smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#29 Favorite field recorder apps on Android — 27. July 2020

#29 Favorite field recorder apps on Android

After starting to write a blog post about multi-track audio editing apps on Android, I figured it might be useful to do one on field recorder apps first as a precursor so to speak. I chose to use the term “field recorder” as opposed to “audio recorder” since there’s a whole bunch of multi-track audio editing apps that also record audio. And while I’m mostly concerned with mobile videography on this blog, I think it can’t hurt to take a look at audio for once, particularly since field recorder apps can also be used as independent audio recorders with a lavalier mic in a video production environment. I’ll have a look at six different apps of which each single one includes something interesting/useful. It will depend on your use case and personal taste which one qualifies as the best for you. Do note that most Android phones actually come with a native audio recording / voice memo app, some of which are quite good, but for the purpose of this article I will look at 3rd party apps only that are available for (almost) all Android devices. Well, with one exception…

RecForge II (Pro)

UI of “RecForge II” while recording.

One of the first more advanced 3rd party audio recording apps I stumbled upon after getting a smartphone was RecForge (Pro). The UI was visually pleasant (somewhat futuristic) but not the most intuitive, I found navigating around slightly confusing in the beginning. Its successor RecForge II (Pro) got a new look which is less fancy, more focused, but the developer failed to iron out some of the UX issues I had with the app. Two examples: When you press the “Record” button on the main screen, the app takes you to an all-new recording screen with lots of different buttons, timeline, big waveforms and is already recording. I think it would be less confusing if the same button that started the recording remained present and pushing it again would stop the recording. Well, as a matter of fact I just found out that you can change this in the settings but then you don’t get any kind of waveform or audio level meter which is always good to have. When you stop the recording, you need to push a button that looks like an “eject” symbol to get back to the main screen which I consider a bit odd. That being said, RecForge II might have the most complete feature set of all the recording apps listed here. It records in a wide variety of formats including wav, mp3, m4a etc., has options for sample rates and bit rate, basic clip editing (missing a fade tool though!), live audio monitoring, gain control (positive and negative) and live audio level meters (to check/adjust before recording, preview mode needs to be activated in the settings), support for external mics, mic source selection, scheduled recordings, homescreen widgets, a conversion tool and much more. The free version gives you unlimited wav recording but automatically pauses every three minutes when recording in any other format (like mp3). Pro version without limitations and ads is 3.89€.

Easy Voice Recorder (Pro)

One of the many useful homescreen widgets of “Easy Voice Recorder”.

EVR is far and away the best audio recording app on Android when it comes to homescreen widgets, it has a whole variety of them, some minimal, some more elaborate. Just in case you don’t know: Widgets are a special feature of Android (iOS is currently playing catch-up) that lets you add certain app functionality directly to your home screen without having to open the app first. So for instance you can add a button that starts a recording directly to the homescreen. EVR is also the only audio recorder among my list that has a WearOS companion app which means you can launch and control a recording from a smartwatch. It has a range of useful features and options but it’s also missing some more advanced stuff: There’s currently no way to check audio levels or control gain before starting a recording and it’s also lacking the ability to do live monitoring via headphones. I have reached out to the developers and they acknowledged my request, saying that they will look into it but that significant changes to the app’s core would have to be made to provide this. If you like EVR but miss these features I strongly encourage you to contact the devs and make your voice heard! EVR lets you record in wav, m4a and 3gp formats in the free version, plus mp3 and aac in the paid upgrade. The paid upgrade also has more useful goodies in the form of a basic editing tool for trimming/cropping, the option to convert to other formats and automatic upload to the cloud. The paid pro version is 3.99€.

Voice Record Pro

“Voice Record Pro” lets you create an mp4 video file from your audio-only recording. You can add a photo and some text.

This one’s a favorite of many on iOS and I’m glad that the developer decided to bring the app to Android as well. That being said, after launching it in 2018 and providing a few initial bug fixes, the developer hasn’t delivered a single update (be it bug fixes, let alone a feature drop) in over two years. It works reasonably well on most devices but certain (device-specific) glitches have not been addressed with the developer not being available for any kind of communication (I have tried on multiple occasions to no avail). It also lacks the transcription feature and the ability to adjust input gain of the iOS version if that’s important to you. VRP is unique among the apps mentioned here in that it allows you to create an mp4 video from a recorded audio file by adding an image and text to it. Useful for a quick share/teaser on social media platforms. The app has a great set of options for adjusting the quality of the recording, supports external mics and lets you check the input levels before and during a recording – no live monitoring via headphones though. A basic editing tool for trimming/cropping is included. VRP is free with ads. According to the GooglePlay store information, there’s supposed to be an in-app purchase but I have honestly not been able to locate it. I would be happy to pay a few bucks for this app and get rid of the ads but apparently it doesn’t seem possible (do let me know if you have found the IAP!). It’s a potentially great app but I wish the developer would make an effort to keep the Android version up to date.

ShurePlus Motiv

It’s super-easy to quickly apply a fade in/out with the handles in “ShurePlus Motiv”.

I have to admit this one has possibly become my personal favorite for its clean and focused design/functionality, great basic editing tools and solid feature set, notwithstanding its integration with a range of Shure microphones (naturally, this means that it supports external mics and not only Shure mics if you’re worried about that). It’s also completely free without any ads or feature cut backs. Something I absolutely love about the app is the way you can easily apply fades at the beginning and end of a clip, just drag the handles, you can even mirror the fades automatically! The app records in wav format with the option to convert to aac afterwards. You can adjust positive gain before/during a recording, reducing the input level is only possible if you are using some kind of external interface however. The biggest shortcoming at the moment is the lack of an option for live audio monitoring via headphones (which is available in the iOS version of the app). I have been in touch with Shure and they are looking into it. It would also be nice to have one or two homescreen widgets for people who often use it and want to launch a recording as fast as possible, but that’s a minor complaint. All in all, this is a beautiful and excellent audio recording app from a renowned microphone manufacturer – do check it out!

Field Recorder

“Field Recorder” lets you flip the UI so you can point the main internal mic of a phone (usually located at the bottom) towards a subject and still see the controls the right way.

If you are used to dedicated portable field recorders, you might find Field Recorder’s UI and functionality particularly appealing since it sort of mimics the appearance of such devices. Others however could be a bit intimidated by the somewhat busy upper half of the UI and the load of options in the settings menu. One very cool thing about FR is that it lets you rotate the UI which in the case of reverse portrait mode helps if you are using the (main) internal mic of the phone (instead of an external mic) which will usually be located at the bottom of the phone. If you are interviewing someone pointing this part towards the subject, the UI would be topsy-turvy for yourself unless you are able to rotate the UI independently from the device’s orientation. FR has you covered here. The app has an extensive range of options to customize the interface/recording process, includes live audio monitoring via headphones, supports the use of external mics and features an optional limiter. It’s missing the ability to edit/trim a recording though. FR records uncompressed wav files with the option to convert to mp3 after installing another app (‘Media Converter’) from the PlayStore to handle the conversion. There’s a homescreen widget but it’s a bit complicated to use. Field Recorder costs 4.99€, there’s no free version but I’d say it’s most definitely worth the price if you like its UI and feature set.

Google Recorder

“Google Recorder” automatically transcribes your recordings.

This one is probably the odd ball among the pack with very little to no control/settings options – but sporting a killer feature that by itself will let many folks crave it badly: It can auto-transcribe any recording offline (only English so far!) and search text within a recording completely for free! When sharing you have the option to only share the audio, only the text as a text file or both. You also have the ability to directly upload recordings to the cloud (GoogleDrive). Recordings are saved in m4a format with a sample rate of 32 kHz and a bitrate of 48Kbit/s. There’s currently no option for higher sample or bitrates or other recording formats like wav. But depending on what you are doing, this might not be a problem. There’s one relatively big catch to this: So far, it’s officially only available for Google’s Pixel devices (excluding the very first Pixel phone apparently). You can however sideload it (meaning installing it outside of the Google PlayStore via an apk file) to many other Android devices, XDA Developers has a great article on how to do that and which devices are currently supported. I sideloaded it to my LG V30 and it works really well. Note: You will need to allow app installs from external sources though first in the settings of your phone (it’s disabled by default for security reasons). Will it be officially available for non-Google Android devices in the future? There are arguments for both sides: Technically it shouldn’t be a problem since Google’s Live Transcribe app which basically taps into the same core functionality of transcribing audio is already available for many Android devices. Google might however want to keep this a special feature on Pixel devices, an incentive to pick a Pixel over other Android phones. We’ll see how that plays out over the next months. Some things Google Recorder is missing: While there’s a live waveform when recording (which is good), you don’t get an audio level meter, gain control, homescreen widgets or the ability to edit/trim a recording. As all the other apps listed here, it generally supports the use of external mics. 

So which one is the best field recorder app for Android? Well, as indicated in the introduction to this article, there’s no clear answer. There are many very good ones and which one specifically suits you best will depend on your use case, what features you absolutely need and which features you can live without, if you love a complex interface with loads of options or like to keep it simple. The good thing is: With the exception of Field Recorder (which doesn’t have a free version) and Google Recorder (which has only limited availability) you will be able to test most of the apps for free to decide which one’s your top pick. And also remember: These are just a couple of candidates that I happen to like, there are many many more in the Google PlayStore and it’s entirely possible that there’s a great one I haven’t discovered yet. If you have a favorite one not listed here, do let me know in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming. And stay tuned for an upcoming article about multi-track audio editing apps for Android. Last thing: If you like this blog, consider signing up for my Telegram newsletter via t.me/smartfilming to get notified about new posts.

Download RecForge II Lite / RecForge II Pro on Google Play
Download Easy Voice Recorder / Easy Voice Recorder Pro on Google Play
Download Voice Record Pro on Google Play
Download ShurePlus Motiv on Google Play
Download Field Recorder on Google Play
Download Google Recorder on Google Play

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

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

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

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

WYSIWYH Style

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

One-Shot Method

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

Shediting

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

Voice-Over

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

Text/Titles

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

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

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

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

#20 Closing the Window of Opportunity – Farewell to Windows Phone — 8. January 2020

#20 Closing the Window of Opportunity – Farewell to Windows Phone

My personal Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile device collection: Microsoft Lumia 550, Nokia Lumia 630, Nokia Lumia 920, Microsoft Lumia 950.

If you are reading this, there’s a chance you might at least have heard about a mobile operating system called Windows Phone even though you never came close to owning a device running it. But there’s also a chance you never knew such a thing existed so let me just very briefly recapitulate.

Ever since Microsoft had built its quasi-monopoly in terms of an operating system for personal desktop computers and laptops with Windows, many assumed that they would have a good chance of utilizing this might in the emerging field of increasingly potent mobile phones with more complex operating systems. But that didn’t really happen. While Microsoft did introduce the Windows CE-based „Windows Mobile“ for pocketable computing devices in the early days of the 21st century, the real revolution in this market would only happen years later with the arrival of Apple’s iPhone. In a now infamous statement during an interview with USA Today in 2007, Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer was extremely skeptical about Apple’s first phone: „There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.“ Things turned out slightly different as we all know today. While Apple with iOS and soon after Google with Android went all-in on mobile touch-screen operating systems for smartphones, Microsoft hesitated for a long time – too long as history would tell. When they finally came out with Windows Phone 7 (the „7“ picking up from earlier OS versions under the „Windows Mobile“ moniker) in 2010 they were three years late to the party and never managed to catch up again despite occasional glimpses of hope. One, maybe THE crucial factor for failure was the fact that many popular 3rd party apps were not available for Microsoft’s platform or only in versions inferior to those on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The acquisition of Nokia’s mobile phone division in 2014, a tighter integration with its desktop OS Windows 10 in the form of Windows 10 Mobile in 2015 and the app porting projects “Astoria” (Android) and “Islandwood” (iOS) were last desperate attempts to turn the tide but to no avail. Satya Nadella taking over from Steve Ballmer as CEO in 2014 also meant Microsoft reevaluated its business strategy and philosophy to concentrate on platform-independent services instead of pushing their own platform. In October 2017 a Microsoft executive revealed that they would cease development of new features and hardware for the platform, in January 2019 the company announced that software support for Windows 10 Mobile will end December 10, eventually postponing the date to January 14 2020 which will be next week.

End of life, end of story?

So why would I now bother to write about Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile when it’s being lowered into the virtual „cybergrave“ right now? Does anyone care at all? While I do assume that many will not have exactly waited for someone to do this, I consider Microsoft’s passing mobile OS to be worth a look in retrospect because not only was it a really refreshing alternative to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android in terms of design but it actually had quite a bit of potential as a platform for mobile content creation in my opinion – potential that was wasted or got lost along the way, that is.

Mobile photographers livin’ the Lumia dream

Nokia Lumia 1020.
Nokia Lumia 1020 in bright yellow. (Photo Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns)

The Windows Phone device that single-handedly put the platform on the map for mobile content creation was without a doubt the Nokia Lumia 1020 which launched in the summer of 2013. Sporting a six-element lens array by Carl Zeiss with a whopping 41 (!) MP sensor to go along, optical image stabilization, a full set of manual controls for photography, a dedicated shutter button and (added via software update a bit later) the ability to shoot in RAW/DNG, the 1020 was a dream come true for mobile photographers, outshining pretty much everything the iPhone or Android handsets had to offer at that time. There weren’t any advanced photo editing apps around in the Windows Phone Store but as long as your focus was on the capturing experience this didn’t really matter much.

What’s with the video?

Things weren’t quite as impressive in the videography department however. Sure, the spectacular 41MP sensor was a very early example of how a photo camera megapixel „overkill“ could be utilized to provide a quasi-lossless digital zoom for video which only needed a small fraction of the 41MP prowess when recording in 1080p resolution. But while you had a pro mode with advanced manual controls for photography at hand, there wasn’t an equivalent for video – the fact that this asymmetrical feature distribution is still the standard with 99% of smartphones today isn’t really an excuse. The common simplicity and bare-bones functionality of most native camera apps doesn’t mean you have to throw in the towel for more ambitious videography work with your phone as long as 3rd party apps fill the gap but that’s exactly the point where we touch upon a sore spot with Windows Phone.

Video mode UI of ProShot on a Lumia 550. In addition to white balance presets and manual focus, an audio level meter and shutter speed / ISO control is available.

Up until very late in the game, when ProShot added video functionality to its advanced camera app for Windows 10 Mobile in the second half of 2016 there was not a single 3rd party video camera app in the Windows Phone store that provided a robust set of manual controls like ISO and shutter speed to set a precise exposure. You couldn’t even lock the exposure for video in any of the camera apps with video functionality. It wasn’t all bad though, there were some lights in the dark. I never owned a Lumia 1020 but had a 920 for over a year as my daily driver and I was pleased to find out that the native camera app supported the use of external mics via the headphone jack which is often an indispensable feature when using the phone for professional video work.

Video mode UI of the native camera app on the Lumia 950. White balance presets, manual focus and exposure compensation are available – but no exposure lock or precise shutter speed / ISO adjustment.

Another beacon (at least for folks residing in regions which use the PAL broadcast standard) was the ability of Lumia Camera (which was a separate app from the stock camera but could be considered an advanced native camera app) to shoot video in 25fps and not only the standard 30fps that is common for the native camera app of basically every single smartphone on the planet. Unfortunately, Lumia Camera did not support the use of external mics while the stock camera app did not support shooting in 25fps so if you needed both (and many did) you were out of luck. There could have been a happy ending to this when the Windows Phone native camera and Lumia Camera were merged into one app (I think they dubbed it „Windows Camera“) for the new Windows 10 Mobile. You now had white balance presets, manual focus and basic exposure adjustment (but only EV, not precise shutter speed / ISO values, and still no exposure lock!) at hand, plus PAL frame rate support. Devices running Windows 10 Mobile (at least the Lumias) were the only smartphones able to shoot in 25fps natively without the help of 3rd party apps. Up until this very day this has not been possible on any phone running Android or iOS! But incomprehensibly, the fusion of the two camera apps dropped the support for external mics (at least that’s what I found on the Lumia 950 and 550) despite the fact that it was still working in a Windows 10 Mobile preview version I ran on a Lumia 630 before the final release apparently killed it off. As mentioned before, ProShot (which had been a photo camera only for a long time) eventually added a video mode with a lot of pro features like precise shutter speed / ISO exposure control, an audio level meter and support for external mics. But it basically did so at a time when the MS Windows 10 Mobile had already hit the iceberg.

Windows Phone = Lumia?

If you are wondering at this moment why I have been only talking about Lumia devices in the context of Windows Phone and if Lumia phones basically equal Windows Phones you are both right and wrong. Yes, there were other companies than Nokia (and later Microsoft itself): Samsung, HTC, Acer, Blu and HP were among those launching phones running Microsoft’s mobile OS but their support for Windows Phone was very sparse and short-lived so it’s pretty hard to imagine that when someone talks about a „Windows Phone“ device now they are not referring to a Lumia phone.

It’s also undisputed that it were the Lumia flagships following the pioneering work of the Nokia Lumia 1020 which gave Windows Phone its reputation with mobile camera enthusiasts: photos and video footage from devices like the Lumia 920, 930, 950 and 950 XL were able to go head-to-head with iPhones and high-end Android handsets in terms of image quality. So why did Windows Phone fail to establish itself as a viable alternative for mobile content creation with smartphones?

Minding the app gap

Yes, we’re back talking about apps again. While the hardware was competitive (at least in certain cases), the software – or to be more precise: the software eco system wasn’t really compared to the other two dominant mobile platforms. I already pointed out that there was a serious lack of advanced 3rd party camera apps for video (FilmicPro actually ran a crowd funding campaign for a Windows Phone version once, it failed miserably) but the problems were not only confined to the capturing experience, they were just as imminent for post production.

UI of Movie Maker 8.1
UI of Videoshop

While Windows Phone 8.1 can actually be considered a huge step forward for the platform in terms of having any kind of video editing app available at all (apparently up until WP 8 the OS had prevented 3rd party apps from integrating even basic video editing tasks into their apps), seeing the launch of apps like Movie Maker 8.1, Videoshop (which turned out to become the only video editor available across all three major mobile platforms), MovieJax and the frustratingly short-lived Movie Creator Beta, they were all relatively basic – none of them offered a second video track for instance. That being said, they did allow you to create and produce a simple video story by adding several clips to a timeline, trim off unwanted parts, add audio like voice-over and very basic titles. But those who had hoped that this first wave of usable video editors would mature or bring about even more advanced ones over time eventually had to admit that their optimism wasn’t justified. The problems of a thin and often quality-lacking eco system in general which got caught up in a vicious circle involving poor sales figures and lacklustre involvement of app developers had a direct impact on the special case of using Windows Phone as a platform for mobile content creation.

You can still get things done!

That didn’t prevent some daring creators from using Windows Phone devices for actual professional videography however, tapping into its strengths while working around the shortcomings. I particularly want to highlight the work of Dutch/Frisian mobile journalist Wytse Vellinga who for some time used a Lumia 930 to produce news reports for the regional broadcaster Omrop Fryslan. Here are some fine examples:

Another example is by Croatian videographer Darko Flajpan who’s working for the national broadcaster HRT and also used a Lumia 930 as a main camera for a whole documentary, here’s the trailer:

To learn something about their personal experience working with Windows Phone in a professional context, I asked them a couple of short questions for the purpose of this article.

Q1: Why did you consider working with a Windows Phone at all?

Wytse Vellinga: “Windows Phone had the best camera quality on any smartphone in those days. And the fact that it could shoot 25fps with the native camera app was extremely helpful for me as a broadcast journalist.”

Darko Flajpan: “Windows Phone (Lumia 1020 in particular) got my attention at the time because of camera capabilities. It was a photo/video beast at that moment and still respectful even today. And with a battery grip which had a tripod thread and a shutter button it was the perfect tool for early MoJos. Also, it had 25fps which was very helpful for later editing and broadcasting. I’ve switched to Lumia 930 as soon it was released and with usable 4K@25fps it was unmatched in the smartphone world. So hardware was top notch and OS was quite polished and user friendly. The price of those smartphones was also on a fair side. I still have couple of 930s…”

Q2: What were the main challenges?

Wytse Vellinga: “The main challenges were the lack of good third party apps. There was no good editor, nor was there an app for making radio reports. And as the years progressed it didn’t get better but it got worse.”

Darko Flajpan: “Main challenges were on the software side. There were just two apps for video editing and those were buggy and not user friendly, so for any editing you had to transfer footage to a laptop. Lack of any support from Google (e.g. no official YouTube app) was quite irritating. On the hardware side, Microsoft never made a tiny bit of code to allow mic input to be used by a camera – for me that was huge.”

Q3: Why did Windows Phone fail in the end in your opinion?

Wytse Vellinga: “Because of what I just said. The lack of apps and the lack of support for those that wanted to build apps. It almost looked like Microsoft did not believe in their own platform.”

Darko Flajpan: “Third party developers were focused on higher value markets (iOS, Android), and Microsoft was not making an effort to attract them. From my point of view Microsoft had no clear strategy for smartphones. Brilliant engineers from Nokia (I’ve met a couple of them) were frustrated how Microsoft treated them – they’ve created great hardware and had just frustrations and lack of support from Microsoft’s side. Now, they are working for Apple and Chinese manufacturers.”

Q4: Do you think there’s any space left between Android and iOS for a third major mobile OS?

Wytse Vellinga: “There is always room for something new. iOS and Android are not perfect so there is room for improvement. But you will have to invest a lot of time and energy in getting app builders on board.”

Darko Flajpan: “This is very complex. If someone creates anything better and more attractive to consumers it will be bought, obstructed or destroyed by the two major players in its very early stage, that is my, not optimistic opinion.”

Finally, I would also like to share a short proof-of-concept video story I created using only the low-budget Lumia 550 (cost me about 50 Euro in used condition), shooting with its native camera app and editing with Videoshop. So it was completely produced on the mobile device. Notice: The Lumia 550 is only able to shoot 720p HD (not 1080p FHD) so the video has the same resolution.

“Slide down to power off”

It’s hard to imagine a more serious focus on mobile content creators alone could have made Windows Phone / Windows 10 Mobile a viable success story but it’s frustrating nonetheless looking back at the undeniable but underdeveloped potential of the platform and the devices that came with it. Fairly recently, Microsoft announced its return to the smartphone market: The long-lasting rumors about a supposed „Surface Phone“ will apparently materialize in the form of the Surface Duo smartphone in 2020. This will however only be a comeback in terms of hardware – the device is supposed to run on Android. So what was your experience with Windows Phone? Did you even know it existed? Did you ever use it and if so did you like it? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming.