smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#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

#22 Visualizing audio on Android – finally a very good app? — 9. May 2020

#22 Visualizing audio on Android – finally a very good app?

While I’m personally not that much involved in the production of pure audio / radio content, I have noticed that there has been increasing demand for a way to make audio stand out more in social networks that primarily address the eye. There are some web tools like Headliner, Audiogram or Auphonic and the relatively popular iOS-only app Wizibel that basically take an audio file, generate a visual waveform animation based on it and create an mp4 video file as the end product which is easily shareable on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. Usually you can also add a still image or text to spice it up. Some call this type of audio visualization an “audiogram” and I think it’s particularly useful for audio teasers (for a podcast for instance) or audio content that is only a couple of minutes long. There have been a few options on Android as well (ChkSnd, Audio Vision for Videomakers, Avee Music Player) but while they weren’t exactly bad, they all had some shortcomings. A couple of days ago however I stumbled upon a very promising app that’s relatively new (it was released November 2019): Visualization Video Maker.

After spending a couple of days with the app, I’m sure this one’s a keeper – it’s the best I have encountered on Android so far. It has a good, clean and easy to use UI but still a lot of options to customize the look of your audiogram. The basic workflow is very simple: You start with a given spectrum, then choose your audio file and optionally add a background photo/graphic/text. That’s about it. Of course you can dig a bit deeper and customize different aspects of your video, the app’s UI makes it very intuitive. You can choose from a set of animated spectrums/spectra (bar, circle, line, texture etc.) and define size, color, position and opacity among other things. There’s also a bunch of options to edit your text or photo. You are even able to change the layering of spectrum, text(s) and additional photos/graphics to decide which one is represented as the top layer. Everyone familiar with the layering of graphical elements like in Photoshop for instance should feel at home. You can also “mute” layers which basically disables them so they are hidden from the preview but still in your layer stack.

The app supports the import of different audio formats/codecs including wav/pcm, mp3 and m4a/aac. However I have found that there seems to be a bug affecting LG devices where you get an error message when trying to use wav files with pcm codec (mp3, m4a/aac on the other hand work just fine). I tested this on an LG V30 and LG Q6. I had no problems with wav files on a whole bunch of other Android devices.

Let’s take a quick look at things that could be improved: 1) The video aspect ratios are limited to 16:9 landscape, I couldn’t find any square or portrait format options. When considering that the app is a great tool to present or tease audio in social networks, more format options would be great to have, particularly a square 1:1. 2) From what I can see the app is lacking proper share integration with other apps via the Android share sheet. Yes, you can pick your audio file through the media browser / audio file system but depending on the recording app you used for recording your audio file, finding these files can be a bit annoying, especially if you have lots of audio files on your device. So it would be great to be able to share the recorded audio file from your recording app of choice directly into VVM. I have tried this with a couple of common Android audio recording apps but never was VVM listed as a target when opening the share sheet so I think the problem is on VVM’s side.

In the export panel you can choose between the following video resolutions for your mp4 file: 1920×1080, 1280×720, 854×480 and 640×360. You can also define a custom video bitrate while the frame rate is automatically 30fps. The audio bitrate of the exported video is 128Kbps (no matter the input), which is pretty ok for sharing on social networks but could still be raised a bit to please the more audiophile crowd. 

VVM is basically free without any kind of watermark but to export your project you have to watch a 30 sec advertisement if the export resolution is 720p or above or the length over 3 minutes. I suppose this is a pretty fair deal. Unfortunately, there are no in-app purchases whatsoever to avoid watching the ad. So even if you are willing to pay, there’s currently no way. It would have been nice to have the option for a one-off purchase of the app which will then let you always go straight to the export.

And here’s a bonus tip: If you use Visualization Video Maker in combination with the app AutoCap you can even get automatic captions for your clip! Just take the exported clip from VVM into AutoCap and let this app do its magic. While AutoCap is free to use as well, you will have to pay to get rid of the watermark here.

Last thing: I just noticed that there’s actually now an Android app version of Headliner (iOS version as well) but so far I wasn’t able to import/upload any audio files. Despite meeting all the requirements (mp3/wav file, under 500MB and under 2 hours length) I always get an error message “File problem. Please make sure your file is a MP3 or WAV, under 500 MB & shorter than 2 hours”. You also need to create an account for the app so VVM definitely looks like the better mobile option to me at this point.

Is this a useful app in your opinion? Do you think ‘audiograms’ are a good thing? Drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming.

Download “Visualization Video Maker” for Android on Google Play.

#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 (Android/iOS/WindowsMobile) — 5. October 2019

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (Android/iOS/WindowsMobile)

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 choose „Stabilise“. 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. KineMaster, which I generally regard as the best video editing app on Android, is still missing this feature by the way.

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.

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).

#18 The Xiaomi Pocophone F1 – THE best value videography smartphone? — 19. June 2019

#18 The Xiaomi Pocophone F1 – THE best value videography smartphone?

Do you remember OnePlus marketing its phone(s) as the „flagship killer“? A device with all the bells and whistles of a top-of-the-line smartphone but only about half the price? A device that would kill the demand for the very popular but also very expensive flagship phones of Apple, Samsung & Co.? Well, while OnePlus is still a very common name when it comes to getting the best phone bang for the buck, 2018 brought about a new kid on the block that some dared to call the „flagship killer killer“: The Pocophone F1. Wait, the what-phone? Yeah right, Pocophone! It’s actually not another whole new company venturing into the smartphone business but a sub-brand of Xiaomi, the Chinese company already well established in its home market but also slowly expanding around the globe. It’s basically what the Honor phones are for Huawei. The fact that recent phones from OnePlus couldn’t quite withstand the general price bump in the high-end segment kickstarted by Apple’s iPhone X in 2017 introduced an opportunity for someone else to cater to the crowd that wants great specs but isn’t willing to spend a fortune. Enter: the Pocophone F1. When it launched in August 2018 you did get a device with the year’s latest flagship chipset from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 845, for a crazy low price of just over 300€, undercutting OnePlus (and everyone else’s flagships) by a significant margin. Does this mean the Pocophone F1 could be the new Holy Grail for great smartphone video production on a budget? After using it for a couple of months as a secondary device I would like to share some thoughts. Please note: I will look at this phone pretty much exclusively from the viewpoint of using it as a videography tool!

Hardware/Software

The Pocophone F1 is available with internal storage capacities of 64/128GB (6GB RAM) and 256GB (8GB RAM), all of them have the option to expand the storage via microSD card to up to another 256GB. So if you are recording a lot in UHD/4K, this is a pretty solid set-up although not quite as impressive in terms of internal storage as Samsung for instance which offers 512GB and even 1TB (!) internal storage on some of their latest flagships. The SoC (System-on-a-Chip), commonly known as chipset or processor, is – as mentioned before – a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, the company’s most powerful chipset of 2018 and at the heart of many a flagship phone of 2018/2019, including the Samsung S9/S9+ and Note 9 (at least in regions like the US, in other markets Samsung is using their own Exynos chip), the Google Pixel 3/3XL, the OnePlus 6T and the LG G7. Unfortunately it goes without saying these days that the Pocophone F1 does not have a (user) replaceable battery. This trend has been a big bummer for (professional) power users (and environmental sustainability!) but it’s become the harsh reality and everyone just seems to put up with it. The 4000 mAh battery is quite generous but it’s good to have a power bank at hand nevertheless if you are into heavy usage. While the replaceable battery is pretty much a thing of the past, the 3.5mm headphone jack is still holding on to a certain degree and even making a small comeback (hello Huawei P30 and Google Pixel 3a/3aXL!) It’s great the Pocophone has one on board so you can use it to connect external mics and don’t have to rely on the newer USB-C port for which there aren’t so many external microphone options (yet). As for the software side of things, the phone came with Android Oreo 8.1 out of the box but can be upgraded to Android Pie 9.0. It’s running Xiaomi’s MIUI on top of Android and while it’s not the prettiest skin in my opinion, it received the Pie update relatively early last year and has some useful stock apps like a screen recorder with surprisingly many options (resolution, bitrate, orientation, frame rate).

Cameras

The Pocophone F1 has a total of four cameras which sounds pretty exciting at first but for videography purposes, only two are actually useful because the secondary ones (both front and rear) are just meant to create the popular background blur effect in photos. With the LG V30 as my primary phone and its super-handy secondary rear wide-angle camera that can be used for shooting videos just like photos, it’s somewhat painful to realize Xiaomi doesn’t give you the same flexibility for videography. I recently damaged my V30’s wide-angle lens and it’s hard to overstate how much I miss it. That being said, a secondary camera for video isn’t really a must to produce good video content, we’ve been living for years without them and in general you’d rather have one very good camera than two that are mediocre. So what about the camera(s) on the Pocophone F1 that can be used for shooting video? Usually the camera is the most decisive factor when looking at the differences between cheap and more expensive phones. The main rear camera has an aperture of f/1.9, a sensor size of 1/2.55“, a pixel size of 1.4µm and features electronic image stabilization (EIS), so it’s software-based, not optical. You can shoot up to UHD/4K resolution with 30fps. One strange thing is that the 30fps limit doesn’t only apply to UHD/4K recording but to FHD/1080p and HD/720p as well. So you can’t shoot in 60fps at all (yet). Apparently there’s a firmware update on the way however that will add 60fps recording for all resolutions including UHD/4K but I haven’t received it myself so far. EDIT: I have received the update in the meantime and I can now record with 60fps in FHD and UHD/4K in the native camera app (no support for 3rd party apps unfortunately). The front (selfie) camera has an aperture of f/2.0, a pixel size of 0.9µm, a fixed focus and you can shoot at a maximum of FHD/1080p at 30fps, no stabilization. The quality is decent but I’m not much of a selfie-shooter. So here’s some test footage from the rear camera, the first video was shot with FilmicPro in UHD/4K at 25fps, the second video with the native camera app in same resolution but at 30fps:

While it can’t quite match the latest flagships from Samsung, Google, Huawei or Apple, the camera holds up pretty well in my opinion, it’s actually great on many levels if you consider the low price of the phone and definitely (more than) good enough for professional mobile content creation. Taking my personal taste into account I find the colors to be a bit too popping and saturated, at least when using the native camera app (the colors in the footage shot with Filmic Pro look more realistic and subdued which I prefer). But I’m pretty sure some users might actually like the extra-punch. There was one shot I captured with the native camera app that puzzled me: Despite having regular daylight on a sunny day and no overexposure in general there was some strange and noticeable noise in a the darker part of the image (you can see it here at 2:21 in the video on the right hand side). I’m used to similar noise in low light situations with high ISO levels but not on a sunny day outside. This appears to be a software-based image processing technique called „local tone mapping“ which amplifies part of the image to compensate for underexposure (thanks to Chris Cohen from Filmic Inc. for clarifying!) and is something that can be seen (to varying degrees) on other smartphones as well. You should watch out for it when you have a generally well-lit scene that also contains very dark/darker areas. From what I can see it’s not possible to eliminate this completely even with manual controls in 3rd party apps, but most of the time it’s not really noticeable unless you do some serious pixel peeping (the example highlighted here was by far the most drastic one I have encountered). Still, I thought it’s important not to sweep it under the rug.

The Native Camera App

UI of the Pocophone F1’s native camera app in video mode.

When we are talking about integrating the device into a more advanced / professional videography context it’s of course necessary to consider what features and controls you have at your disposal using the camera with both native and 3rd party camera apps. The native camera app is somewhat solid but not really great for shooting video. On the plus side, you get to lock focus (auto-focus works well btw) and exposure by tapping/holding (only for the rear camera though, not the front/selfie camera!) and you can also adjust the exposure, but only via general exposure values (EV), not with precise shutter speed and ISO parameters. While the ability to lock the exposure for video is a step forward from an earlier Xiaomi phone I tested (the Mi A1), it’s still another sorry example of a native camera app including a full-featured pro mode with manual controls (shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focus) for photography while at the same time ignoring videographers that want the same for video. For video there’s also no control at all over white balance. If you mostly do static shots from a tripod without much camera movement you can get away with an automatic white balance that works well but if you move the camera (walking shots with a gimbal, pans, tilts etc.) or shoot in environments with both natural and artificial light sources you might be in serious trouble dealing with shifting color temperatures. There’s also no support for external microphones in the native camera app.

Things look slightly better when we go into the video settings and ignore the peculiar omission of 60fps recording I already mentioned. It’s definitely useful that Xiaomi gives you an anti-banding option for 50/60Hz to avoid light flicker (given the fact that you don’t have control over shutter speed and frame rate), the ability to turn image stabilization on/off (it can interfere with the stabilization technique of a gimbal) and lets you choose between the H.264/AVC and the newer H.265/HEVC video codecs. The latter has superior compression which is more processor-intensive but also reduces the file size while keeping the quality, so if you are shooting a lot of UHD/4K video and struggle with your phone’s storage this might be the way to go. Keep in mind though that H.265 is not yet an accepted codec with all video editing software out there. On Android the video editing apps KineMaster and PowerDirector already allow importing and editing clips utilizing this newer codec. All video clips are saved as common mp4 files.

Some more specs: UHD/4K video is recorded with a bitrate of around 43 Mbps (1080p: around 20 Mbps) and uses the Rec. 2020 color space (1080p: Rec. 709). Audio is recorded in stereo at 192 Kbps and a sample rate of 48 kHz (all resolutions). Apart from the semi-automatic regular video mode (which also has a timelapse feature) there are two other video modes: „Short Video“ and „Slow Motion“. „Short Video“ lets you shoot a clip with a maximum length of 10 seconds (featuring a countdown clock) which is not particularly exciting. „Slow Motion“ on the other hand has some potential. When I first got the phone I was able to shoot slow-motion with a maximum frame rate of 240fps at 1080p which is cool but relatively standard these days for flagship phones. However, some weeks later Xiaomi distributed a firmware update that actually added a new feature to the camera app: slow-motion with a crazy 960fps (at a maximum resolution of 1080p), something that Sony first introduced with the Xperia XZ Premium in 2017. Considering that you can do something like that at all with a 300€ phone is just mind-boggling. But like with Sony’s feature on the XZ Premium, there’s a catch: You can only record at this frame rate for about a second. While it’s quite understandable that recording at 960fps for a longer time is a bridge too far for a phone in 2018 (what ‚big‘ camera can do that?), this limits the practical usefulness and requires luck and/or much practice to showcase all of its glory. The recorded clip actually comes out as a 10 second video ‚packaged‘ in 30fps and plays back in regular (or even slightly higher, I’m not quite sure) speed for about 2 seconds, then automatically switches to extreme slow-motion for the rest. Unlike with slow-motion modes on other phones you can’t change the moment the slow-motion kicks in. As you can imagine this makes it very difficult and occasionally frustrating to capture a particular moment unless you are recording something rather monotone and repetitive (like a waterfall or a fountain for instance). And there’s actually a second catch, one that a YouTube comment for my video brought up: Apparently, this 960fps feature isn’t really 960fps but an interpolated 240fps as the image sensor (Sony IMX 363) can only handle 240fps tops natively. Interpolated means that software fills in the gaps between existing frames with additional, generated frames. The results are not as good as real 960fps, lacking the same crispness and clarity. To tell the truth I had already been a bit skeptical from the beginning for one reason: The more frames you have per second, the less light is available for each frame meaning the higher the fps, the more light you need. When I switched from 120fps to 240fps in the Pocophone’s slow-motion mode I could clearly see that the image got darker. When I switched from 240 to the supposed 960fps nothing like that happened despite the fact that it’s a triple jump in terms of fps. If you want to read more about this check out these articles about another Xiaomi phone (Mi Mix 3) using the same technique here and here. Still, you can achieve some really impressive shots that can spruce up your edit with a bit of practice and patience, so it’s definitely nice to have.

One more thing I would like to mention here is the question of a file size limit. As you might know, certain Android devices still have some kind of file size limitation for a single file (usually around 4GB) which basically is of no concern to anyone except: the dedicated videographer shooting (long) videos! The case of the Pocophone F1 is ambivalent in this respect. I first thought there IS a file size limit because it only allows you to shoot 8 minutes sharp in UHD/4K producing a file of about 2.5GB. But when I tested it shooting in 1080p it went way beyond that and only stopped when the device’s storage was full (the file was about 7GB at this point). In a nutshell: You do have a recording limit but only when shooting UHD/4K, not for 1080p/720p.

3rd Party Camera Apps / Camera2 API Support

As I have shown in the previous paragraph, the F1’s native camera app isn’t the worst around but it’s also not really good enough for many pro use cases that involve the need for advanced manual controls and an external microphone. So you have to turn to 3rd party apps for those features. How many advanced controls a 3rd party camera app can offer doesn’t only depend on the app itself but also on the level of Camera2 API (what is Camera2 API?) implementation the phone maker provided for this particular device. Without proper Camera2 API support, 3rd party developers are limited in what they can offer feature-wise. The good news is that Xiaomi’s Pocophone F1 has „full“ Camera2 API support for both front and rear cameras. This means you can install apps that have this support level as a prerequisite (most notably Filmic Pro and Moment Pro Camera) and get additional manual controls in apps that can be installed even on devices with lower Camera2 API support (Open Camera, Footej Camera, Lumio Cam, Cinema FV-5, ProShot etc.).

“Filmic Pro” on the Pocophone F1.

As Filmic Pro is the most advanced and best pro videography app overall I took a closer look at how well it works on the Pocophone F1. In general it works really well I have to say, among the best I’ve seen so far on Android! I was particularly surprised by its ability to churn out a consistent 25fps frame rate virtually all of the time which is important if you are using the phone for PAL broadcast (Europe, Australia etc.) or in combination with other cameras that shoot in 25fps. The makers of Filmic Pro have heavily invested in making PAL frame rates work on Android (as it’s not supported natively) but not all Android devices are equally good at producing consistent results so it’s nice to see the Pocophone F1 making such a positive impression here. The only times I occasionally noticed a slight drop/deviation was the very first clip after changing from another frame rate (maybe the encoder needs a moment to adjust?) and in low light conditions (the test clips I shot inside the church came out at 24.93fps).

Speaking of frame rates, we’re looking at the only significant limitation within Filmic Pro’s functionality on the Pocophone: Like with many other Android phones the Camera2 API implementation doesn’t support 50/60fps recording for 3rd party apps which is a shame in general. The F1 is still the odd one out here because it can’t even record at 60fps in the native app (yet) while many other phone makers do support a higher frame rate in the native camera but keep 3rd party apps from doing so. Interestingly, you CAN shoot at 240fps for super slow-motion in up to 1080p though! This is cool but at the same time kind of weird (I have also noticed this on other Android devices like my LG V30) and it will be interesting to see what happens when the higher frame rate update for the native camera app drops. As for the resolution, UHD/4K works just fine in Filmic Pro from what I have experienced (I shot all the test footage in UHD/4K), the selfie camera maxes out at 2K and has a fixed focus. One other thing that’s not supported in Filmic Pro on the Pocophone at the moment is image stabilization (EIS is available in the native camera app) so it might be a good idea to shoot from a tripod or use a rig/gimbal to avoid shaky footage. There’s one small bug in the UI that I came across: When you double-tap the exposure or focus reticle to change into the bracket mode (continuous auto-focus and wider exposure metering) the brackets are not centred but appear in the lower right corner. Only when you turn the phone into portrait mode and back into landscape does it appear in the right place. But I’m sure this glitch can be fixed soon.

Video Editing

Device Capability Information for the Pocophone F1 in “KineMaster”.

Once you have shot some gorgeous footage with the Pocophone F1 you might want to edit it directly on the device without having to transfer it to a desktop computer first. I will have a quick look at how well Xiaomi’s phone performs with the two best video editing apps on Android: KineMaster and PowerDirector (yes, I’m aware Adobe Rush has just been launched on Android but it’s only available for a handful of phones none of which I own currently). As mentioned early on, the Pocophone F1 sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC which should be more than capable of handling most video editing tasks. While this chipset surprisingly seems to have caused some video editing trouble by not supporting 4K editing/layers on certain devices like the US-variant of Samsung’s S9/S9+ (the European/Korean version has Samsung’s own Exynos chipset instead), everything’s looking good on the Pocophone F1: The KineMaster device capability test shows support for UHD/4K (2160p) including one layer in that resolution (4 layers of FHD/1080p) and I was able to work with and export UHD/4K with no problem. It also can handle higher frame rates (50/60fps) if you activate this under „Advanced and Experimental Settings“ but I guess we all remember that the Pocophone can’t even shoot these frame rates (yet) so there should be no need to bother with that at the moment.

If you are shooting/producing at 25fps, KineMaster is definitely the way to go as PowerDirector does not support PAL frame rate projects (you can import the footage but it will be converted to either 24, 30 or 60fps upon export). That being said you can import, edit and export UHD/4K in PowerDirector as well, even with a video layer although for editing purposes the app always transcodes layer clips in that resolution down to 1080p/FHD. It’s a general thing in PowerDirector though, not something Pocophone-specific. From the pop-up you get when adding a UHD/4K layer it sounds like it’s just creating FHD proxy files for smoother editing and that the original UHD/4K quality will eventually be used in the export but the makers of the app have yet to answer my request to clarify this. Both KineMaster and PowerDirector also support the use of clips shot with the H.265/HEVC codec on top of the traditional H.264/AVC. So yes, the Pocophone F1 is a great device for editing video on the go!

Conclusion

All in all I can conclude that the Xiaomi Pocophone F1 is a very capable video production tool with outstanding value! It has a (very) solid camera, great compatibility with Filmic Pro and lots of power for video editing. It also has a headphone jack, support for external storage and runs the latest version of Android (Android 9 Pie). An alternative device at this price point could be the one year older LG V30 which is my personal daily driver at the moment: Unlike the Pocophone it has a secondary and extremely useful wide-angle rear camera that can actually be utilized for videography (and not only photography), a native camera app that is light years ahead in terms of professional video controls and features (but also can’t shoot PAL frame rates) and a chipset that’s practically as powerful for video editing as the Pocophone’s newer one – it’s not quite as good with Filmic Pro though and it’s still on Android 8 Oreo. So while the Pocophone F1 is without a doubt an excellent option for the price, the question whether it’s THE best option depends on the priorities of the potential user. The Google Pixel 3a/3aXL just hit the market and could be a viable rival for Xiaomi’s budget powerhouse. If you have questions or comments, feel free to drop me a line in the comments below!

#17 Using external microphones with Android devices when shooting video — 28. March 2019

#17 Using external microphones with Android devices when shooting video

Before captioning videos for convenient social media consumption on the go became all the rage, everyone agreed that having good audio was an essential element of good video, possibly even more important than the image quality. Many will agree that it actually still is despite the captioning vogue of late. So how do you get good audio for video? Let’s make it simple: Get as close to the sound source as possible with your mic! In most cases you will get better audio with a cheap mic close to the sound source than with a super-expensive mic that’s (too) far away (notice: it won’t work at all however if you use a carrot). And how do you get as close as possible to the audio source? An external mic (as opposed to the internal mic of your phone) will be a big help to achieve that since you probably don’t want to shove your phone/camera into someone’s face. But can you work with external mics on Android devices? Yes, you can. And the good news is that it basically works with EVERY Android phone or tablet! Of course I have not tested it on every single Android device on the planet but so far I have not encountered a single one that didn’t support it and believe me I have had dozens so far! In most cases you will however have to use third party apps since most native camera apps don’t support the use of external mics. There are a few exceptions like many Samsung phones and the (recent) flagships of LG and Sony but with other Android phone makers your only chance to use an external mic for better audio while recording video are third party video recording apps like FilmicPro, Cinema FV-5, Open Camera, Cinema 4K or Footej Camera. If you are into video live streaming: Popular platforms like Facebook, Periscope, Instagram or YouTube also support the use of external mics on their mobile apps. Important: Some apps will automatically detect a connected external mic while with others you will have to go into the settings and choose the external mic as the audio input. In general, it’s recommended to connect the mic before launching the app as sometimes the app might not correctly detect the mic when you only plug it in after launching the app. But how can you connect an external mic to an Android device? There are four basic options that I will shortly elaborate on: 1) via the 3.5mm headphone jack 2) via the microUSB port 3) via the USB-C port 4) via a wireless connection / Bluetooth.

3.5mm headphone jack

Left: 3.5mm connector with 3 conductors (TRS) / Right: 3.5mm connector with 4 conductors (TRRS – smartphone compatible)
Standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

The most common wired solution for connecting an external mic to your Android device is (was?) the 3.5mm headphone jack, the port where you would usually plug in your headphones to listen to music. For a long time this was one of THE universal things about a smartphone, be it an Android, an iPhone or even a Windows Phone. In the past couple of years however, more and more phone makers have been following Apple’s lead to ditch the headphone jack (starting with the iPhone 7) in an attempt to further push for a slick enclosed unibody design, leaving the phone with only one physical port, the one that is primarily there to charge your phone. Of course this move has also to do with the rise of Bluetooth headphones. Anyway, if you’re lucky enough to still have a phone with a 3.5mm headphone jack you have a range of options to connect different types of external mics. There are two general options: Using a mic with a dedicated TRRS 3.5mm headphone jack connection or using another mic with an adapter. What’s TRRS you may ask? Well it has to do with the number of conductors on the 3.5mm pin. You might have encountered mics with a similar looking 3.5mm pin for ‚regular‘ cameras. But while they look similar, they only have THREE conductors on the pin (TRS), not FOUR (TRRS). Smartphones use the TRRS standard so a TRS 3.5mm pin won’t work unless you use an adapter like the Rode SC4. But you know what? There’s a good chance you already own an external mic without even knowing: the headphones that came with your phone. Yes, you heard that right! They usually have an inbuilt mic for making/receiving phone calls and if you have your headphones connected to the headphone jack while using a video recording app that supports external mics, then this is an easy and cheap way to improve your audio. You might be surprised how decent the sound quality can be! Of course the cable of the headphones is usually not too long so if you are doing a piece to camera or an interview with someone it will be hard to avoid having the cable in the frame and the sound quality of dedicated TRRS 3.5mm mics often trumps that of the headset but I think it’s still great to have this option at hand. Dedicated TRRS headphone jack mics include the original iRigMic (handheld) by IK Multimedia, several lavalier/lapel mics (like the Rode smartLav+, the Aputure a.Lav, the Tonor Dual Headed Lapel and the Boya BY-M1) or the Rode Videomic Me (directional shotgun-type). One might also count the Rode VideoMicro (directional shotgun-type) as a dedicated TRRS mic because you can exchange the TRS cable that it comes with (to work with ‚regular‘ cameras like DSLRs etc.) for a TRRS cable (Rode SC7, sold separately). Other than that you can connect basically any XLR mic by using IK Multimedia’s iRigPre adapter/converter box which has a female XLR input on one side and a male 3.5mm pin cable on the other. XLR is the most common professional audio connection standard. 

microUSB

Left: microUSB connector / Right: microUSB port.

Just as 3.5mm headphone jacks used to be a common standard on phones, so did microUSB ports on Android devices for charging your phone’s battery. The change from microUSB to USB-C as the preferred „power port“ in the last years very much but not exclusively coincided with the trend to drop the headphone jack. There are hardly any new phones coming out these days that still have a microUSB port (the most recent were all in the budget segment). And as 3.5mm headphone jacks were a universal standard at the time the lack of dedicated microUSB mics didn’t really come as too much of a surprise. Actually the only mic like this that I ever encountered and used was IK Multimedia’s iRig Mic HD-A, an improved digital version of the original iRigMic which featured a microUSB connector instead of a 3.5mm pin. One thing you also had to pay attention to when connecting accessories to a microUSB port was the question of USB-OTG support (OTG stands for „On-the-go“). In simplistic terms one could say that USB-OTG support basically means that you can use the USB port for other things than just charging. For instance as an audio input. Not all Android devices have support for USB-OTG.

USB-C

Left: USB-C connector / Right: USB-C port.

USB-OTG support is also of relevance when talking about USB-C, the new USB connection standard for Android devices (it has recently also been introduced on Apple’s iPad Pro series so one might speculate on whether the future will see Apple making the switch for all its devices). One of the very practical things that makes USB-C better than microUSB is that the connector is shaped in a way that fits into the port of the phone in two ways, not only one like microUSB which usually meant you tried to plug it in the wrong way first. The other good thing is that as time went by, USB-OTG has become a more common feature on Android devices so chances are relatively high that your device will support USB-OTG if you have purchased it in the last two years or so. It’s still not a definitive standard on Android devices though, so if you plan to use USB-C mics you should check the phone’s spec sheet first. The introduction of dedicated USB-C mics has been very slow, the first one to my knowledge was the Samson Go Mic Mobile wireless system launched in 2017 which included a USB-C connection cable for the receiver unit along with cables for 3.5mm, microUSB and Lightning port (the latter is the standard on most Apple devices). Boya has recently added two USB-C mics into their portfolio (a directional shotgun-type and a lavalier) and Saramonic has a USB-C-to-XLR adapter cable so there are finally at least some options. For a great overview regarding USB-C mics check out this blogpost by Neil Philip Sheppard on smartphonefilmpro.com. One more thing: While quite a few phone makers include a USB-C to 3.5mm-adapter with their phones if they have a USB-C port (which would let you use 3.5mm mics), these tend to be proprietary, meaning that you can’t use them with other phone brands and if you lose yours you will have to purchase from the same brand again and can’t use a third party adapter. Yes, very annoying, I know. In general, USB-C mics don’t seem to work as universally across Android devices and apps as their headphone jack buddies just yet so if you plan to use a USB-C mic than I would recommend doing thorough testing before using it on an important job.

Wireless / Bluetooth

All the aforementioned external mic solutions have in common that they involve some kind of wired connection to the phone, even in the case of the wireless Samson Go Mic Mobile system or Rode’s RodeLink wireless kit (which can be utilized when connecting a TRS-to-TRRS adapter to it) as the receiver unit has to be plugged into the phone. Of course it would be fantastic to have the audio go directly and wirelessly from a mic (transmitter) into the phone without a separate receiver unit attached to it. And in theory it should be very much possible because modern phones do have two protocols allowing for wireless data transfer: WiFi and Bluetooth. So far, only Bluetooth has been used for that, I’m sure there’s a technical reason why the WiFi way might not be feasible (yet) that I don’t know about. A bunch of potential Bluetooth mics have been around for some time but they usually still need a receiver unit and the audio quality and reliability hasn’t been quite up to the task so far. Bluetooth headphones/headsets with an internal mic is another possible option. Here’s a short test I did using the inbuilt headset mic of my (rather cheap) Bluetooth headphones.

It’s not too bad in my opinion and might suffice for certain tasks but you definitely notice the quality difference to a good wired external mic. Apparently Bluetooth audio that goes directly into the phone is limited to a sample rate of 8kHz by the Android system at the moment (according to one of FilmicPro’s engineers) which doesn’t provide the grounds for great quality audio. There’s also a mic called the Instamic that is basically a self-contained mini audio-recorder in the form of a somewhat bigger lavalier with internal storage that also allows a live audio-streaming mode directly to the phone (with noticeably diminished quality compared to the internally recorded audio) but depending on your job, the quality might still not be good enough and can’t match that of wired connections. You also often get a slight delay between video and audio that increases the farther you get away from the device. And unlike with wired external mics, only a few video recording apps on Android actually accept Bluetooth as an external audio input as of today, the ones I know about are FilmicPro and Cinema FV-5. So while the limitations of Bluetooth mics might still be too big for much/most professional work at this time, it should (soon) be a viable option in the near future. As a matter of fact, there recently was a Kickstarter campaign for a Bluetooth transmitter called BAM! that can be attached to any XLR mic and streams the audio directly to the phone in good quality – unfortunately the campaign didn’t reach its funding goal. Let’s hope it’s not the end of the story since smartphone development is probably headed towards a design with no physical ports (wireless charging is already here!) and then wireless is the only way to go for better or worse! If you have questions or comments, feel free to drop a line!

#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 Appcyclopedia – March 2019” (pdf file)

 

#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!