smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#16 Six months with the LG V30 – a dream come true for smartphone videographers? — 3. January 2019

#16 Six months with the LG V30 – a dream come true for smartphone videographers?

LG V30 with transparent protection case

A little more than six months ago I bid my LG V10 goodbye into retirement. The V10 was the first flagship smartphone I had purchased and I had done so for a very specific reason: LG had redefined what a stock/native camera app on a smartphone can offer in terms of pro video controls. While many other phone makers were including advanced manual controls for photography in their camera apps, video had been shamelessly ignored. With the introduction of the V-series in late 2015, LG offered avid smartphone videographers a feature pack in the native camera app that could otherwise only be found in dedicated 3rd party apps like FilmicPro. While LG’s smartphone sales can’t really compete with the ones from Samsung, Huawei and such, the V-series fortunately didn’t just vanish after the V10 but was succeeded by the V20, V30, V35 and V40 henceforth. As I don’t see the need to upgrade my phone on an annual basis, I went for the V30. It took over the useful dual rear cameras from the V20 and newly introduced features like LOG profile, Point Zoom and CineVideo. After spending six months with the V30, what is there to say about the device as a videography tool?

Hardware features: Lost & Found

Well first off, let’s get that big thing out of the way that bothered me the most before I even bought the V30: abandoning the removable battery. LG was basically the last major phone maker to offer an exchangeable battery on a flagship with the V20, so kudos for that, but they eventually ditched it for the V30. I somewhat do get the idea that a unibody design without removable parts might just make the device look slicker and even has a practical reason when it comes to water and dust resistance (yes, you CAN submerge the V30 without a case thanks to the IP68-rating). But apart from the concerning fact that this is a considerable ecological issue because it makes it likely that you will just buy a new phone when battery life starts to falter, it also does away with the „power management security net“ and fosters the fear of running out of power with your phone. Especially when using such a device extensively for professional purposes, a back-up battery that lets you go back from 0 to 100% in a matter of seconds feels just very comfortable to have around. Sure, external batteries a.k.a. power banks are a common thing by now but they are not quite as compact and fast in getting the recharging job done. While dropping the removable battery is unfortunate, it’s an all-too-common thing, LG only follows the rest of the pack as nowadays you can hardly find a phone that still has this feature. Furthermore, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the V30’s battery life. It’s much better than the V10’s and while doing some tests with very long recordings, the phone only consumed around 30% of the battery when recording continuously for almost two hours. I just hope the battery doesn’t degrade too fast over time.

Speaking of useful features that are en vogue to get the sack: LG is still holding out on the 3.5mm headphone jack which will make a lot of people happy as it’s still a very easy and universal way to attach external mics for better sound quality (or do audio monitoring). The V30 also has a USB-C port which can be used for connecting external mics as well, but as of now there are hardly any USB-C mics out there to make use of that. One very clever and useful exception is the Samson Go Mic Mobile wireless system which comes with a whole bunch of connecting cables, including a USB-C one. One day in the (hopefully not so distant) future, truly wireless audio solutions sending audio in high quality directly from the mic to the phone’s video recording app might replace wired solutions but the current state of quality and reliability in that area isn’t yet up to the task as far as I can see. As for the internal mic, there are actually two, so the LG V30 is one of only a few phones that records in stereo natively. This is very useful if you are capturing a soundscape or if you have sound sources moving around. And to tell the whole story, the V30 actually has a third internal mic: the phone’s earpiece kicks in as a life saver in very loud environments (like say a rock concert) to avoid distorted audio. Another useful feature that the V30 fortunately kept was the support for external storage via microSD card, popping in a 128 or 256GB card is a pretty cheap way to have more space for media and apps on your phone.

Three and a Half Cameras

Let’s continue our inspection of the V30’s hardware and take a look at what might be considered the most important thing for a phone – when talking about videography: the camera(s). While the V10 had a somewhat peculiar lens set-up with a single rear camera but dual front cameras, the V20 flipped this around which I personally find more useful if you’re not a selfie-vlogger. Dual rear cameras have become all the rage in the last couple of years and almost something considered a must-have on flagship phones and even some mid-rangers (unless your name is Google Pixel). Not all secondary rear cams are created equal though. Some are only for shooting nice portrait shots with a blurred background, some feature a monochrome sensor for black/white photography with better low-light performance and dynamic range and some have a different focal length than the main camera, going either for telephoto (zoom) or wide-angle. For smartphone videographers, only the last two options are actually helpful. And while I have been known for whining about the lack of optical zoom on smartphones in the past, I do have to say that from a practical standpoint, wide-angle seems like the best, most versatile choice after all. Especially if you find yourself indoors backed up against a wall, having a wide-angle is just incredibly helpful to fit more of the scenery into the shot. And the ability to shoot two very different images from a single point without having to move around is fantastic. So while the wide-angle secondary camera is actually a rare choice in the market, LG can only be applauded for going down this route. And after the V20 had a noticeable amount of barrel-distortion on the wide-angle, the V30’s 12mm secondary rear cam has been more refined in that respect. It now also has a much wider aperture compared to the V20 (f/1.9 vs f/2.4 – smaller is better) which helps in low-light. There are three limitations when using the wide-angle however: The first one might actually be of use in certain situations – the fact that there’s a fixed focus and therefore no adjusting auto-focus guarantees that there are no unexpected and sudden focus shifts. A fixed focus might be a serious problem for the main camera, but for the wide-angle, it’s ok. The second limitation is a real one though: no OIS (optical image stabilization) and no EIS (electronic image stabilization) either. The third one is the biggest though: the V30’s new „LG-Cine Log“ profile (more about that later) is not available for the wide-angle camera, only for the main snapper.

The 30mm main rear camera has OIS (plus the option for additional EIS called „Steady recording“ – not available for UHD/4K though), laser auto-focus, a f/1.6 aperture and the ability to record in LG-Cine Log. Both rear cameras let you record in UHD/4K (but only up to 30fps, 60fps is only available for FHD resolution, 120fps only for 720p in slow-motion mode) and you can switch between them with a single tap even when recording. The colors of the two rear cameras don’t match 100% if you take a really close look but they are close enough for most purposes I’d say. Now while the main rear camera seems to be excellent for low-light with its wide f/1.6 aperture, the relatively small size of the image sensor (1/3.1“ with 1.0µm pixel size) unfortunately diminishes this advantage. With very few exceptions (especially when it comes to video), all smartphones still struggle with low-light situations so it would be wrong to single out LG for that. I would classify the V30’s low-light performance as solid, but not as good as one could have expected with regard to the promising aperture of the main cam.

What about the selfie camera? Well, I was already a little bit suspicious when I saw the tiny camera hole on the front. As it turns out, not only did LG scrap one front camera compared to my old V10 but the actual quality of the footage isn’t really better than the V10’s from two years ago as far as I could see. That’s a bit of a disappointment for sure but personally, I don’t care too much as I rarely use the front camera. As for resolution, you can shoot FHD in 30fps which is the solid standard but that’s it – no UHD/4K or higher frame rate. Another note: While there isn’t a second front facing camera you still get the option to switch between a wider and a narrower field of view – as there’s no second lens, this is done by a software crop of the image.

Processing Power

Before moving on to the software side of things, a few words about one other very important hardware aspect: the chipset. The LG V30 is equipped with a capable Snapdragon 835 that not only lets you shoot video in UHD/4K resolution (although only up to 30fps in UHD/4K) but also edit it. Importing footage into Android’s two best video editors KineMaster and PowerDirector reveals that you can even have a second video track when working with UHD/4K footage in those apps which is excellent news. For those interested in creating Augmented Reality (AR) enriched  video: The V30 is compatible with Google’s ARCore and the Snapdragon 835 has enough muscle to let you use an app like “Just a line” for instance which lets you draw/doodle in AR space. There isn’t too much around in this category yet though.

Screen grab of the “Device Capability Information” panel in the KineMaster video editing app.

The King of Manual Video Controls

But while good cameras and powerful chipsets can also be found on other (Android) phones, the unique selling point of the V-series has always been its focus on videography with all the manual controls and features you get in the native camera app. I’ve already talked about that regarding the V10 when discussing native camera apps on smartphones in an earlier post (I still owe the second part of this article, what a shame!) but there have been some significant additions since the V10 so it’s worth pointing out in detail again. Let’s have a look at the interface of the manual video mode: On the far left on the bottom of the screen you find an audio level meter which reassures you that there’s actually audio coming in from the mic(s) and it also helps you to make sure the audio isn’t too loud (peaking). No other native camera app on a smartphone has that – you can only find it in advanced 3rd party apps like FilmicPro, Cinema FV-5 etc. To the right there’s information on what resolution, frame rate and bitrate you are currently using. Next is a button with a microphone icon and this opens up a transparent panel overlay with some advanced audio controls audiophiles will love: You get to change the input gain, activate a low cut filter or set a limiter. While recording, you even get live audio waveforms when having this panel open which gives you even more precise visualized information about the incoming audio than the audio level meter. From this panel you can also apply a wind noise filter and select an external mic if there is one connected via headphone jack or USB-C port. At this point I would like to mention that the app even allows for audio monitoring via cabled or Bluetooth headphones. There’s a small delay to the live audio so listening to it over extended periods of time can be irritating but it’s definitely good to quickly check the audio for possible unwanted sonic interference. The next button is for white balance and you can switch between auto mode and a Kelvin scale that ranges from 2300 to 7500K. No presets are available though. Next in line is focus. Again, you can switch between auto-focus and manual focus. When you choose manual focus mode you get to enjoy another staggering feature for a native camera app: focus peaking. Focus peaking adds a colored overlay to the areas of the frame that are in focus and is therefore incredibly helpful to get the focus right. It can usually only be found on professional „big“ cameras. Focus peaking can be switched on or off when using manual focus on the V30. One shortcoming: You can only use focus peaking BEFORE starting the recording which makes fancy rack focus action while filming still a bit of a gamble. The only Android app that allows focus peaking even while recording is FilmicPro. The EV button lets you adjust the exposure value without having to set precise values for ISO and shutter speed but as there’s no option to lock the exposure in that case I find it fairly useless. On to the two real exposure parameters: ISO and shutter speed. The ISO ranges between 50 and 3200, shutter speed between 1/25s and 1/4000s. One crucial improvement over the V10 regarding the shutter speed is that you can now select „PAL“ shutter speeds, most importantly 1/50s. This is important because in Europe and some other regions many artificial light sources emit light at the frequency of 50 Hertz which causes ugly banding effects in your footage if you are not shooting with a shutter speed that matches this frequency. The last thing you find on the far right of the bottom control panel is what I like to call the „panic button“ and it’s a very cool feature: If you ever find yourself lost fiddling with all the manual controls but need to quickly start recording all of a sudden you can just push the „A“ with a circling arrow around it and everything goes back to auto: white balance, focus, exposure.

But not only the control panel of the main recording interface is stuffed with controls and features, there’s more to find in the settings section which you can access by tapping the cog wheel on the bottom of the left side bar. The first option you can find here at the top of the list is the frame rate. And it’s in here that me and some other folks do miss a particular something: PAL frame rates, PAL being the broadcast standard in Europe and some other regions of the world. Normally you couldn’t really blame a smartphone for not having the option to shoot in 25 or 50fps in the native camera app (the only phones that ever did at least 25fps were Nokia’s/Microsoft’s Lumia phones) but with all the amazing bells and whistles in terms of pro videography controls on the V-series, it’s a real shame that LG didn’t pay attention to that as well. Truth be told, this option will only be of serious relevance to a certain group of videographers: Those who shoot for PAL broadcast and/or use their phone in combination with a ‚regular‘ camera that only shoots PAL frame rates. If you don’t belong in this category, you can be perfectly happy with the options at hand: 1, 2, 24, 30 and 60fps (60fps is not available when shooting UHD/4K or LOG). Still, for the highly unlikely case that someone from LG reads this blog, PLEASE do add the option to shoot in 25/50fps! How hard can it be? I hope there’s a golden future ahead where regional frame rates are a thing of the past but that future might still be a bit too far away to just ignore the present. Yes, you can use 3rd party apps to shoot in 25fps on the V30 but if LG gives us a native camera app so good with manual video controls and the idea that this is a serious videography tool, why be ignorant in that particular area? Next in the settings list is bitrate. Yes, you heard that right, you can adjust the bitrate. Another feature that can otherwise only be found in advanced 3rd party apps. You can choose between three different settings: high, medium and low. The bitrates depend on the selected resolution and frame rate and – upon closer inspection – turn out to be not as high as some power users would have liked. The maximum you get is 52 Mbit/s when shooting in UHD/4K, the „high“ option in 1080p with 30fps is 24Mbit/s. Still, it’s nice to have some control over the bitrate at all in a native camera app. Below the bitrate option, there’s another very interesting feature that will excite every audiophile: You can toggle on „HiFi recording“ which pushes the audio bitrate for video to a crazy 2400 Kbit/s (24-Bit PCM Stereo) while the regular set-up is 156Kbit/s (AAC) and no other smartphone I encountered exceeded 320Kbit/s. If you want to edit your footage on the phone be warned that not every video editing app supports PCM audio (KineMaster and PowerDirector do though) – and neither does Twitter’s video player by the way.

What the LOG!?!

But let’s move on to the big new feature that LG introduced to the V-series with the V30: LG-Cine Log. What’s „log“? I won’t and I can’t go into the details of this but let’s just say it is a special shooting profile that applies certain processing to the image which will give you a better dynamic/tonal range and generally allows more flexibility in post production when you want to create a specific look for your footage. It’s a feature usually only found on professional cinema cameras and calls for a certain amount of post production (grading/coloring) because the „raw“ footage usually looks rather dull and pale. So if your workflow includes a fast turnaround you probably shouldn’t use the LOG profile. It’s a very cool feature though, I absolutely love it, not least because the regular footage might be considered over-sharpened and over-saturated, an unfortunate habit of many/most smartphones as they are trying to satisfy what they deem the crowd’s taste. And while I’d say that the V30’s non-LOG image quality is a tad behind Google’s recent Pixel phones, Samsung’s S9/S9 Plus/Note 9 and the latest iPhones, the native LOG profile makes up for that in my opinion as you can really create stunning footage with it and have immense flexibility in post production. However it can’t be denied that shooting LOG probably is only of interest to a certain group of videographers. But hey, if any smartphone should have the ability to shoot LOG in the native app, it should be the V30! Two things to keep in mind when using LG-Cine Log: You can’t use the wide-angle lens and you can only shoot up to 30fps. Here’s a “show reel” of footage shot in LG-Cine Log on the V30 (graded in FCPX).

And here are two shorter videos with LG V30 LOG footage, one “raw” like it is originally recorded, the other with minor grading applied.

And as I already talked about bitrates earlier on, it’s particularly unfortunate with regard to shooting LOG that the bitrates can’t be bumped up to higher levels. One last thing: When using LOG profile you can find a button in the top right corner of the main interface that lets you toggle on and off at LUT (so-called ‚Look-Up-Table‘). Again, I don’t really want to get into the specifics here but suffice it to say that this gives you a preview of what the graded result of your LOG footage COULD look like, it is NOT recording that preview! The image that is recorded is ALWAYS the one that you can see when LUT is toggled OFF!

Let’s wrap up the settings menu with a quick look at some other features: Bright Mode and HDR can’t be used in the manual video recording mode (only in auto-mode) which renders them useless for me. Steady Recording is an additional (software-powered) stabilizing option that crops the frame and can’t be used when recording in UHD/4K. Tracking Focus tracks a person or object while moving about the frame which can be useful in certain situations. It doesn’t always work perfect but it’s worth trying out. Covered Lens gives you a warning when you (accidentally) cover part of the wide-angle camera’s image. This can indeed be helpful as I have occasionally found myself inserting my pinkie into the frame without the intention to do so because the wide-angle has a really wide angle. On the right hand side of the settings menu you can activate a timer (3 or 10 seconds) and select a resolution. Resolution varies between 720p and UHD/4K and offers three different aspect ratios (16:9, 18:9 and 21:9 – the latter two are only available up to 1080p). 21:9 is interesting because the ultra-widescreen format gives you a certain „cinematic“ effect. If you combine that with the according frame rate (24fps) and LOG profile you are setting the stage for that sweet silver screen look. And for those of you interested in creating vertical video content, you can also shoot vertically with all features & manual controls. Manual mode is however not available when you are using the front camera though – a little bummer.

More fun with shooting modes…

The manual video mode is outstanding but what about any other interesting video modes in the native camera app? There’s one particular mode that was also first introduced with the V30 and got a lot of attention before the phone’s release: CineVideo. The mode actually has two separate features bundled together in one mode – the bundling aspect however left me somewhat confused. So one aspect of the CineVideo mode is that you can apply a couple of slick „cinematic“ filters (some are even calling them LUTs, not sure if that’s correct though) to your image. But while you get control over the strength of the filter and the vignetting that comes with it, that’s basically it. Yes you do get some very rudimentary exposure value control but you can’t lock the exposure or set specific values for ISO and shutter speed which is really unfortunate and dramatically reduces the usefulness. The other feature in the CineVideo mode is Digital Point Zoom. You can choose a point within the frame and smoothly zoom in by using a virtual slider. Yes, the zoom is only digital but to my surprise the quality loss isn’t all that bad and even when fully zoomed in, the image can still be considered acceptable. So it’s a real shame that LG restricted this feature to the CineVideo mode – it would have been very cool to have this in the manual video mode as well. There you can also zoom digitally by using the common zoom gesture with two fingers but the zoom will be very abrupt because there’s no slider. And you also can’t zoom in to an off-center point of the frame like you can with the Digital Point Zoom.

So one small general gripe I have with modes and features on the V30 is that certain useful things are only available in certain modes / in certain settings and not in others which can be a little frustrating at times.

„Popout“ is another fairly interesting mode as it uses both the main and the wide-angle camera simultaneously to create a picture-in-picture video with two different views from the same camera standpoint. The cool thing is that you can apply some effects to the wide-angle image: Fisheye, Black&White, Vignette and Lens Blur. You can even combine some or all of them at the same time. On top of that you can also change the layout of the picture-in-picture to have a circle instead of a rectangle or have three segments of which the top and the bottom are filled by the wide-angle camera while the middle one is filled by the main camera. It’s more of a fun mode and I don’t use it often but it can come in handy when you try to create something more playful for instance for a short social media video.

The simultaneous use of two cameras gets even more interesting with the „Match Shot“ mode. This is a fantastic feature for vloggers and mobile journalists reporting as a one-(wo)man-band – I have already mentioned this mode in my blog post #12: It creates a split-screen recording using both the front and a rear camera simultaneously which means you can basically show yourself AND your own point-of-view at the same time. This is just super cool if you are doing an on-the-scene piece-to-camera for a news report or some travel vlogging. For each screen segment you can choose between the regular view and a wide-angle so you have some flexibility there as well. Best of all: external mics are even supported! Some downsides on the other hand: The aspect ratio is fixed to 18:9 (resolution of 2880×1440 is good though, so one can adjust to 16:9 in post), the frame rate is only 24fps and everything’s running on auto, no manual controls. Still, it’s an amazing feature with great potential and it’s a real pity that apparently LG has ditched this mode again on the V40. Here’s a video (not mine) with the Match Shot mode in action:

If you are into square video and doing super-short teasers for longer content you might find some use for the „Grid Shot“ mode which lets you shoot four very short clips of a maximum of 3 seconds each and assembles them into a split-screen square video (resolution: 1440×1440) playing back all four clips at the same time.

The last interesting mode for video is „Slo-Mo“. You get slow motion with 240fps – but only in 720p and with barely any manual controls. It’s nice to have but it’s definitely not LG’s strong suit – Apple and Samsung offer much better quality here in their flagship phones.

Camera2 API & 3rd party apps

So with the V30’s native camera app being so amazing is there any need at all for 3rd party apps? Yes and no, or as we like to say in German: Jein. The biggest reason for using a 3rd party app is probably the frame rate: As mentioned before, the native app does not offer any PAL standard frame rates (25/50fps) which might be important to some users. Other than that, the only app that can actually beat LG’s native camera app when it comes to features and controls is FilmicPro which gives you among other things focus peaking during recording, a waveform monitor and false color analytics to check exposure in difficult situations, the ability to shoot in higher bitrates and the option to use the more efficient (but not yet fully mass-market compatible) HEVC/H.265 codec instead of the standard AVC/H.264. But as I have pointed out in an earlier blog post, the ability to have advanced manual video controls in 3rd party apps on Android devices very much depends on how well the phone maker has implemented the so-called Camera2 API (if you want to learn more about it, check out my two blogposts about it here and here). Without proper implementation, 3rd party app developers can’t access/make use of certain controls. So how’s the Camera2 API support for the V30? Well, it’s a mixed bag. It does have the highest support level („Level 3“) for both rear cameras (only „Limited“ though for the front camera) so theoretically things should be fine but apparently LG overlooked a small bug that affects focusing in 3rd party camera apps. Sometimes, the focus gets stuck and you have to quit and re-launch the app. While I have experienced this first with FilmicPro it also happened with other 3rd party apps, so it seems to be a more general issue and not only related to a FilmicPro. Let’s hope LG can fix this nuisance with a software update. A positive aspect of LG’s Camera2 implementation on the other hand is the fact that 3rd party camera apps do get access to the secondary rear camera, something other Android phone makers are less welcoming about. So far, only FilmicPro and ProShot have actually integrated this as a feature though. In the case of FilmicPro this means that there is a way to shoot in LOG profile with the wide-angle lens after all! A word about frame rates: The ability to shoot in 25fps is one major reason for some to use 3rd party camera apps. Using the V30 with FilmicPro in 25fps has been mostly consistent and reliable so far (occasionally you do get 24.93 or something not 100% on spot) but you don’t get the higher frame rate PAL option of 50fps (something very few Android handsets seem to be able to allow at this point). And neither do you get 60fps which is available in the native app so LG still keeps some shackles on the API here for 3rd party apps. Surprisingly though, you can shoot at the even higher slow-motion frame rate of 120fps (up to FHD). So I’d say slow-motion capability comes out as a tie between native camera app and FilmicPro: The native camera app lets you record in 240fps using the slow-motion mode but only in 720p while with FilmicPro you „only“ get a frame rate of 120fps but a higher resolution (1080p).

In the long run…

Before concluding this rather detailed inspection of the V30 I would like to address one more aspect: maximum recording length. While quite a few smartphone videographers usually take relatively short clips and don’t really care if there’s a limit of say 20 minutes for a single video, it’s really important to know about that for others. Android used to have a single file size limit of around 4GB (this particular size seems to be related to the well-known FAT32 format but to my knowledge it actually isn’t as the limit isn’t exactly 4GB), but many phone makers were able to get rid of that with their own version of the Android OS (Sony, Huawei, Nokia, BQ, HTC for instance). Unfortunately, LG isn’t among them. That being said, LG vastly improved things compared to the V10. On the V10, the recording would stop upon reaching the file size limit and you would have to manually restart the recording. Not a good thing, if you were using the phone as an alternative angle for a longer event while having your focus on the main camera or if you really needed every second of the recording. With the V30 you don’t have to manually restart the recording anymore, it basically records continuously for as long as battery and storage allows. In the background however, the clip is chopped up into chunks of 4.29 GB and you lose a very short segment in between (I’d say it’s around 2 seconds maybe). It might not be the ideal solution for certain jobs but it’s definitely better than having to restart manually. After all, some might even argue that in case of file corruption it’s better to not have a single file. Of course then the ideal solution would be a spliced clip that can be seamlessly reassembled afterwards without dropping a single frame.

Conclusion

So, in the end, is the LG V30 a smartphone videographer’s dream machine? For the most part I’d say yes, its focus on videography is absolutely unique in the smartphone market, the range of advanced pro tools for shooting video that is available right out of the box without having to bother with 3rd party apps that might have certain quirks thanks to Android’s fragmentation is utterly brilliant. The native camera app has been rock-solid in terms of reliability, it hasn’t crashed on me once so far. It’s not quite perfect though: Especially when taking into account that this phone was made for (professional) videographers, it’s a bit puzzling that LG didn’t bother to include PAL frame rates for its native camera app. I’m not an expert on this but I’d say it shouldn’t have been too much of a problem technically to do so. Maybe they just didn’t care? Who knows… This leaves me with two wishes: a) Please, LG, go the extra inch and include PAL frame rates in the native camera app with a software update and b) to all you other smartphone makers out there: please follow LG’s example in paying more attention to your phone’s native camera app in terms of advanced manual video controls. Thank you.

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

#15 A selection of Android apps for media production

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

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

 

#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.