, they also have the option to send files via temp cloud / download link. You will however have to create a (free) account with them to use this feature. File size limit is 10GB for the free account, 50GB for the paid Plus account. Send Anywhere sports excellent mobile apps for both Android and iOS. Another service that I just recently discovered is the Norwegian company Filemail which also has mobile apps for both Android and iOS. Their file size allowance is huge, a whopping 50GB, but the free version only lets you do two transfers a day. Still a pretty cool option so you should give it a go! You can choose either one day or seven days for the link to expire. All mentioned services send files in their original quality without compression as far as I could see.

Device-to-Device with internet

If you don’t want to use a service that stores your files on an external cloud server but prefer a direct transfer between two devices, Send Anywhere is a good choice again. Do note that despite the fact that I’m talking about device-to-device transfer, you will need an internet connection and it will use up data if you’re on mobile internet. Transfer speeds depend on the upload/download speed available. Unlike the two cloud solutions with a download link, this way is particularly useful if the device you want to transfer to is right next to you and the file will be used right away. Both devices need to have Send Anywhere installed and open, unless you want to use their web service via a browser which has a file size limitation. After selecting the files you want to send, the sending device will generate a 6-digit key which needs to be entered on the receiving device within a time frame of 10 minutes to initiate the transfer. While there is no file size limit, do make sure that the receiving device has enough free storage available! With Feem there’s another good choice available for Android and iOS. It’s the same principle but works slightly differently from Send Anywhere: After opening the app on both devices, they should detect each other (in the free version the app automatically assigns silly nicknames like “Lonely Gecko” or “Reckless Chicken” to the devices). You then tap on the listed device you want to send files to, choose “Send File” and select the files you want to send, finally tapping the “send” button. Important note: Unlike Send Anywhere (which can also utilize mobile data), Feem only works if both devices are connected to the same WiFi network! Feem is free to use. It has a paid pro version (annual subscription of 4.99 Euro/US-Dollar) which gives you a whole bunch of customization options for the device name, avatar, download folder but nothing really essential. All mentioned services send files in their original quality without compression as far as I could see. 

Device-to-Device without internet

Unlike with all the aforementioned options, Feem also has the ability to work across platforms without an active internet connection which makes it pretty unique and a lifesaver for certain situations! While Send Anywhere has an option to share files device-to-device without the use of an active internet connection via the WiFi Direct protocol, this is only available between Android devices as iOS doesn’t support the standard, so I will have to exclude it here for the purpose of this article. The magic trick in Feem is done by the Android device creating a local WiFi network to which the iOS device can connect (it doesn’t work the other way round but that’s not really a problem). Feem gives you a pretty good step-by-step guide how to do this upon opening the app so I won’t get into the details here (it’s not that complicated, don’t worry!) but you basically switch on the “Turn on Wi-Fi Direct” button in the app and a pop-up with the hotspot name and password appears which you then use to connect your iPhone or iPad to this network and commence with your file transfer from within the app. This is a great feature which you can either use if there’s no internet available at all or you don’t want to use up data. The app is not 100% stable all the time so you might have to redo a transfer on occasion but in general I have found it to work quite well.

One final note: With many/most services you will also be able to send a file using their app without having to open the app first. You can locate a video file in the Gallery (Android) or Camera Roll (iOS) and then use the OS’s share sheet to send the selected file using the file transfer app of your choice.

I’m sure there are many other options out there so this article is by no means a complete overview but just a highly personal selection of available choices that I deem worth checking out. Feel free to drop comments and questions here or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. You can also sign up for my Telegram channel t.me/smartfilming

Download Google Drive for Android or iOS
Download Microsoft OneDrive for Android or iOS
Download Dropbox for Android or iOS
Download Telegram for Android or iOS
Download Collect for Android or iOS
Download Firefox Send for Android
Download Send Anywhere for Android or iOS
Download Filemail for Android or iOS
Download Feem for Android or iOS

#24 Why Telegram is the best messenger app for mobile video production — 7. June 2020

#24 Why Telegram is the best messenger app for mobile video production

Ever since smartphones and mobile internet became a thing, messenger apps have grown immensely in popularity and significantly curbed other types of (digital) communication like SMS/texts, eMails and heck yes, phone calls, for most of us. There’s also little doubt about which messenger apps can usually be found on everyone’s phone: WhatsApp is by far the most popular app of its kind on a global scale with only Facebook Messenger being somewhat close in terms of users. Sure, if you look at certain regions/countries or age groups you will find other prominent messenger apps like WeChat in China, KakaoTalk in Korea, Viber in the Ukraine or Snapchat among the younger generation(s). We have also seen a noticeable rise in the popularity of security and data conscious alternatives like the Edward Snowden-recommended Signal or Switzerland-based Threema. One might say that right in between mass popularity and special focus groups sits Telegram.

Telegram started out in 2013, founded by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pawel Durow who had already created “Russia’s Facebook”, VK. While it was able to avoid being seen as “the Kremlin messenger”, its claims of providing an experience that is very strong in terms of security and data protection have received some flak from experts. It also came into questionable spotlight as the preferred modus communicandi of the so-called “Islamic State” and other extremist groups that want to avoid scrutiny from intelligence agencies. But this is just some general context and everyone can decide for herself/himself what to make of it.

The reason for this article has nothing to do with the aforementioned “historical” context but looks only at the app’s potentially useful functionality when it comes to media production, particularly video production. People are sending enormous amounts of video these days via their messenger apps. For reasons benefitting the sender/receiver as well as the app service provider itself, those videos are usually compressed, both in terms of resolution and bitrate. The compression results in smaller file sizes which lets you send/receive them faster, use up less storage space and avoid burning through too much mobile data. This works pretty well when all you do is watch the video in your messenger app, it’s far from ideal however if you want to work with the video somebody sent you.

While there is a way to prevent the app from automatically compressing your video by sending/attaching it not as a video (which is the usual way of doing it) but as a file (as you would normally add a doc or pdf), the file size limit of most messenger apps is so small that it’s not really suitable for sending video files that are longer than one minute. WhatsApp has a current file size limit of 100MB and so does Signal. Threema tops out at 50MB for sending files uncompressed while Facebook Messenger gives you a measly 25MB! Just for measure: a moderate bitrate of 16Mbit/s for a FHD 1920×1080 video will reach the 100MB limit at only 50 seconds. In this regard, Telegram is basically lightyears ahead of the competition as it lets you send uncompressed files up to 2 GB (around 2000 MB), yes you heard that right! 

Choose “File” and then “Gallery” (or another option if that’s where your media is located) to send a video in full quality without compression.

To send an uncompressed video file within Telegram, tap on the paper clip icon in a chat, select “File” (NOT “Gallery”) and then “Gallery. To send images without compression” (or choose one of the other options if your video file is located somewhere else on the device). It’s that easy! There’s also a cool way to use Telegram as your personal unlimited cloud storage: If you open the app’s menu (tapping on the three lines in the top left corner) you will find an option that says “Saved Messages”. This is basically your own personal space within the app where you can collect all kinds of material like notes, links or files. As long as the file doesn’t exceed 2 GB, you can upload it into this “self chat” like you would in a regular cloud storage service like Dropbox, GoogleDrive or OneDrive. And believe it or not, you currently get UNLIMITED storage for free! I think there’s a chance that Telegram might cap this at some point in the future if people start using it too excessively but up until then, this is a pretty amazing feature most users don’t know about (even I didn’t until a few days ago!).

Telegram gives you unlimited cloud storage, each file you upload can be up to 2 GB in size.

This benefit gets even more powerful when you consider that you can use Telegram across several devices (it’s not only available for Android, iOS and Windows 10 Mobile but also has desktop apps for Windows and MacOS!) with the same account, something you can’t do with other messengers like WhatsApp which ties you to a single mobile device for active use of one account. A side note though: If you have someone send you a big uncompressed video file over mobile data, you might want to tell the other person that it will cut into their mobile data significantly. So if possible, they should send it when logged into a WiFi network.

In-app video editor of Telegram.

And even if your goal is actually to compress a video when sending it, Telegram gives you the best choices to do so. When selecting a video via the Gallery button (instead of the File button) you can adjust the resolution of the clip by using the app’s recently updated in-app video editor. After marking your clip of choice by tapping on the empty circle in the top right corner of the video’s thumbnail, tap on the thumbnail itself to open the video editor. You will be able to trim the clip or add a drawing/text/sticker (brush icon). You can even do some basic color correction (sliders icon), I kid you not! And you can adjust the video resolution by tapping on the gear icon in the bottom left corner of the tool box. By moving the slider you can choose between FHD 1920×1080, HD 1280×720, SD 854×480 and what I will call “LD” (low definition) 480×270.

If your primary focus when using messenger apps is most comprehensive security / data protection or mass compatibility and you don’t need to use the app as a tool for direct (video) file transfer, then you might still prefer Signal, Threema or WhatsApp respectively. Otherwise Telegram is a powerful tool with best-in-class features for a professional video production workflow. 

So despite the fact that Telegram is still far from being as ubiquitous as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, it has significantly increased its user base in the last months and years (currently over half a billion installs from the Google Play Store!) and chances are getting better that the person sending video to you is using it or has at least installed it on her/his phone.

Questions and comments are welcome, either below in the comment section or on Twitter @smartfilming. I also just created my own Telegram channel which you can join here: https://t.me/smartfilming.

Download Telegram for Android on the Google Play Store.

Download Telegram for iOS on the Apple AppStore.

Download Telegram for Windows 10 Mobile / WindowsPhone on the Microsoft Store.

#23 A powerful new rival for Filmic Pro — 12. May 2020

#23 A powerful new rival for Filmic Pro

Filmic Pro might be called the “Gold Standard” for highly advanced mobile video recording apps on both Android and iOS, it surely is the most popular and widely known one. Even Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has used it to shoot two of his feature films. The fact that a powerful rival has just recently launched is bigger news for Android users though than for those on iOS. There are a couple of very capable alternatives to Filmic Pro on iOS including Mavis, MoviePro and Moment Pro Camera. While options are available on Android as well they are not as numerous and/or complete and for quite a few development has either ceased completely (Cinema FV-5 and recently Moment Pro Camera) or for the most part been reduced to bug fixes or minor compatibility adjustments (Cinema 4K, Lumio Cam, ProShot). There’s also the solid free Open Camera (plus a whole range of variants based on its open source code) and the pretty good Footej Camera 2 but none of them can really match Filmic Pro when it comes to usability and advanced features. That is until now.

Only two weeks ago, an app called Protake – Mobile Cinema Camera popped up in the Google Play Store (and also the Apple App Store). The screenshots looked quite promising and after downloading it and taking it for a quick spin I can confirm that there’s now another immensely powerful mobile video recording app available for both Android and iOS. Protake gives you full manual control over exposure (shutter speed/angle and ISO), focus and white balance, you get support for external mics and a visual audio level meter plus the ability to adjust input gain, a whole set of exposure and focus assistants (zebra, false color, focus peaking, waveform monitor, RGB parade, histogram), different aspect ratios (including different widescreen formats and square but apparently skipping 9:16 vertical), frame rates (incl. 25fps, but not 50/60 on any of my devices – but that might be different for other phones), resolutions, bitrates (they don’t go as high as Filmic Pro’s though), codecs (H.264/H.265), color profiles/looks etc.. You even have an interesting option called “Frame Drop Notice” which I have never seen anywhere else before and some useful one-tap quick buttons for hiding the UI or switching between maximum screen brightness and current brightness. There’s also support for external accessories like Zhiyun gimbals, anamorphic lenses or a DOF adapter. All in all, it’s a feature range almost as complete as FilmicPro’s and the UI is slick and intuitive. 

There is however one catch: While you can download the app for free and also use the auto mode to record, you can only activate recording for the pro mode (including manual controls and most advanced features) by buying a subscription. The subscription model has become a common practice for many apps in the last years (particularly for video editing apps) but so far I hadn’t really encountered it in a camera app. The subscription price is 10.99 Euros (9.99 US-Dollars) per year which is somewhat moderate compared to other apps (if you break it down it’s less than 1 Euro per month) but as I said, it’s new for this kind of app (at least to me!) so it might need a bit getting used to. It should be noted that the current price is a 50% off offer so the regular price would actually be double, venturing into financial territory not too many of us might be willing to follow. There’s another thing to keep in mind which probably isn’t of any relevance to most users but definitely to someone like me with a whole zoo of different phones: The subscription will only let you use the pro mode on three different devices at the same time. So if you want to use it on more than three I suppose you will need to buy a second subscription. This should however be a very rare use case.

One last thing: If you are on Android, please note that most features of the pro mode (like setting specific values for shutter speed and ISO) are only available if your Android device fully supports Camera2 API, which lets apps of 3rd party developers access the more advanced functionality of the phone’s camera. If Camera2 API support hasn’t been implemented properly by the maker of the phone, 3rd party apps can’t access certain features no matter how capable their developers are. As a rule of thumb, relatively current flagship phones and midrangers usually have sufficient Camera2 API support, entry level phones only sometimes. If you want to learn more about the topic, check out this older blog post by me.

Let me know what you think of Protake! Either here in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming.

Download “Protake” for Android on the Google Play Store
Download “Protake” for iOS (iPhone/iPad) on the Apple App Store

#21 What’s the best free cross-platform mobile video editing app? — 22. April 2020

#21 What’s the best free cross-platform mobile video editing app?

 

I’m a big fan of advanced mobile video editing apps like ‘KineMaster’ (Android & iOS) or ‘LumaFusion’ (iOS-only) and I’m very supportive of the idea that one should pay for such powerful media creation tools. However, there might be instances when it’s just not possible for one reason or another to do that. So I have always kept an eye on mobile video editing apps that tick all the following boxes: 1) they should be free to download and use 2) if there are different versions the free version should not include a watermark 3) they should be fairly advanced (for instance include the ability to have a second video track) and user-friendly 4) they should be cross-platform (Android and iOS) and 5) they should handle/export at least 1080p resolution with 25/30fps. I eventually ditched one other prerequisite: that you don’t have to create an account to use the app. To be honest, if you want an app that really ticks all the boxes, there isn’t much around. Actually up until recently I would have only been able to point to a single one: ‘VlogIt’. And even that could have been considered a cheat under strict circumstances because while VlogIt doesn’t have a watermark on the exported video, it has a branded bumper outro. I’m not too much a fan of the app’s UI though and its limited to a 16:9 project aspect ratio. Another theoretical contender was the relatively new ‘Adobe Premiere Rush’ but the availability for Android devices is still extremely limited and you only get three free exports before you have to commit to a paid subscription. So things were looking pretty sobering until last week-end.

While routinely browsing the Google Play Store for new video editing apps, I came across an app named ‘VN’. The provided screen grabs looked somewhat promising and I downloaded the app. After launching it, I was greeted with a splash screen that prompted me to log in or create an account. I seriously considered deleting the app again. I’m at a point where I really don’t want to sign up for the 3478th service, particularly not before even being able to try out the app. Curiosity however got the better of me and in hindsight, I’m glad it did.

First things first: VN isn’t really new. It apparently has been around for about two years according to the release date in the PlayStore but the relatively low number of downloads compared to other popular free video editing apps indicates that not too many people seem to have noticed it. VN is integrated into a video sharing community (where you can post videos to their platform and follow other users) which can seem a bit annoying if you only want to use the app to save the finished project to the device and share it to your platform of choice. You don’t have to share the video to VN’s community though, it’s possible to only export it to the Gallery (Android) or Camera Roll (iOS) and save it locally on the device.

With that out of the way, I have to say I was very impressed with VN’s feature set after taking it out for a spin. While it’s not quite as advanced as LumaFusion or KineMaster, it comes surprisingly close for a free app, covering a wide range of dedicated functions for serious video editing while at the same time sporting a visually pleasing and generally user-friendly UI.

Main timeline UI of ‘VN’

VN has a classic video editor timeline layout and is able to handle multiple tracks of video (important for b-roll editing for instance), audio and other visual elements like titles, photos and graphics. In terms of graphics it’s also important to note that it supports png files with alpha channel (for instance to include brand logos). You can also record voice-over into the timeline as an audio track and for this external microphones are supported as well. Another big win for VN is the variety of project aspect ratios available: 21:9, 16:9, 4:3, 1:1, 3:4, 9:16 and even ‘Round’ which is basically a masked square format.

One area where VN really needs to be improved (at least on Android) is handling audio transitions between video clips. There a multiple ways to achieve this but none is included at the moment: 1) it’s not possible to detach the audio of a video clip to make J&L cuts 2) while visual elements can be keyframed, audio can’t – so no audio ducking / automation is possible 3) while quick fade in/out buttons are conveniently available for audio-only clips (music, voice-overs etc), this is not available for the integrated audio of video clips in the Android version (it is on iOS) 4) no audio-only cross-fade is included in the transitions. With all these critical points in combination it’s very hard to avoid rough audio transitions between video clips in the Android version at the moment, the iOS version is slightly better. I suppose the fade in/out buttons for video audio will be added to the Android version eventually.

Talking about audio, at least in the Android version voice-overs recorded within the app itself don’t sound very good (I tested on two devices so far), like they are recorded at a low audio bitrate or sample rate but I’m sure this can be fixed with an update. Also, you can’t boost the audio in the Android version while on iOS you can. A slightly annoying thing in both versions is the fact that just like many other video editors featuring video overlays, the added b-roll footage doesn’t fill the whole frame but is added in a slightly scaled down version so if you want to have it cover up the frame of the video clip on the primary track seamlessly, you have to manually scale it which is not only an extra step but also includes the risk of accidentally moving the image away from the center. I get that this default setting is useful if you want to use the overlay video as a picture-in-picture but it’s not the best for editing b-roll style. It would also be nice to have a visual audio level meter when playing back the timeline.

Other than that, VN continues to provide you with lots of useful editing options like speed-ramping, nice title templates, filters, basic grading and various visual effects. One very clever UI function is that when long-pressing a video clip in the timeline to rearrange the order of the clips, it automatically squeezes the clip into a compact square storyboard thumbnail and only transitions back to the original timeline view after releasing the clip into its new place. This makes it much easier to rearrange clips quickly. VN also gives you a variety of professional options on export, not only resolution but frame rate (24/25/30/50/60) and bitrate. And it’s watermark-free! And available for both Android and iOS! On iOS it even seems that you can use it without having to create an account first. I have only tested it for about a week now and it’s quite possible that I will come across (more) bugs or shortcomings but so far I can conclude that this is a fantastic app, both easy to use and powerful. So is it the best free-without-watermark cross-platform mobile video editing app?

A couple of days after discovering VN, I took a second look at another app, one that I tested about a year ago when it was still in beta but somehow lost track of it over the months. It’s called ‘Feelmatic’ and is available for both Android and iOS and similar to VN (at least when looking at the Android version), you have to create an account for their video sharing platform/community.

Main timeline UI of ‘Feelmatic’.

Feelmatic also covers a lot of important features for advanced mobile video editing. It’s a bit more basic than VN, lacking some of its “bells & whistles”, but depending on the job you need to get done, it might not be that much of a deal. One might even see it positively as a more focused approach with a toolbar that lets you see all elements at a glance without having to swipe and scroll around, going down the option rabbit hole. It might be easier to grasp for users who are completely new to video editing. When I first tested the app last year it didn’t have the ability to add a video overlay but it does now. Better yet and unlike VN, the video overlay fully covers up the clip in the primary track by default. Feelmatic lets you record voice-over within the app and supports the use of external mics for that. Just like with VN however creating a smooth audio mix can be a problem, as there’s no audio keyframing, audio-only transitions or fade in/out buttons etc. I consider this to be one of two crucial points to improve in Feelmatic. The other is the extremely limited number of available aspect ratios: 16:9 is all there is (unless I’ve missed something), no option for vertical or square. You can bring in footage in other aspect ratios but it will be fit into a 16:9 frame and exported as such.

Feelmatic also has two slightly special toolbar elements, one is called ‘Logo’ which basically invites you to add an alpha channel png file as a brand/broadcaster logo and gives you a choice of four common default positions within the frame. The other one is ‘Subtitle’ which adds text including a half-transparent background for better legibility at the bottom of the frame. This is great for actual subtitles/captions but as far as I could tell, there are no other title options like say for an intro. This is a bit too bare bones for my taste.

The UI is generally good and focused with one minor shortcoming: the toolbar is located in the middle of the screen which makes reaching it in one-hand operation a bit more difficult, at least on bigger phones. If the toolbar were located at the bottom beneath the timeline, accessibility would be better.

The process of getting your project out of the app is a bit more cumbersome than with VN (you have to select a category for your video even if you don’t want to publish it on the Feelmatic platform for instance) but it is possible. That being said, you do get a solid set of export settings including video and audio bitrate. The video bit rate however maxes out at 10 Mbit, the audio bit rate at 128 Kbit which isn’t exactly great. And there are even more limitations: resolution is limited to 1080p (no UHD/4K), fps to a maximum of 30fps. While on iOS this does at least include 25fps as well, the Android version only supports 24 and 30 which is disappointing because other editing apps on Android like KineMaster, VN or CuteCut don’t have a problem with exporting 25fps.

So while I think that Feelmatic is actually a pretty solid and interesting video editing app with great potential definitely worth checking out, VN is more powerful in terms of features and the export process is less cumbersome. You should definitely check out both apps if you are into mobile video editing unless you are worried about their business model. If you don’t mind a watermark on the exported video or paying for a subscription, KineMaster is still the best and most compatible option available for both major mobile platforms. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming.

Download ‘VN’ for Android or iOS.
Download ‘Feelmatic’ for Android or iOS.

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (incl. Update 2020!) — 5. October 2019

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (incl. Update 2020!)

The fact that nowadays pretty much everyone owns a smartphone and shoots video with it has brought a gigantic wave of shaky handheld footage along. While some folks are actually allergic to any kind of shakiness in video, I personally think that depending on the amount and context it can work just fine – but definitely not all the time and under any circumstances. So there is a need to stabilize shaky handheld footage. Now the best thing to get smooth n’ stable footage is to avoid shakiness in the first place while shooting. While there are techniques for shooting (more) stable video handheld, the most common thing would be putting the phone on a tripod (using any kind of rig or clamp for mounting it). But maybe you want to move around a bit? More and more smartphones do have internal stabilization, be it on the hardware side with OIS (optical image stabilization) or on the software side with EIS (electronic image stabilzation). Over the last years there has also been a considerable and increasingly affordable influx of (motorized) gimbals that allow smooth camera movements. But let’s be honest: Unless you’re going to a planned shoot, you probably won’t carry around a tripod or gimbal (if you have one) – as compact as they have become over time, they are still too big and clunky to just put in your pocket. So it’s likely that you will find yourself in situations where you shoot video handheld and want to smooth out some distracting jitter afterwards. While most desktop video editing software has a built-in stabilizer function these days, things don’t look quite as bright on mobile but there are still a few (good) options.

Android

Google Photos
The easiest way to stabilize a pre-recorded video clip on your mobile phone is probably to use a little known feature of an immensely popular (and completely free!) app: Google Photos. Select any video clip and open the edit panel (sliders icon in the middle), then tap on the rectangle with the tilted image inside (to the right of the “Export frame” button). When I first used it I was really surprised how well it worked! The stabilization process doesn’t alter the resolution and frame rate but you will have to live with a lower video bitrate (sample clip: 17 to 11 Mbit/s) while the audio bitrate remains the same. Google Photos is basically available for all Android devices which is great. I have however found that very ancient pre-Android 5 devices (I tested it with two devices running Android 4.4) do not have the stabilization feature baked into the app. “What about iOS?” you may ask as Google Photos is also available on the Apple Appstore. Unfortunately, just like with the ancient Androids, the stabilization feature is not available in the iOS version of the app. Maybe at some point in the future.

PowerDirector
If you are looking for a stabilization feature already built into an advanced mobile video editing app with which you can produce your final edit, then Cyberlink’s PowerDirector is currently your only choice across platforms. Select the clip in your timeline, open the editing panel by tapping the pen icon on the left side bar and choose „Stabilizer“. Unlike with Google Photos where the stabilization is basically a one-button operation, PD does give you a 0-100 slider to increase or decrease the level of correction (default value is 50). The higher the level of correction, the more the image will be cropped. PD can keep the footage’s fps as long as it is a frame rate that is supported for export within the app. That means 24, 30 and 60fps – no PAL frame rates unfortunately. Resolution on the other hand shouldn’t be a problem at all, PD supports export up to UHD/4K resolution. You also get to choose between three bitrate options (Smaller Size/Standard/Better Quality), the actual bitrate will be depending on your export resolution. In the case of the sample clip used here the bitrate of 17Mbit/s remained unaltered when using „Better Quality“ but that seems to be the maximum for projects with FHD resolution. If you use a clip recorded in a higher bitrate it will be compressed upon export. The audio bitrate is reduced (sample clip 320 to128 Kbit/s). PD is free to download with watermark and some restrictions regarding certain features – watermark-free export and the complete feature set are only available with a paid subscription.

Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile
There’s a third option on Android. Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile shouldn’t be confused with Instagram’s „Hyperlapse“ app (which is only available on iOS so far). They are actually somewhat similar in that their main purpose is to speed up and stabilize video but while Instagram’s app can only do this for footage shot „live“ within the app, Microsoft’s version allows importing pre-recorded clips. By default, the result you get will be a 4x sped up clip but if you want the original speed, you can move the speed slider to „1x“ instead. As for the resolution, Microsoft Hyperlapse only supports import of clips with up to FHD resolution and you have to activate FHD export in the settings as the default setting is HD (720p). The frame rate remains the same, the video bitrate is seriously crunched (sample clip: 17 to 8 Mbit/s), the audio bitrate is kept intact. The stabilization result isn’t as good as Google’s Photos and while the app is free, you do get a Microsoft Hyperlapse branded bumper screen. There are no in-app purchases to get rid of this so you will probably have to trim it off using another app.

VideoStabilizer for KineMaster
If you were asking me which app I consider to be the best video editing app for Android, I would probably choose KineMaster. It lacked a video stabilization feature though and many people have been asking about it for quite some time. Just recently, KineMaster did something rather unexpected: They released a separate app called “VideoStabilizer for KineMaster” as an early beta (alongside another separate app for speed ramping). The official take on this is that they don’t want the main app to become too big size-wise and also want to keep it available for as many devices as possible. If you ask me, I would definitely prefer to have it as part of KineMaster and not a separate app. As mentioned, the app was released as an early beta and you can definitely tell, the result isn’t particularly impressive at this time and there are some glitches like the fact that it seems to slightly change the color of the original clip. The app is free to download but if you export the video directly to the Gallery, the video will have a watermark in the bottom right corner. You can only avoid the watermark by sharing the stabilized clip directly to KineMaster and you also need to have an active KineMaster subscription (because otherwise you will get a watermark when exporting from KineMaster). If you want to give it a go despite its current beta status, you can download VideoStabilizer for KineMaster on the Google Play Store. There’s currently no beta version on iOS but I think chances are good that there will be one later on or alternatively a version of the final production release.

iOS (iPhone/iPad)

Emulsio
As mentioned above, while Google Photos is available for iOS, the stabilization feature from the Android version is not. And neither is PowerDirector or Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile. Also, none of iOS’s best video editing apps including the likes of Luma Fusion, KineMaster, Adobe Rush, Videoleap or Splice feature a stabilization tool at this point. The only (fairly good) option to stabilize pre-recorded video that I was able to find was an app called Emulsio. The interesting thing about Emulsio is that unlike all other apps for stabilizing mentioned here, there’s a whole bunch of controls over the stabilization process at your fingertips. Just like PD it gives you a 0-100% scale for the strength of the correction, cropping more of the frame the higher the % is. But on top of that, you get control over which axes (X,Y,XY) are corrected, you can switch rotation compensation and wobble removal on or off and even reduce rolling shutter. Emulsio does keep resolution and frame rate intact but reduces both video bitrate (sample clip 17 to 15Mbit/s) and audio bitrate (320 to 256Kbit/s). It’s free with watermark, you can get rid of the watermark by purchasing a 8.99€ pro upgrade.

Windows Mobile

Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile
Before I wrap this up let me tell you that while Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile isn’t available for iOS, it (still) is for their own (now quasi-dead) mobile platform Windows Mobile. So just for the highly unlikely case that you are a die-hard Windows Phone enthusiast still holding on to your Lumia: You can join the stabilization fun! It basically works like the Android version described above but only supports import/export of HD (720p) clips, higher resolution clips will be transcoded to 720p. So when the resolution is reduced it shouldn’t come as a surprise that video bitrate (17 to 7 Mbit/s) and audio bitrate (320 to 192 Kbit/s) are as well. The frame rate remains the same as the original source clip.

And here’s a video presenting the deliberately shaky sample clip (shot on a Motorola Moto Z in 1080p 30fps handheld) in stabilized versions by each mentioned app (in the case of Power Director and Emulsio the default settings were used):

Have I missed something important? Did a new app or new feature for an established app just come out? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter (@smartfilming).