smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#15 A selection of Android apps for media production — 29. May 2018

#15 A selection of Android apps for media production

Back in February I published a list with a wide selection of (potentially) useful Android apps for media production. Despite the fact that I mostly write for this blog in English now, the list was published in its German version first. I did promise an English version however and I’ve been working on it ever since. The new English version is not just a translation, it’s actually an update with some apps having been kicked out and others added. And what occasion could be better to finally publish it then at the time MoJoFest is happening in Galway, Ireland. MoJoFest is an exciting 3-day conference (May 29th to 31st) about content creation with mobile devices, initiated and organized by former RTE Innovation Lead Glen Mulcahy. Check out their website and follow the hashtag #MoJoFest on Twitter! I’ll be giving a workshop/presentation about smartphone videography on Android devices on Thursday, May 31st, and as a precursor, I’ll upload the English version of my app list here. Please keep in mind that there might be some typos or even outdated information in it as the mobile world keeps spinning at an incredible pace and things can change quickly. This is also a highly subjective list and by no means “definitive” or “ultimate”, you may find that other apps which are not on the list suit you better for your work. If you think an app you know and love should absolutely be on this list or if you have new information about apps already on the list, please do contact me! But now without much further ado…

Download Android app list for media production (pdf file).

 

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#14 “Shediting” or: How to edit video already while shooting on a smartphone — 17. May 2018

#14 “Shediting” or: How to edit video already while shooting on a smartphone

UI of Motorola’s native camera app (“MotoCam”) while recording video. Bottom right is the “pause” button that will let you pause the recording and resume it later if you don’t leave the app.

When using a headline like the one above, camera people usually refer to the idea that you should already think about the editing when shooting. This basically means two things: a) make sure you get a variety of different shots (wide shot, close-up, medium, special angle etc) that will allow you to tell a visually interesting story but b) don’t overshoot – don’t take 20 different takes of a shot or record a gazillion hours of footage because it will cost you valuable time to sift through all that footage afterwards. That’s all good advice but in this article I’m actually talking about something different, I’m talking about a way to create a video story with different shots while only using the camera app – no editing software! In a way, this is rather trivial but I’m always surprised how many people don’t know about it as this can be extremely helpful when things need to go super-fast. And let’s be honest, from mobile journalists to social media content producers, there’s an increasing number of jobs and situations to which this applies…

The feature that makes it possible to already edit a video package within the camera app itself while shooting is the ability to pause and resume a recording. The most common way to record a video clip is to hit the record button and then stop the recording once you’re finished. After stopping the recording the app will quickly create/save the video clip to be available in the gallery / camera roll. Now you might not have noticed this but many native camera apps do not only have a „stop“ button while recording video but also one that will temporarily pause the recording without already creating/saving the clip. Instead, you can resume recording another shot into the very same clip you started before, basically creating an edit-on-the-go while shooting with no need to mess around with an editing app afterwards. So for instance, if you’re shooting the exterior of an interesting building, you can take a wide shot from the outside, then pause the recording, go closer, resume recording with a shot of the door, pause again and then go into the building to resume recording with a shot of the interior. When you finally decide to press the „stop“ button, the clip that is saved will already have three different shots in it. The term I would propose for this is „shediting“, obviously a portmanteau of „shooting“ and „editing“. But that’s just some spontaneous thought of mine – you can call this what you want of course.

What camera apps will let you do shediting? On Android, actually most of the native camera apps I have encountered so far. This includes phones from Samsung, LG, Sony, Motorola/Lenovo, Huawei/Honor, HTC, Xiaomi, BQ, Wileyfox and Wiko. The only two Android phone brands that didn’t have this feature in the phone’s native camera app were Nokia (as tested on the Nokia 5) and Nextbit with its Robin. As for 3rd party video recording apps on Android, things are not looking quite as positive. While Open Camera and Footej Camera do allow shediting, many others like Filmic Pro, Cinema FV-5, Cinema 4K, Lumio Cam and ProShot don’t have this feature. When looking at the other mobile platforms, Apple still doesn’t have this feature in the iOS native camera app and the only advanced 3rd party video recording app that will let you do it appears to be MoviePro. And while almost extinct, Lumia phones with Windows 10 Mobile / Windows Phone on the other hand do have this feature in the native camera app just like most Android phones.

Sure, shediting is only useful for certain projects and situations because once you leave the camera app, the clip will be saved anyway without possibility to resume and you can’t edit shots within the clip without heading over to an editing app after all. Still, I think it’s an interesting tool in a smartphone videographer’s kit that one should know about because it can make things easier and faster.

EDIT: After I had published this article I was asked on Twitter if the native camera app re-adjusts or lets you re-adjust focus and exposure after pausing the recording because that would indeed be crucial for its actual usefulness. I did test this with some native camera apps and they all re-adjusted / let you re-adjust focus and exposure in between takes. If you have a different experience, please let me know in the comments!

#12 Recording video with both front and rear cameras simultaneously on Android — 17. April 2018

#12 Recording video with both front and rear cameras simultaneously on Android

Last year marked the return of one of THE big pioneers in the history of mobile phones to the smartphone market: Nokia. It’s not really the same company from the days of feature and Windows phones anymore (a company named HMD Global has licensed the brand name for their phones) but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore it. After launching a bunch of affordable entry-level and lower end mid-range devices (Nokia 3, 5 & 6), the Nokia 8 was the first quasi-flagship phone following the brand’s reboot.

One special feature of the Nokia 8 was something the company called the „Bothie“ for marketing purposes, obviously trying to convince people that a new flavour of the all-too-common „selfie“ is in town. A „Bothie“ is a split-screened snapshot that is taken with both front and rear cameras AT THE SAME TIME, giving you two different perspectives of the very same moment. For instance the image of a person looking at something AND the image of the scenery the person is looking at. What’s more: this mode not only works for photo but also for video, meaning you can record a split-screened video with both front and rear cameras simultaneously. It turns out however that Nokia actually wasn’t the first company to include such a feature in a smartphone. As early as 2013 (Samsung Galaxy S4) other phone makers equipped some of their phones with similar modes, HTC (One M8) followed in 2014, LG (V10) in 2015 – of course they are all using different names for the same feature so we can get jolly confused when talking about it!

Before giving a brief overview on how these modes have been implemented by each manufacturer, you might ask how such a feature can be useful for a more professional video production context. I’d say there are two main use cases for which this mode could be a great asset: piece-to-camera reporting and vlogging – obviously those two areas can heavily intersect. Imagine a mobile journalist reporting from an event, let’s say a protest rally – it’s much more interesting for the audience to see both the reporter elaborating on what’s happening and the rally itself instead of just one or the other. Traditionally one would have to have two separate cameras (or take different shots successively) and edit in post-production to achieve the same but thanks to today’s smartphones having HD video capable cameras on the front and the back, this can be done a lot easier and faster.

Samsung’s „Dual Camera“

As far as my research showed, Samsung was the first phone maker to introduce a dual video recording feature with the Galaxy S4 in April of 2013. This mode has been on all following Samsung flagships of the S- and Note-Series so far but you might have to download it as a sort of „plug-in“ from within the native camera app (there’s a „+“ button to add more camera modes). Samsung’s take is a picture-in-picture approach, not a traditional split-screen where both parts have exactly the same size (there IS a split-screen option but it’s barely useful with two 16:9 images side-by-side, extreme letter-boxing). With Samsung’s „Dual Camera“, one image always is the main image while the secondary image from the other camera is embedded into it. You can resize the picture-in-picture though and move it around within the main image – you can also swap between cameras during the recording. The recorded video file can have a resolution of up to 1080p with a traditional aspect ratio of 16:9 or 9:16. One very cool thing about Samsung’s native camera app is that unlike most other Android phones’ native camera apps it supports the use of external mics via the 3.5mm headphone jack or USB port which is a tremendous advantage for having professional-grade audio. One catch: You can only record up to 5 minutes for a single clip.

HTC’s „Split Capture“ (discontinued)

HTC followed Samsung with a similar but slightly different feature (officially called “Split Capture”) on the HTC One M8, launched in March 2014. The recorded video was an equally sized left/right split-screen 1080p video with a 16:9/9:16 aspect ratio. HTC subsequently featured this mode in other phones like the Desire Eye and the One M9 but apparently ditched it after the M9 as the HTC 10 and more recent flagships like the U Ultra or U11 don’t seem to have it anymore.

LG’s „Snap Movie“ / „Match Shot“

In 2015 LG redefined what a native camera app on a smartphone can deliver in terms of pro video controls with the release of the LG V10. But not only did the V10 have a unique manual video mode, the app also boasted some more playful features. Among them was a mode called „Snap Movie“ which basically invites you to create a short movie (maximum of one minute) out of short, different shots without having to muck around with an editing app. „Snap Movie“ is not a dual camera mode per se but one way of recording within this mode is to use a split-screen for simultaneously recording with both front and rear cameras. The image is recorded in 1080p with 16:9 or 9:16 aspect ratio. Big catch: You can only do so for a maximum of one minute! Flash forward to 2017 and the V30: While the „Snap Movie“ mode is gone (there’s something called „Snap Shot“ but that’s a completely different thing), there’s now a „Match Shot“ mode. With „Match Shot“ you can record a split-screen image using both front and rear cameras at the same time. You also have the option to select between regular and wide-angle lenses before starting the recording although the front camera actually only has one lens so it’s most likely a software crop. Two good things about the new mode: You are not limited to only one minute anymore and there’s also support for external mics. The recording format is a bit strange though as it’s a 18:9 or 9:18 aspect ration with a resolution of 2880×1440 (you can’t change the resolution at all). The beyond-FHD resolution is great but the rather non-standard aspect ratio (probably thanks to the 18:9 display of the phone) is a bit annoying for watching it on anything other than the phone itself because the image will either get letter-boxed on certain platforms like YouTube (I guess it’s not that much of a problem for Twitter and Facebook as they are more flexible with aspect ratios) or you will have to perform a crop in a video editing app and re-export in a more common 16:9 ratio. Hopefully LG will fine-tune this mode in the future, it would be nice to record in a standard 16:9 aspect ratio.

Nokia’s „Dual Sight“

As it has become quite clear, Nokia’s „Bothie“ feature introduced with the Nokia 8 last year is actually everything but new – HMD Global just made it an integral part of their marketing campaign for the device unlike their predecessors. The mode’s proper name is „Dual Sight“ and it’s pretty much like the one HTC had, meaning it’s an equally sized split-screen image in 16:9 or 9:16 aspect ratio with a resolution of 1080p. The Nokia 8 however DOES have one new trick up its sleeve: live streaming integration! You can use the „Dual Sight“ feature not only for recording but also for live streaming video on Facebook and YouTube (not sure about Periscope) which can come in really handy for journalists and live vloggers. One probable shortcoming of this mode on the Nokia 8: while I’m not able to test myself, I think it’s pretty save to say that Nokia’s native camera app doesn’t have support for external mics (the Nokia 5 definitely doesn’t). If you do own a Nokia 8 please let me know if my assumption is correct. Last bit of info: The recently launched Nokia 8 Sirocco and Nokia 7 Plus also seem to have the „Dual Sight“ mode.

All mentioned instances of dual recording modes have two things in common: You don’t get (as much) manual control over the image as you would in a ‚regular‘ video, it mostly runs on auto. And: the feature only works in the native camera app of the phone, third party developers can’t access the API to include this functionality in their own apps. There are a bunch of apps on the PlayStore that claim to do something similar but they only take pictures/videos successively with both cameras, not at the same time.

What do you think? Is it a useful feature? Do you know of any other phones that have a dual recording mode? Let me know in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter @smartfilming!

#11 Why ‘Motion Stills’ is a cool tool for fast micro-storytelling on both Android & iOS — 1. April 2018

#11 Why ‘Motion Stills’ is a cool tool for fast micro-storytelling on both Android & iOS

Back in 2016 Google made an iOS-exlusive app (weird, ain’t it?!) called Motion Stills. It focused on working with Apple’s newly introduced ‘Live Photos’ for the iPhone 6s. When you shoot a ‘Live Photo’, 1.5 seconds of video (with a low frame rate mind you) and audio before and after pressing the shutter button is recorded. You can think of it as a GIF with sound. What Motion Stills does is that it lets you record, stabilize, loop, speed-up and/or combine ‘Live Photos’. In 2017, Google finally brought the app to Android. Now while some Android phone makers have introduced ‘Live Photo’-like equivalents, there’s no general Android equivalent as such yet and because of that the app works slightly different on Android. Instead of ‘Live Photos’ you can shoot video clips with a maximum duration of 3 seconds (this also goes for pre-6s iPhones on iOS). There are also other shooting modes (Fast Forward, AR Mode) that are not limited to the 3 seconds but for this post I want to concentrate on the main mode Motion Still.

When I first looked at the app, I didn’t really find it very useful. Recording 3-second-clips in a weird vertical format of 1080×1440 (720×960 on iOS)? A revamped Vine without the attached community? Some days later however I realized that Motion Stills actually could be an interesting and easy-to-use visual micro-storytelling tool, especially for teaching core elements of visual storytelling. The main reasons why I think it’s useful are:

a) it’s a single app for both shooting and editing (and it’s free!)
b) the process of adding clips to a storyboard is super-easy and intuitive and
c) being forced to shoot only a maximum of 3 seconds let’s you concentrate on the essentials of a shot

So here’s a quick run-through of a possible scenario of how one might use the app for a quick story or say story-teaser: When covering a certain topic / location / object etc. you take a bunch of different 3-second-shots with Motion Stills (wide shot, close-up, detail etc. – 5-shot-rule anyone?) by pressing the record button. It might be good to include some sort of motion into at least some shots, either by shooting something where you already have motion because people or objects are moving or by moving the smartphone camera itself (‚dolly‘ shot, pan, tilt) when there is no intrinsic motion. Otherwise it might look a little bit too much like a stills slide show. Don’t worry too much about stabilization because Motion Stills automatically applies a stabilization effect afterwards and even without that, you might just be able to pull off a fairly stable shot for three seconds. After you have taken a bunch of shots, head over to the app’s internal gallery (bottom left corner on Android, swipe up on iOS) where all your recordings are saved and browse through the clips (they auto-play). If you tap a clip you can edit it in a couple of ways: You can turn off stabilization, mute the clip, apply a back-and-forth loop effect or speed it up. On iOS, you can also apply a motion tracking title (hope the Android version will get this feature soon as well!) What you can’t do is trim the clip. But you actually don’t have to go into edit mode at all if you’re happy with your clips as they are, you can create your story right from the gallery. And here’s the cool thing about that: Evoking a shade of Tinder, you can quickly add a clip to your project storyboard (which will appear at the bottom) by swiping a clip to the right or delete a clip from the gallery by swiping it to the left. If you want to rearrange clips in the storyboard, just long-press them and move them to the left or the right. If you want to delete a clip from the storyboard, long-press and drag it towards the center of the screen, a remove option will appear. In a certain way Google’s Motion Stills could be compared to Apple’s really good and more feature-rich Apple Clips app when it comes to creating a micro-story on the go really fast with a single app – but Apple Clips is – of course – only available for iOS.  When you are finished putting together your micro-story in Motion Stills, you can play it back by tapping the play button and save/share it by tapping the share button. Once you get the hang of it, this is truly fast and intuitive – you can assemble a series of shots in no time.

That being said, there are a couple of limitations and shortcomings that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Obviously, thanks to the 3-second-limit per clip, the app isn’t really useful for interviewing people or any other kind of monologue/dialogue scenario. You might fit in some one liners or exclamations but that’s about it. It’s also a bit unfortunate that the app doesn’t apply some kind of automatic audio-transition between the clips. If you listen to the end result with the sound on, you will often notice rather unpleasant jumps/cracks in the audio at the edit points. While you could argue that because of the format content will only be used for social media purposes where people often just watch stuff without sound and will not care much about the audio anyway, I still think this should be an added feature. But let’s get back to the format: While you have the option to export as a GIF if you are only exporting one clip, the end result of a series of clips (which is the use case I’m focusing on here) is an mp4 (mov on iOS) video file with the rather awkward resolution of 1080 by 1440 (Android) or 720 by 960 (iOS) – a 3:4 aspect ratio. This means that it will only be useful for social media platforms but hey, why ‚only‘, isn’t social media everything these days?! Another thing that might be regarded as a shortcoming or not is the fact that (at least on Android) you are pretty much boxed in with the app. You can’t import stuff and clips also don’t auto-save to the OS’s general Gallery (you will have to export clips manually for that). But is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so because a good part of the fun is doing everything with a single app: shooting, editing, exporting/publishing. So let’s finish this with an actual shortcoming: While the app is available for Android, it’s not compatible with certain devices – mostly low-end devices / mid-rangers with rather weak chipsets. And even if you can install it, some not-so-powerful devices like the Nokia 5 or Honor 6A (both rocking a Snapdragon 430) tend to struggle with the app when performing certain tasks. This doesn’t mean the app always runs a 100% stable on flagships – I also ran into the occasional glitch while using it on a Samsung S7 and an iPhone 6. Still, the app is free, so at least check it out, it can really be a lot of fun and useful to do/learn visual (micro) storytelling! Download it on GooglePlay (Android devices) or the Apple App Store (Apple devices).

P.S.: Note that you can only work on one project at a time and don’t clear the app from your app cache before finishing/exporting it – otherwise the project (not the recorded clips) will be lost!
P.P.S.: Turn off the watermark in the settings!

#10 Important update on the subject of Camera2 API — 26. March 2018

#10 Important update on the subject of Camera2 API

So some time ago I made a blog post about the topic of Camera2 API on Android devices and why it is important if you are interested in doing more advanced videography on your smartphone. If you don’t have a clue about what Camera2 API is, please check out my previous article before continuing to read this. One of the things that my previous article suggested was that you need a device with „Full“ or „Level 3“ Camera2 API support built into the Android OS by the manufacturer of the phone to take advantage of pro video recording apps. If your device has only „Legacy“ or „Limited“ Camera2 API support then you are not able to even install an app like Filmic Pro. However, after recently getting an Honor 6A into my hands, I need to differentiate and clarify some things.

The Honor 6A is a budget device from Huawei’s sub-brand Honor and shows „Limited“ Camera2 API support level, when testing with a probing app like Camera2 probe. I do own a fair amount of different smartphones to test with, but I realized that before getting the Honor 6A, I had only had phones with either „Legacy“ support level or „Full“/„Level 3“, none with the in-between „Limited“. And while the „Limited“ status does mean that you can’t install Filmic Pro at all and not activate the pro-mode in Lumio Cam, other pro video recording apps are not that picky and salvage what the „Limited“ support level gives them over „Legacy“ (the worst Camera2 API support level out of the four mentioned) instead of blocking the installation altogether. The other pro video recording apps I am talking about are Open Camera, ProShot, Footej Camera and Vimojo. If your device has „Limited“ Camera2 API support that includes manual exposure etc. you will be able to use these features (for instance control of ISO and shutter speed) in the aforementioned apps. Please note that when using ProShot, Footej Camera or Vimojo, Camera2 API is automatically activated whereas with Open Camera you will have to go into the settings, activate the usage of Camera2 API and restart the app.

Manual exposure controls in Open Camera.

Anyway, this is very good news for all those rocking an Android device that has only „Limited“ Camera2 API support: Prominent examples of such devices would be fairly recent Huawei phones including their flagship P-series (starting with the P9 / P9 Lite & newer, same should go for their Honor sub-brand) and fairly recent iterations of Samsung’s mid-range A-series (A3, A5, A7) – possibly also the entry-level J-series (J3, J5, J7). You still can’t use FilmicPro on these devices, but other pro video recording apps come to the rescue and do give you more advanced controls.

P.S.: These findings are also of relevance to owners of Sony phones. As I explained in my first blog post about Camera2 API, FilmicPro has (still) blacklisted Sony phones (even those with „Full“ or „Level 3“ support level) because of severe problems that they encountered during testing.

#9 Android-App-Liste zur Medienproduktion mit Smartphones — 23. February 2018

#9 Android-App-Liste zur Medienproduktion mit Smartphones

English preface to this post: Post #9 was supposed to be the 2nd part of the article about native camera apps but something came up so I’m squeezing another one in before delivering the sequel to #8. The reason is an event that’s happening today, February 23rd 2018, in Bochum, Germany: “MoJo Meeting” (Twitter: @MoJoMeeting), a (first time) gathering for the German/German-speaking “MoJo” community (“MoJo” = “Mobile Journalism”), hosted by the NRW Media Lab. While I’m unfortunately not able to participate in person, I have used this occasion to finally finish my extensive and fairly detailed Android app list for multimedia production that I had been working on for quite a while. A 15-page-pdf of the list will be downloadable from this post but the current list is in German. However I’m planning to make an English language version of this list available within the next few weeks.

Nun also noch einmal auf Deutsch: Eigentlich hätte Post #9 der zweite Teil des Artikels über native Kamera-Apps werden sollen, doch aufgrund des kurzfristig anberaumten “MoJo Meeting” in Bochum, welches am heutigen 23. Februar 2018 stattfindet, habe ich mich dazu entschlossen, einen anderen Beitrag hier einzuschieben – zur Abwechslung auch mal wieder in deutscher Sprache. Das “MoJo Meeting” (Twitter: @MoJoMeeting, Hashtag: #MoJoMeeting) ist ein (erstmaliges) Treffen für die deutsche/deutsch-sprachige “MoJo”-Community (“MoJo” = “Mobile Journalism”), das im NRW Media Lab in Bochum stattfindet. Zwar kann ich aus terminlichen Gründen nicht persönlich am MoJo Meeting teilnehmen, doch habe ich die Veranstaltung kurzerhand zum Anlass genommen, meine umfangreiche und detaillierte Android-App-Liste für Medienproduktion auf Smartphones, an der ich schon eine ganze Weile gewerkelt habe, endlich fertigzustellen und somit zumindest aus der Ferne einen kleinen Beitrag zu leisten. Neben der bloßen Auflistung der Apps gibt es noch zusätzliche Informationen, warum ich die App als nützlich betrachte, welche wichtigen Features enthalten sind, wo es noch hakt bzw. was es zu beachten gilt, wie es mit der allgemeinen Verfügbarkeit der App für Android-Geräte aussieht und welche Kosten auf einen zukommen. Die Liste ist selbstverständlich nur eine persönliche Auswahl ohne Allgemeingültigkeitsanspruch und nicht auf ewig in Stein gemeisselt. Gerade auf der Android-Plattform sind viele Faktoren ständig in Bewegung. Noch ein abschließender Hinweis: es ist durchaus möglich, dass sich bei der Masse an Material Tipp- oder auch inhaltliche Fehler eingeschlichen haben, die ich zu entschuldigen bitte. Korrektur-Hinweise nehme ich gerne in den Kommentaren, per eMail (smartfilming(at)live.com) oder auf Twitter (@smartfilming) entgegen. Hier nun aber die Liste zum Download als pdf, viel Spaß!

Android-App-List by smartfilming

Im Übrigen wünsche ich allen Organisatoren und Teilnehmern des MoJo Meeting eine spannende und erfolgreiche Veranstaltung, die sich hoffentlich in der ein oder anderen Form auch langfristig etablieren kann.

 

 

#7 The cheapest Android phone with relevant pro video specs? — 10. July 2017

#7 The cheapest Android phone with relevant pro video specs?

The Nextbit Robin

I’ve been spending quite some time in the last months doing research on what device could qualify as the cheapest budget Android phone that still has certain relevant pro specs for doing mobile video. While it might be up to discussion what specs are the most important (depending on who you ask), I have defined the following for my purposes: 1) decent camera that can record at least in FHD/1080p resolution, 2) proper Camera2 API support to run pro camera apps with manual controls like Filmic Pro (check out my last post about what Camera2 API is), 3) powerful enough chipset that allows the use of video layers in pro video editing apps like KineMaster and PowerDirector, 4) support for external microphones (preferably featuring a headphone jack as long as there are no good all-wireless solutions available).

The greatest obstacle in this turned out to be No. 2 on the list, proper Camera2 API support. Apart from Google’s (abandoned?) Nexus line which also includes a budget option with the Nexus 5X (currently retailing for around 250€), phone makers (so far) have only equipped their flagship phones with adequate Camera2 API support (meaning the hardware support level is either ‘Full’ or ‘Level 3’) while mid-range and entry-level devices are left behind.

Recently, I happened to come across a rather exotic Android phone, the Nextbit Robin. The Nextbit Robin is a crowdfunded phone that came out last year. Its most notable special feature was the included 100GB of cloud storage on top of the 32GB internal storage. While the crowdfunding campaign itself was successful and the phone was actually released, regular sales apparently have been somewhat underwhelming as the phone’s price has dropped significantly. Originally selling for a mid-range price of 399$, it can now be snagged for around 150€ online (Amazon US even has it for 129$). As far as I know, it is now the cheapest Android device that checks all the aforementioned boxes regarding pro video features, INCLUDING full Camera2 API support! Sure, it has some shortcomings like mediocre battery life (the battery is also non-replaceable – but that’s unfortunately all too common these days) and the lack of a microSD storage option (would have been more useful than the cloud thing). It also gets warm relatively quick and it’s not the most rugged phone out there. But it does have a lot going for it otherwise: The camera appears to be reasonably good (of course not in the same league as the ones from Samsung’s or LG’s latest flagships), it even records video in UHD/4K – though it’s no low light champion. The Robin’s chipset is the Snapdragon 808 which has aged a bit but in combination with 3GB of RAM, it’s still a quite capable representative of Qualcomm’s 800-series and powerful enough to handle FHD video layers in editing apps like KineMaster and PowerDirector which is essential if you want to do any kind of a/b-roll editing on your video project. It also features a 3.5mm headphone jack which makes it easy to use external microphones when recording video with apps that support external mics. The most surprising thing however is that Nextbit implemented full Camera2 API support in its version of Android which means it can run Filmic Pro (quite well, too, from what I can tell so far!) and other advanced video recording apps like Lumio Cam and Cinema 4K with full manual controls like focus, shutter speed & ISO. One more thing: The Robin’s Android version is pretty much as up-to-date as it gets: While it has Android 6 Marshmallow out of the box, you can upgrade to 7.1.1 Nougat (the latest version is 7.1.2).

So should you buy it? If you don’t mind shelling out big bucks for one of the latest Android flagship phones and you really want the best camera and fastest chipset currently available, then maybe no. But if you are looking for an incredible deal that gives you a phone with a solid camera and a whole bunch of pro video specs at a super-low price, then look no further – you won’t find that kind of package for less at the moment.

#6 What the hell is Camera2 API and why should I know about it? — 17. June 2017

#6 What the hell is Camera2 API and why should I know about it?

 

Manual controls for exposure and focus in Filmic Pro V6 (current Android beta version).

This blog post is trying to shed some light into one of Android’s fragmentation corners – one that’s mainly relevant for people interested in more advanced photography and videography apps to take manual control over their image composition.

First off, I have to say that I’m not a coder / software expert at all so this comes from a layman’s point of view and I will – for obvious reasons – not dig too deep into the more technical aspects underneath the surface.

Now, what is an API? API stands for „application programming interface“. An operating system uses APIs to give (third party) developers tools and access to certain parts of the system to use them for their application. In reverse, this means that the maker of the operating system can also restrict access to certain parts of the system. To quote from Wikipedia: „In general terms, it is a set of clearly defined methods of communication between various software components. A good API makes it easier to develop a computer program by providing all the building blocks, which are then put together by the programmer.“ Now you know it.

Up to version 4.4 (KitKat) of Android, the standard API to access the camera functionality embedded in the OS was very limited. With version 5 (Lollipop), Google introduced the so-called Camera2 API to give camera app developers better access to more advanced controls of the camera, like manual exposure (ISO, shutter speed), focus, RAW capture etc. While the phone makers themselves are not necessarily fully dependent on Google’s new API, because they can customize their own version of the Android OS, third party app developers are to a large extend – they can only work with the tools they are given.

So does every Android device running Lollipop have the new Camera 2 API? Yes and no. While Camera2 API is the new standard Camera API since Android Lollipop, there are different levels of implementation of this API which vary between different phone makers and devices. There are four different levels of Camera2 implementation: Legacy, Limited, Full and Level 3. ‚Legacy‘ means that only the features from the old Camera1 API are available, ‚Limited‘ means that some features of the new API are available, ‚Full‘ means that all basic new features of Camera2 are available and ‚Level 3‘ adds some bonus features like RAW capture on top of that.

From the official Android documentation for developers.

Depending on the level of implementation, you can use those features in advanced image capturing apps – or not. An app like Filmic Pro can only be installed if the Camera2 support level is at least ‚Full‘ – otherwise you can only install the less feature-packed Filmic Plus. Lumio Cam on the other hand can be installed on most devices but you can only activate the pro mode with manual exposure and focus if the support level is at least ‚Full‘ again. So if you’re interested in using advanced third party apps for capturing photos or recording video with manual exposure controls etc. you want to have a device that at least has ‚Full‘ Camera2 API support.

But what devices have ‚Full‘ Camera2 support? Currently there are two main categories: Google hardware (phones) and (many/most) flagship phones that were released after Android Lollipop came out. Actually, it seems that the latter really only got going with Android 6 Marshmallow (I guess phone makers needed some time to figure out what this was all about ;)) It doesn’t come as a surprise that Google gives their own devices full support (Nexus & Pixel lines). That means even an almost ancient, pre-Lollipop device like the original Nexus 5 has received full support in the meantime (via OS update). Of course all Nexus phones after that (Nexus 6, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P) are included and it goes without saying Google’s Pixel phones as well.

Now let’s head over to other smartphone manufacturers (so-called OEMs, Original Equipment Manufacturers) like Samsung, LG, HTC, Huawei, Sony, Lenovo/Motorola, OnePlus etc. Many of them offer at least the crucial ‚Full‘ support level on their flagships that came out with Android 6 Marshmallow installed, some already on the ones that came out with Android 5 Lollipop: Samsung with it’s S-series (S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge Plus via update, S7, S7 Edge etc.), LG with its G-series (starting with the G4) and V-series (starting with the V10), HTC (starting with the HTC 10), Lenovo/Motorola (starting with the Moto Z), OnePlus (starting with the OnePlus 3/3T), and Sony (starting with the Xperia Z5 via update as far as I know). Sony however is a special case: Their Xperia series has been blacklisted by the developers of FilmicPro/Plus because of major issues that occurred with their devices – you can’t install their apps on a Sony phone at the moment. On the other hand, there are also a few major smartphone OEMs that yet have to offer full Camera2 support for their flagships, the most prominent black sheep being Huawei with its P & Mate series, even the brand new Huawei P10 with all its camera prowess has only limited support. The same goes – unsurprisingly – for Huawei’s budget brand Honor. Other OEMs that don’t offer full Camera2 support in their flagships include Asus (Zenfone 3) and Blackberry (KeyOne). Let’s hope that they will soon add this support and let’s also hope that proper support trickles down to the mid-range and maybe even entry-level phones of the Android universe.

Are you curious what Camera2 support level your phone has? You can use two different apps (both free) on the Google Play Store to test the level of Camera2 implementation on your device. Camera2 probe & Camera2 Probe.

You can also find a (naturally incomplete) list of Android devices and their level of Camera2 API support here, created and maintained by the developer of the app „Camera2 probe“:

https://github.com/TobiasWeis/android-camera2probe/wiki

If you have a device that is not listed, you can help expanding the list by sending your device’s results (no personal data though) to the developer (there’s a special button at the bottom of the app).

For more in-depth information about Camera2 API, check out these sources:

https://spectrastudy.com/camera2-api-on-mwc-2015-devices/

https://developer.android.com/reference/android/hardware/camera2/package-summary.html

If you have questions or comments, feel free to get in touch!

#4 “Insta360 Air”: 360°-Kamera für Android-Smartphones — 14. March 2017

#4 “Insta360 Air”: 360°-Kamera für Android-Smartphones

Die Firma Insta360 hatte bereits vor einigen Monaten eine 360°-Aufsteckkamera für iPhones (Insta360 Nano) herausgebracht, nach einer erfolgreichen Crowdfunding-Kampagne auf IndieGoGo dürfen sich mit der Insta360 Air nun auch viele Besitzer eines Android-Smartphones über einen recht kostengünstigen Einstieg in die langsam an Fahrt gewinnende Welt der 360°-Kameras freuen.

Im Gegensatz zu eigenständigen 360°-Kameras wie der Ricoh Theta S, der LG 360 Cam oder der Samsung Gear 360 (die zwar jeweils auch immer über eine Companion-App zur besseren Kontrolle verfügen, jedoch zur Not auch ohne diese funktionieren)  kann die Insta360 Air nur zusammen mit einem Android-Smartphone oder per Adapter als Web-Cam an einem Rechner betrieben werden. Sie verfügt weder über einen internen Speicher noch über eine eigene Stromversorgung. Die Insta360 Air besitzt je nach gewähltem Modell einen Anschluss vom Typ Micro-USB oder USB-C. Letzterer wird gerade zunehmend als neuer Verbindungs-Standard etabliert, die allermeisten Android-Geräte im Umlauf besitzen jedoch derzeit noch einen Micro-USB-Anschluss. Die Insta360 Air steckt in einer Schutzhülle aus Gummi, die sich gut um die Kamera schmiegt und die Linsen vor Kratzern bewahrt, wenn man die Kamera transportiert. 

Bevor es losgeht, muss man sich auf jeden Fall noch die Insta360 Air-App aus dem PlayStore herunterladen, um die Kamera zu bedienen. Die Kamera wird direkt auf den jeweiligen USB-Anschluss des Smartphones gesteckt und bietet einem im Aufnahme-Modus drei Optionen: Foto, Video und Video-Livestreaming (z.B. über YouTube). Die aufgenommenen Videos und Fotos werden direkt auf dem Smartphone gespeichert und müssen nicht erst wie bei anderen 360°-Kameras per WiFi übertragen werden. Hier gibt es aber bereits einen ersten gravierenden Kritikpunkt: Die App erlaubt es derzeit noch nicht, Inhalte auf einen externen Speicher (also eine microSD-Karte) zu schreiben, gerade das aber ist ja einer der Vorteile von Android gegenüber iOS. Und speziell bei so speicherintensiven Dateien wie 360-Videos oder -Fotos stößt man dann schnell auf Probleme, wenn einem nur der interne Speicher zur Verfügung steht. Die Entwickler haben jedoch angekündigt, dass die Funktion des Speicherns auf externe SD-Karten per Update noch nachgereicht wird. [NACHTRAG: Mit dem App-Update vom 21. März 2017 ist es nun auch möglich, Aufnahmen direkt auf einer externen SD-Karte für speichern. Falls die Schreibgeschwindigkeit der verwendeten Karte jedoch unzureichend ist, kann es zu Leistungsproblemen kommen.]

Dass man Videos und Fotos gleich direkt auf dem Smartphone hat, ist natürlich insbesondere auch deshalb hilfreich, da das Material bei Bedarf gleich über soziale Netzwerke geteilt werden kann. Man sollte jedoch dabei beachten, dass nicht alle verfügbaren Teil-Optionen tatsächlich die Datei versenden oder direkt die gewünschte Plattform nutzen: Während z.B. YouTube (für Videos) und Facebook (Fotos und Videos) mit interaktiven 360°-Dateien korrekt umgehen können, unterstützen andere Plattformen wie WhatsApp, Instagram oder Twitter interaktives 360°-Material (noch) nicht nativ. Stattdessen wird das Video oder Foto auf die Seite von Insta360 geladen und ein Link generiert, der dann über die entsprechenden Dienste versendet werden kann. Der Empfänger folgt dem Link, um das Foto oder Video im interaktiven Format anzuschauen. Natürlich liegt das Problem grundsätzlich nicht bei Insta360, sondern bei den Plattformen selbst, da diese erst die entsprechende Infrastruktur in ihrem Netz zur Verfügung stellen müssten. Insta360 präsentiert deshalb eine Notlösung, aber wer sein Material nicht auf deren Server wissen will, der sollte auf bestimmte Teiloptionen verzichten, auch wenn es zunächst danach aussieht, als könnte man die Datei direkt über die gewünschte Plattform teilen. Es besteht allerdings alternativ die Möglichkeit, das Video oder Foto in einem anderen, nicht-interaktiven Format (“Little Planet”) direkt zu versenden, ohne den Umweg über die Seite von Insta360 zu gehen. Ein Manko bleibt dagegen leider, dass die Teilen-Funktion anscheinend nicht auf installierte Dateitransfer-Apps wie z.B. SendAnywhere zugreift, damit man die Datei gegebenenfalls schnell und bequem über WiFi an einen Rechner schicken kann, um dort mit ihr weiterzuarbeiten. Man muss dazu erst umständlich die Datei in die Galerie exportieren (da die Dateien zunächst alle intern in der App und nicht in der Android-Galerie gespeichert werden) und kann sie von dort aus über SendAnywhere oder eine ähnliche App versenden. Allgemein wäre es nach dem Aufnehmen von Videos auch noch sehr hilfreich, wenn man zumindest eine simple Trimfunktion zur Videobearbeitung hätte, um unerwünschte Teile am Beginn oder am Ende herauszuschneiden, bevor man das Video teilt. Auch das haben die Entwickler allerdings für ein zukünftiges Update der App zugesagt. Immerhin gibt es für Android bereits zwei durchaus brauchbare Videoschnitt-Apps für 360°-Videos, mit denen sich das Material der Insta360 Air nach erfolgtem Export in die Galerie bearbeiten lässt. Beide Apps befinden sich allerdings noch in der Beta-Phase, können aber trotzdem schon aus dem PlayStore geladen werden: “Collect” und “V360”.

Was die Bildqualität angeht, so schlägt sich die Insta360 Air für den günstigen Preis (im Rahmen der IndieGoGo-Kampagne 99 US-Dollar, im offenen Verkauf nun um die 150€) wirklich respektabel. Klar kann sie nicht mit hochwertigeren Kameras wie Samsungs Gear 360, Nikons Keymission 360 oder gar einem GoPro-Omni-Rig mithalten, aber diese kosten nun einmal auch wesentlich mehr (wobei die Gear 360 zuletzt stark im Preis gefallen ist). Mit den (immer noch teureren) Einsteiger-360°-Kameras von Ricoh und LG ist die Insta360 Air jedoch auf Augenhöhe, zumindest im Video-Bereich. Während die etwa 3x so teure Ricoh Theta S in Sachen Fotoauflösung zwar deutlich im Vorteil ist (max. 5376 x 2688 vs. 3008 x 1506 Pixel), geht die Insta360 Air beim Video (max. 2560 x 1280 vs. 1920 x 1080 – einige wenige Android-Modelle sollen sogar eine noch etwas höhere Videoauflösung ermöglichen) sogar als Sieger hervor. Es gab allerdings auch ein paar Fälle, in denen im Video kleinere Fragmente/Bildstörungen auftauchten. Bei Gelegenheit werde ich demnächst noch ein paar Samples verlinken oder einbetten.

Je nachdem, für welchen Zweck und in welcher Situation man eine 360°-Kamera einsetzt, ist die direkte Verbindung der Insta360 Air via eines Steckers mit dem Smartphone eher von Vorteil oder Nachteil gegenüber eigenständigen Kameras wie der Theta S, der LG Cam 360 oder der Gear 360, die man per WiFi vom Smartphone aus fernsteuert, ohne dass diese über einen Stecker miteinander verbunden sind. Wer hauptsächlich im “Selfie-Style” produzieren will, also Material, in dem man auch selbst im Bild zu sehen ist, für den ist die Insta360 Air genau richtig. Wer dagegen hauptsächlich Inhalte produzieren will, bei denen er selbst nicht im Bild zu sehen ist und trotzdem ständig die Kontrolle über das Bild hat, der ist mit einer eigenständigen 360°-Kamera inklusive WiFi-Steuerung besser bedient.

Die manuellen Einstellmöglichkeiten des Bildes über die App sind sehr begrenzt und orientieren sich eher am Socialmedia-Nutzer mit Fun-Faktor als am Video- oder Fotoprofi, was aber angesichts der Zielgruppe dieses Produktes ja auch völlig ok ist. Die Übersichtlichkeit der Optionen ist für Neulinge wahrscheinlich sogar eher ein willkommener Vorteil, da man schnell und einfach damit zurecht kommt. Im Foto-Modus gibt es zahlreiche Live-Filter, einen Timer für die Selbstauslösung sowie die Möglichkeit, den Belichtungswert nach oben oder unten zu ändern (allerdings keine ISO-Werte oder Verschlusszeiten). Im Video-Modus gibt es ebenfalls Live-Filter, einfache Belichtungskorrektur sowie die Möglichkeit, eine von zwei Videoauflösungen (2560×1280 oder 1920×960) zu wählen. Im Livestreaming-Modus lässt sich schließlich die Streaming-Platform, die Bitrate und die Auflösung wählen. Farbbalance/Weißabgleich läuft in allen Modi automatisch und kann nicht beeinflusst werden.

Positiv ist hervorzuheben, dass die Benutzung eines externen Mikrofons (z.B. eines smartLavs von Rode) über die 3,5mm-Klinke möglich ist, da die App dann diesen Audio-Input automatisch anzapft. Der Ton eines Videos ist prinzipiell eine wichtige Sache (soweit der Fokus nicht auf einer untertitelte und/oder “stummen” Version für SocialMedia liegt) und deshalb ist die Option für die Verwendung eines externen Mikros sehr willkommen. Benutzt man kein externes Mikro, dann hatte ich beim Ton öfter einmal kleinere Aussetzer während des Videos. Solange man nur unspektakuläre Umgebungsgeräusche hat, ist das nicht übermäßig problematisch. Wer jedoch etwas live zum Video erzählt, der bevorzugt sicher einen saubereren Ton.

Insgesamt lässt sich auf jeden Fall sagen, dass die App von der Benutzeroberfläche her sehr intuitiv und schick gestaltet ist. Allerdings muss an dieser Stelle nun auch das mit Abstand größte Problem benannt werden, dass sich mir bei der Benutzung der Insta360 Air offenbarte und das für jede Menge Frust sorgte: Die Zuverlässigkeit und Stabilität der App lässt (noch) sehr zu wünschen übrig – zumindest war das bei meinen drei Android-Test-Geräten zu beobachten. Fairerweise muss gesagt werden, dass eigentlich nur zwei davon wirklich zählen, da das Sony Xperia M2 mit seinem Snapdragon 400 SoC (System-on-a-Chip) nicht die Anforderungen an die Hardware erfüllt, die Insta360 selbst vorgibt. Genauere Informationen zu den mit der Insta360 Air kompatiblen Android-Geräten finden sich hier auf der Seite von Insta360 und sollten UNBEDINGT konsultiert werden, bevor man sich die Kamera kauft! Als offiziell kompatible Testgeräte blieben mir deshalb ein LG V10 (mit Snapdragon 808 und Android Marshmallow) sowie ein Lenovo Moto G4 Plus (mit Snapdragon 617 und Android Nougat). Leider stellte sich schnell heraus, dass die App zur Bedienung der Insta360 Air sehr häufig hängen bleibt, abstürzt oder Fehlermeldungen produziert. Während man mit dem V10 immerhin noch eine Chance von gefühlten 50% hat, dass die App funktioniert, scheint es beim G4 Plus ein reines Glücksspiel zu sein und die App funktioniert weitaus häufiger nicht als dass sie funktioniert. Die Tatsache, dass das Ganze mit dem V10 immerhin wesentlich besser klappt (wenn auch keineswegs gut), legt die Vermutung nahe, dass die Leistungsfähigkeit des Chipsets eine Rolle spielt. 360°-Videos verlangen dem Chip eine Menge Rechenleistung ab und es scheint mir durchaus möglich, dass die Insta360 Air bzw. die App bei  Smartphones mit den neuesten Top-Chips von Qualcomm (Snapdragon 820/821/835) oder einem entsprechenden Äquivalent (z.B. Samsungs Exynos 8890 im S7/S7 Edge) wesentlich besser, vielleicht sogar prinzipiell absolut zuverlässig funktionieren. Der Snapdragon 808 des V10 war zwar schon bei der Veröffentlichung des Gerätes nur der zweitleistungsfähigste Chip von Qualcomm (LG traute dem eigentlichen Top-Chip 810 wegen diverser Überhitzungsprobleme in anderen Geräten nicht recht und verbaute deshalb den SD 808), doch wenn selbst die 600er-Serie von Insta360 noch offiziell als kompatibel ausgegeben wird, hätte ich mir schon eine weitaus zuverlässigere Performance im Zusammenspiel mit dem Snapdragon 808 erwartet.  Andererseits kann es natürlich auch sein, dass die App noch nicht vollkommen ausgereift oder optimiert ist. Für Letzteres könnte sprechen, dass die Probleme oft schon beim Starten der Kamerafunktion auftreten, noch bevor die Aufnahme überhaupt begonnen wurde. Möglicherweise beansprucht aber auch die Vorschau den Prozessor bereits dermaßen stark, dass sich weniger starke Chipsets daran “verschlucken”. Mitunter kommt es auch vor, dass die App zwar normal läuft, die Verbindung zur Kamera jedoch plötzlich abbricht und eine Fehlermeldung erscheint. Wenn man mit der Kamera einfach nur ungezwungen herumspielen will, dann nimmt man die Schwierigkeiten vielleicht noch locker und freut sich einfach über die guten Ergebnisse, wenn es klappt. Auch macht die Verwendung der Insta360 Air grundsätzlich eine Menge Spaß. Wer aber darauf baut, dass er sich zu einem bestimmten Zeitpunkt auf die Kamera verlassen können muss, der sollte genügend Zeit für Stoßgebete an den Technikgott oder gute Nerven mitbringen. [NACHTRAG: Ich habe festgestellt, dass die App wesentlich zuverlässiger funktioniert, wenn man die Kamera erst ganz am Ende nach dem Aktivieren der Live-Vorschau in der App auf das Smartphone steckt und nicht schon vorher. Prinzipiell kann man sie jedoch auch vor dem Öffnen der App verbinden, die App wird dann automatisch gestartet.]

Abschließend lässt sich sagen: Wenn sie funktioniert, dann ist sie super! Die Insta360 Air ist ein cooles Gadget, das für viele ein kostengünstiger Einstieg in die spannende Welt der 360°-Videos und -Fotos sein kann und für den Preis eine erstaunliche Qualität (vor allem im Video-Bereich) bietet. Auch die App ist vom Design her gut gelungen. Neben einigen fehlenden Features wie z.B. der Möglichkeit, Videos und Fotos auf die externe SD-Karte des Smartphones zu schreiben oder Videos zu schneiden (die wohl noch mit Updates nachgeliefert werden) ist das gravierendste Problem die fehlende Stabilität und Zuverlässigkeit der App im Zusammenspiel mit der Kamera – zumindest was die Tests mit meinen zwei Testgeräten, dem LG V10 und dem Lenovo Moto G4 Plus, angeht. Es bleibt die Hoffnung, dass das App-Kamera-Tandem bei noch leistungsfähigeren Smartphones wesentlich besser funktioniert oder – das wäre natürlich die bessere Variante – das Zusammenspiel durch App- oder Firmware-Updates so optimiert werden kann, dass man die Insta360 Air auch mit Geräten unterhalb der absoluten Flaggschiff-Klasse zuverlässig nutzen kann.