smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

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

#15 A selection of Android apps for media production

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 Please keep in mind that there might be some typos or even outdated information in it as the mobile world keeps spinning at an incredible pace and things can change quickly.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

Android app list for media production

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#13 The Xiaomi Mi A1 – A good budget option for mobile videography? — 9. May 2018

#13 The Xiaomi Mi A1 – A good budget option for mobile videography?

The Xiaomi Mi A1 is Xiaomi’s first “officially” internationally available phone.

Xiaomi has been a really big name in China’s smartphone market for years, promising high-end specs and good build quality for a budget price tag – but only at the end of last year did they officially enter the global scene with the Mi A1. The Mi A1 is basically a revamped Mi 5X running stock Android software instead of Xiaomi’s custom Mi UI. It’s also part of Google’s Android One program which means it runs a ‚clean‘ Google version of Android that gets quicker and more frequent updates directly from Google. For a very budget-friendly 180€ (current online price in Europe) you get a slick looking phone with dual rear cameras, featuring a 2x optical zoom telephoto lens alongside the primary camera. Sounds like an incredible deal? Here are some thoughts about the Mi A1 regarding its use as a tool for media production, specifically video.

After spending a couple of days with the Mi A1, I would say that this phone is definitely a very interesting budget-choice for mobile photographers. The fact that you get dual rear cameras (the second one is a 2x optical zoom as mentioned before) at this price point is pretty amazing. The photo quality is quite good in decent lighting conditions (low light is problematic but that can be said of most smartphone cameras), you get a manual mode with advanced controls in the native camera app and the portrait mode feature does a surprisingly good job at creating that fancy Bokeh effect blurring the background to single out your on-screen talent. A lot of bang for the buck. Video – which I’m personally more interested in – is a slightly different story though.

Let’s start with a positive aspect: The Xiaomi Mi A1 lets you record in UHD/4K quality which is still a rarity for a budget phone in this price range. And hey, the footage looks quite good in my opinion, especially considering the fact that it’s coming from a (budget) smartphone. I have uploaded some sample footage on YouTube so see for yourself.

The video bitrate for UHD/4K hovers around 40 Mbps in the native app which is ok for a phone but the audio bitrate is a meager 96 Kbps (same in FHD) – so don’t expect full, rich sound. But this is only the beginning of a couple of disappointments when it comes to video: One of the Mi A1’s promising camera features, the 2x optical zoom lens, CANNOT be used in the video mode, only in the photo mode! What a bummer! This goes for both the native camera app and 3rd party apps.

Despite running a stock version of Android and being part of Google’s Android One program, the Camera2 API support level is very disappointing.

Talking about 3rd party camera apps, it’s also a huge let-down that the Camera2 API support (what is Camera2 API?) is only „Legacy“ out of the box, even though the Mi A1 is part of Google’s Android One program. „Legacy“ means that third party camera apps can’t really tap into the new, more advanced camera controls that Google introduced with Android 5 in 2014, like precise exposure control over ISO and shutter speed. Due to this, you can’t install an app like Filmic Pro in the first place and other advanced camera apps like Cinema FV-5, ProShot, Lumio Cam, Cinema 4K, Footej Camera or Open Camera can’t really unleash their full potential. Interestingly, there seems to be a way to „unlock“ full Camera2 support via a special procedure without permanently rooting your device (look here) but even after doing so, Filmic Pro can’t be installed, probably because the PlayStore keeps the device’s original Camera2 support information in its database to check if the app is compatible without actually probing the current state of the phone. This is just an educated guess however. Still, many of us might not feel comfortable messing around with their phone in that way and it’s a pity Xiaomi doesn’t provide this out-of-the-box on the Mi A1.

UI of the video mode in Xiaomi’s native camera app on the Mi A1. You can tap to focus and adjust the exposure (+/- 2 EV), but not lock it.

Lackluster Camera2 API support can be remedied by a good native camera app but unlike with photos, there is no pro or manual mode for videos on the Mi A1, it’s actually extremely limited. While you can lock the focus by tapping (there are two focus modes, tap-to-focus and continuous auto-focus), you are only able to adjust the auto-exposure within a certain range (EV), not lock it. There’s also no way to influence the white balance. Shooting in a higher frame rate (60fps)? Not possible, not even in 720p (there’s a not-too-bad 720p slow-motion feature though). Apropos frame rates: I noticed that while the regular frame rate is the usual 30fps, the native camera app reduces the fps to 24 (actually 23.98 to be precise) when shooting under low-light conditions to gain a little bit more light for each frame. That’s also the reason why I made two different YouTube videos with sample footage so I was able to keep the original frame rate of the clips. I have experienced this behaviour of dropping the frame rate in low-light in quite a few (native) camera apps on other phones as well and from the standpoint of a run-of-the-mill smartphone user taking video this is actually an acceptable compromise in my opinion (as long as you don’t go below 20fps) to help tackle the fact that most smartphone cameras still aren’t naturally nocturnal creatures. It can however be a problem for more dedicated smartphone videographers that want to edit their footage as it’s not really good to have clips in one project that differ so much in terms of fps. 3rd party apps might help keeping the fps more constant.

And there are still two other big reasons to use a 3rd party app on the Mi A1 despite the lack of proper Camera2 API support: locking exposure and using an external microphone via the headphone jack (yes, there is one!). One more important shortcoming to talk about: It’s not too surprising maybe that there is no optical image stabilization (OIS) on a phone in this price range but given the fact that you can shoot 4K, I would have expected electronic image stabilization (EIS) at least when shooting in 1080p resolution. But there’s no EIS in 1080p which means that you should put the phone on a tripod or use a gimbal most of the time to avoid getting shaky footage. With a bit of practice you might pull off a decent handheld pan or tilt however to avoid having only static shots.

So I’ve talked about the video capturing part, what about editing video on the Mi A1? The phone sports a Snapdragon 625 which is a slightly dated but still quite capable mid-ranger chipset from Qualcomm. You can work with up to two layers (total of three video tracks) of FHD video in KineMaster and PowerDirector (the two most advanced Android video editing apps) which will suffice for most users. Important note: DON’T run the hardware analysis test in KineMaster though! It’s a hardware probing procedure meant to better determine the device’s capabilities in terms of editing video in the app. While the device capability information originally says you can have two QHD (1440p) video layers, it will downgrade you to two 720p (!) layers after running the analysis – quite strange. Don’t worry though if your evil twin grabs your phone and runs the test anyway – you just have to uninstall and then reinstall KineMaster to get back to the original setting. I ran some quick tests with FHD 1080p layers and it worked fine so just leave everything as is. Since the phone can shoot in UHD/4K resolution you might ask if you can edit this footage on the device. While you can’t edit 4K in KineMaster on the Mi A1 at all (when trying to import 4K footage the app will offer you to import a transcoded QHD version of the clip to work with) you can import and work with UHD/4K in PowerDirector, but only as a single video track, layers are not possible.

So let’s wrap this up: Xiaomi’s first internationally available phone is a great budget option for mobile photographers but the video recording department is let down by a couple of things which makes other options in this price range more appealing to the smartphone videographer if advanced manual controls and certain pro apps are of importance. As I pointed out though, it’s not all bad: It’s still hard to find a phone for that price that offers UHD/4K video recording – and the footage looks even pretty good in decent lighting conditions. So if you happen to have a Mi A1 – there’s no reason at all to not create cool video content with it – if you achieve a nice video package you can even be more proud than someone with a flagship phone! 😉

#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!

#8 Bare bones or full featured: best stock camera apps for shooting video on smartphones – PART 1 — 20. December 2017

#8 Bare bones or full featured: best stock camera apps for shooting video on smartphones – PART 1

One of the first steps when getting more serious about producing video content with a smartphone is to look at the more advanced video recording apps from 3rd party developers. Popular favorites like „FilmicPro“ (available for both Android and iOS) usually offer way more image composition controls, recording options and helpful pro features that you find on dedicated video cameras than the native stock camera app provided by the maker of the smartphone. While quite a few stock camera apps now actually have fairly advanced manual controls when shooting photos (ability to set ISO and shutter speed might be the most prominent example), the video mode unfortunately and frustratingly is still almost always neglected, leaving the eager user with a bare minimum of controls and options. In 2015 however, LG introduced a game changer in this regard: the V10. For the first time in smartphone history, a phone maker (also) focused on a full featured video recording mode: it included among other things the ability to set ISO and shutter speed, lock exposure, pull focus seamlessly, check audio levels via an audio level meter, adjust audio gain, set microphone directionality, use external microphones, alter the bit rate etc. etc. Sure, for certain users there were still some things missing that you could find in 3rd party apps like the option to change the frame rate to 25fps if  you’re delivering for a PAL broadcast but that’s only for a very specific use case – in general, this move by LG was groundbreaking and a bold and important statement for video production on a smartphone. But what about other phone makers? How good are their native camera apps when it comes to advanced options and controls for recording video? Can they compete with dedicated 3rd party apps?

First off, let me tell you why in most cases, you DO want to have a 3rd party app for recording video (at least if you have an Android phone): external microphones. With the exception of LG, Samsung (and I’m told OnePlus) in their recent flagship lines (plus Apple in general), no stock camera app I have come across supports the use of external microphones when recording video. Having good audio in a video is really important in most cases and external microphones (connected via headphone jack, microUSB, USB-C or Lightning connector) can be a big help in achieving that goal.

So why would you use a stock camera app over a dedicated 3rd party app at all? Familiarity. I guess many of us use the native camera app of a smartphone when snapping casual, everyday photos and maybe also videos in non-professional situations. So why not build on that familiarity? Simplicity. The default UI of most native camera apps is pretty straight-forward and simple. Some might prefer this to a more complex UI featured in more advanced 3rd party apps. Affordability. You don’t have to spend a single extra penny for it. I’m generally an avid advocate of supporting excellent 3rd party app developers by paying for their apps but others might not want to invest. The most important reason in my opinion however is: Stability/Reliability. This might not be true for every stock camera app on every phone (I think especially owners of Sony phones and lately the Essential Phone could beg to differ) but because of the fact that the app was developed by the maker of the phone and is usually less complex than 3rd party apps, chances are good that it will run more stable and is less prone to (compatibility) bugs, especially when you consider the plethora of Android devices out there. The V10’s stock camera app, despite being rather complex,  is rock-solid and hasn’t crashed on me once in almost 2 years now.

Over the last months I have taken a closer look at a whole lot of stock camera apps on smartphones from LG, Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Sony, Motorola/Lenovo, Nokia (both their older Windows Phone / Windows Mobile offerings AND their new Android handsets), HTC, Nextbit, BQ, Wiko and Google/Nexus. It goes without saying that I wasn’t able to inspect stock camera apps on all  the different phone models of a manufacturer. This is important to say because some phone makers give their flagships models a more advanced camera app than their budget devices while others offer the same native camera app across all (or at least most) of their device portfolio. Also, features might be added on newer models. So keep in mind, all I want to do is to give a rough overview from my perspective and offer some thoughts on which phone makers are paying more attention to pro features in the video recording department.

The lowest common denominator for recording video in a stock camera app on a smartphone at the moment is that you will have a button to start recording in full-auto mode with a resolution of 1920×1080 (1080p)  (1280×720 on some entry level or older devices) at a frame rate of 30fps. „full-auto“ basically means that exposure, focus and white balance (color temperature) will be set and adjusted automatically by the app depending on the situation and the algorithm / image processing routine. While this might sound like a convenient and good idea in general to get things done without much hassle, the auto-mode will not always produce the desired results because it’s not „smart“ enough to judge what’s important for you in the shot and therefore doesn’t get exposure, focus and/or white balance right. It might also change these parameters while recording when you don’t want them to, like for instance when you are panning the camera. Therefore one of the crucial features to get more control over the image is the ability to adjust and lock exposure, focus and white balance because if these parameters shift (too wildly/abruptly/randomly) while recording, it makes the video look amateurish. So let’s have a look at a couple of stock camera apps.

To be continued soon with “Part 2″…

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

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

The Nextbit Robin

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the official Android documentation for developers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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