Ask anyone about the weaknesses of smartphone cameras and you will surely find that people often point towards a phone’s low-light capabilities as the or at least one of its Achilles heel(s). When you are outside during the day it’s relatively easy to shoot some good-looking footage with your mobile device, even with budget phones. Once it’s darker or you’re indoors, things get more difficult. The reason for this is essentially that the image sensors in smartphones are still pretty small compared to those in DSLMs/DLSRs or professional video/cinema cameras. Bigger sensors can collect more photons (light) and produce better low light images. A so-called “Full Frame” sensor in a DSLM like Sony’s Alpha 7-series has a surface area of 864 mm2, a common 1/2.5” smartphone image sensor has only 25 mm2. So why not just put a huge sensor in a smartphone? While cameras in smartphones have undeniably become a very important factor, the phone is still very much a multi-purpose device and not a single-purpose one like a dedicated camera – for better or worse. That means there are many things to consider when building a phone. I doubt anyone would want a phone with a form factor that doesn’t allow you to put the phone in your pocket. And the flat form factor makes it difficult to build proper optics with larger sensors. Larger sensors also consume more power and produce more heat, not exactly something desirable. If we are talking about smartphone photography from a tripod, some of the missing sensor size can be compensated for with long exposure times. The advancements in computational imaging and AI have also led to dedicated and often quite impressive photography “Night Modes” on smartphones. But very long shutter speeds aren’t really an option for video as any movement appears extremely blurred – and while today’s chipsets can already handle supportive AI processing for photography, more resource-intensive videography is yet a bridge too far. So despite the fact that latest developments signal that we’re about to experience a considerable bump in smartphone image sensor sizes (Sony and Samsung are about to release a 1-inch/almost 1-inch image sensor for phones), one could say that most/all smartphone cameras (still) have a problem with low-light conditions. But you know what? They also have a problem with the exact opposite – very bright conditions!
If you know a little bit about how cameras work and how to set the exposure manually, you have probably come across something called the “exposure triangle”. The exposure triangle contains the three basic parameters that let you set and adjust the exposure of a photo or video on a regular camera: Shutter speed, aperture and ISO. In more general terms you could also say: Time, size and sensitivity. Shutter speed signifies the amount of time that the still image or a single frame of video is exposed to light, for instance 1/50 of a second. The longer the shutter speed, the more light hits the sensor and the brighter the image will be. Aperture refers to the size of the iris’ opening through which the light passes before it hits the sensor (or wayback when the film strip), it’s commonly measured in f-stops, for instance f/2.0. The bigger the aperture (= SMALLER the f-stop number), the more light reaches the sensor and the brighter the image will be. ISO (or “Gain” in some dedicated video cameras) finally refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor, for instance ISO 400. The higher the ISO, the brighter the image will be. Most of the time you want to keep the ISO as low as possible because higher sensitivity introduces more image noise.
So what exactly is the problem with smartphone cameras in this respect? Well, unlike dedicated cameras, smartphones don’t have a variable aperture, it’s fixed and can’t be adjusted. Ok, there actually have been a few phones with variable aperture, most notably Samsung had one on the S4 Zoom (2013) and K Zoom (2014) and they introduced a dual aperture approach with the S9/Note9 (2018), held on to it for the S10/Note 10 (2019) but dropped it again for the S20/Note20 (2020). But as you can see from the very limited selection, this has been more of an experiment. The fixed aperture means that the exposure triangle for smartphone cameras only has two adjustable parameters: Shutter speed and ISO. Why is this problematic? When there’s movement in a video (either because something moves within the frame or the camera itself moves), we as an audience have become accustomed to a certain degree of motion blur which is related to the used shutter speed. The rule of thumb applied here says: Double the frame rate. So if you are shooting at 24fps, use a shutter speed of 1/48s, if you are shooting at 25fps, use a shutter speed of 1/50s, 1/60s for 30fps etc. This suggestion is not set in stone and in my humble opinion you can deviate from it to a certain degree without it becoming too obvious for casual, non-pixel-peeping viewers – but if the shutter speed is very slow, everything begins to look like a drug-induced stream of consciousness experience and if it’s very fast, things appear jerky and shutter speed becomes stutter speed. So with the aperture being fixed and the shutter speed set at a “recommended” value, you’re left with ISO as an adjustable exposure parameter. Reducing the sensitivity of the sensor is usually only technically possible down to an ISO between 50 and 100 which will still give you a (heavily) overexposed image on a sunny day outside. So here’s our “paradox”: Too much available light can be just as much of an issue as too little when shooting with a smartphone.
What can we do about the two problems? Until significantly bigger smartphone image sensors or computational image enhancement for video arrives, the best thing to tackle the low-light challenge is to provide your own additional lighting or look for more available light, be it natural or artificial. Depending on your situation, this might be relatively easy or downright impossible. If you are trying to capture an unlit building at night, you will most likely not have a sufficient amount of ultra-bright floodlights at your hand. If you are interviewing someone in a dimly lit room, a small LED might just provide enough light to keep the ISO at a level without too much image noise.
As for the too-much-light problem (which ironically gets even worse with bigger sensors setting out to remedy the low-light problems): Try to pick a less sun-drenched spot, shoot with a faster shutter-speed if there is no or little action in the shot or – and this might be the most flexible solution – get yourself an ND (neutral density) filter that reduces the amount of light that passes through the lens. While some regular cameras have inbuilt ND filters, this feature has yet to appear in any smartphone, although OnePlus showcased a prototype phone last year that had something close to a proper ND filter, using a technology called “electrochromic glass” to hide the lens while still letting (less) light pass through (check out this XDA Developers article). So until this actually makes it to the market and proves to be effective, the filter has to be an external one that is either clipped on or screwed on if you use a dedicated case with a corresponding filter thread. You also have the choice between a variable and a non-variable (fixed density) ND filter. A variable ND filter will let you adjust the strength of its filtering effect which is great for flexibility but also have some disadvantages like the possibility of cross-polarization. If you want to learn more about ND filters, I highly recommend checking out this superb in-depth article by Richard Lackey.
So what’s the bigger issue for you personally? Low-light or high-light?
As always, if you have questions or comments, drop them here or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this article, also consider subscribing to my free Telegram channel (t.me/smartfilming) to get notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter featuring a personal selection of interesting things that happened in the world of mobile video in the last four weeks.
I am investing a lot of time and work in this blog and I’m even paying to keep it ad-free for an undistracted reading experience. If you find any of the content useful, please consider making a small donation via PayPal (click on the PayPal button below). It’s very much appreciated. Thank you! 🙂
Do you remember OnePlus marketing its phone(s) as the „flagship killer“? A device with all the bells and whistles of a top-of-the-line smartphone but only about half the price? A device that would kill the demand for the very popular but also very expensive flagship phones of Apple, Samsung & Co.? Well, while OnePlus is still a very common name when it comes to getting the best phone bang for the buck, 2018 brought about a new kid on the block that some dared to call the „flagship killer killer“: The Pocophone F1. Wait, the what-phone? Yeah right, Pocophone! It’s actually not another whole new company venturing into the smartphone business but a sub-brand of Xiaomi, the Chinese company already well established in its home market but also slowly expanding around the globe. It’s basically what the Honor phones are for Huawei. The fact that recent phones from OnePlus couldn’t quite withstand the general price bump in the high-end segment kickstarted by Apple’s iPhone X in 2017 introduced an opportunity for someone else to cater to the crowd that wants great specs but isn’t willing to spend a fortune. Enter: the Pocophone F1. When it launched in August 2018 you did get a device with the year’s latest flagship chipset from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 845, for a crazy low price of just over 300€, undercutting OnePlus (and everyone else’s flagships) by a significant margin. Does this mean the Pocophone F1 could be the new Holy Grail for great smartphone video production on a budget? After using it for a couple of months as a secondary device I would like to share some thoughts. Please note: I will look at this phone pretty much exclusively from the viewpoint of using it as a videography tool!
The Pocophone F1 is available with internal storage capacities of 64/128GB (6GB RAM) and 256GB (8GB RAM), all of them have the option to expand the storage via microSD card to up to another 256GB. So if you are recording a lot in UHD/4K, this is a pretty solid set-up although not quite as impressive in terms of internal storage as Samsung for instance which offers 512GB and even 1TB (!) internal storage on some of their latest flagships. The SoC (System-on-a-Chip), commonly known as chipset or processor, is – as mentioned before – a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, the company’s most powerful chipset of 2018 and at the heart of many a flagship phone of 2018/2019, including the Samsung S9/S9+ and Note 9 (at least in regions like the US, in other markets Samsung is using their own Exynos chip), the Google Pixel 3/3XL, the OnePlus 6T and the LG G7. Unfortunately it goes without saying these days that the Pocophone F1 does not have a (user) replaceable battery. This trend has been a big bummer for (professional) power users (and environmental sustainability!) but it’s become the harsh reality and everyone just seems to put up with it. The 4000 mAh battery is quite generous but it’s good to have a power bank at hand nevertheless if you are into heavy usage. While the replaceable battery is pretty much a thing of the past, the 3.5mm headphone jack is still holding on to a certain degree and even making a small comeback (hello Huawei P30 and Google Pixel 3a/3aXL!) It’s great the Pocophone has one on board so you can use it to connect external mics and don’t have to rely on the newer USB-C port for which there aren’t so many external microphone options (yet). As for the software side of things, the phone came with Android Oreo 8.1 out of the box but can be upgraded to Android Pie 9.0. It’s running Xiaomi’s MIUI on top of Android and while it’s not the prettiest skin in my opinion, it received the Pie update relatively early last year and has some useful stock apps like a screen recorder with surprisingly many options (resolution, bitrate, orientation, frame rate).
The Pocophone F1 has a total of four cameras which sounds pretty exciting at first but for videography purposes, only two are actually useful because the secondary ones (both front and rear) are just meant to create the popular background blur effect in photos. With the LG V30 as my primary phone and its super-handy secondary rear wide-angle camera that can be used for shooting videos just like photos, it’s somewhat painful to realize Xiaomi doesn’t give you the same flexibility for videography. I recently damaged my V30’s wide-angle lens and it’s hard to overstate how much I miss it. That being said, a secondary camera for video isn’t really a must to produce good video content, we’ve been living for years without them and in general you’d rather have one very good camera than two that are mediocre. So what about the camera(s) on the Pocophone F1 that can be used for shooting video? Usually the camera is the most decisive factor when looking at the differences between cheap and more expensive phones. The main rear camera has an aperture of f/1.9, a sensor size of 1/2.55“, a pixel size of 1.4µm and features electronic image stabilization (EIS), so it’s software-based, not optical. You can shoot up to UHD/4K resolution with 30fps. One strange thing is that the 30fps limit doesn’t only apply to UHD/4K recording but to FHD/1080p and HD/720p as well. So you can’t shoot in 60fps at all (yet). Apparently there’s a firmware update on the way however that will add 60fps recording for all resolutions including UHD/4K but I haven’t received it myself so far. EDIT: I have received the update in the meantime and I can now record with 60fps in FHD and UHD/4K in the native camera app (no support for 3rd party apps unfortunately). The front (selfie) camera has an aperture of f/2.0, a pixel size of 0.9µm, a fixed focus and you can shoot at a maximum of FHD/1080p at 30fps, no stabilization. The quality is decent but I’m not much of a selfie-shooter. So here’s some test footage from the rear camera, the first video was shot with FilmicPro in UHD/4K at 25fps, the second video with the native camera app in same resolution but at 30fps:
While it can’t quite match the latest flagships from Samsung, Google, Huawei or Apple, the camera holds up pretty well in my opinion, it’s actually great on many levels if you consider the low price of the phone and definitely (more than) good enough for professional mobile content creation. Taking my personal taste into account I find the colors to be a bit too popping and saturated, at least when using the native camera app (the colors in the footage shot with Filmic Pro look more realistic and subdued which I prefer). But I’m pretty sure some users might actually like the extra-punch. There was one shot I captured with the native camera app that puzzled me: Despite having regular daylight on a sunny day and no overexposure in general there was some strange and noticeable noise in a the darker part of the image (you can see it here at 2:21 in the video on the right hand side). I’m used to similar noise in low light situations with high ISO levels but not on a sunny day outside. This appears to be a software-based image processing technique called „local tone mapping“ which amplifies part of the image to compensate for underexposure (thanks to Chris Cohen from Filmic Inc. for clarifying!) and is something that can be seen (to varying degrees) on other smartphones as well. You should watch out for it when you have a generally well-lit scene that also contains very dark/darker areas. From what I can see it’s not possible to eliminate this completely even with manual controls in 3rd party apps, but most of the time it’s not really noticeable unless you do some serious pixel peeping (the example highlighted here was by far the most drastic one I have encountered). Still, I thought it’s important not to sweep it under the rug.
The Native Camera App
When we are talking about integrating the device into a more advanced / professional videography context it’s of course necessary to consider what features and controls you have at your disposal using the camera with both native and 3rd party camera apps. The native camera app is somewhat solid but not really great for shooting video. On the plus side, you get to lock focus (auto-focus works well btw) and exposure by tapping/holding (only for the rear camera though, not the front/selfie camera!) and you can also adjust the exposure, but only via general exposure values (EV), not with precise shutter speed and ISO parameters. While the ability to lock the exposure for video is a step forward from an earlier Xiaomi phone I tested (the Mi A1), it’s still another sorry example of a native camera app including a full-featured pro mode with manual controls (shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focus) for photography while at the same time ignoring videographers that want the same for video. For video there’s also no control at all over white balance. If you mostly do static shots from a tripod without much camera movement you can get away with an automatic white balance that works well but if you move the camera (walking shots with a gimbal, pans, tilts etc.) or shoot in environments with both natural and artificial light sources you might be in serious trouble dealing with shifting color temperatures. There’s also no support for external microphones in the native camera app.
Things look slightly better when we go into the video settings and ignore the peculiar omission of 60fps recording I already mentioned. It’s definitely useful that Xiaomi gives you an anti-banding option for 50/60Hz to avoid light flicker (given the fact that you don’t have control over shutter speed and frame rate), the ability to turn image stabilization on/off (it can interfere with the stabilization technique of a gimbal) and lets you choose between the H.264/AVC and the newer H.265/HEVC video codecs. The latter has superior compression which is more processor-intensive but also reduces the file size while keeping the quality, so if you are shooting a lot of UHD/4K video and struggle with your phone’s storage this might be the way to go. Keep in mind though that H.265 is not yet an accepted codec with all video editing software out there. On Android the video editing apps KineMaster and PowerDirector already allow importing and editing clips utilizing this newer codec. All video clips are saved as common mp4 files.
Some more specs: UHD/4K video is recorded with a bitrate of around 43 Mbps (1080p: around 20 Mbps) and uses the Rec. 2020 color space (1080p: Rec. 709). Audio is recorded in stereo at 192 Kbps and a sample rate of 48 kHz (all resolutions). Apart from the semi-automatic regular video mode (which also has a timelapse feature) there are two other video modes: „Short Video“ and „Slow Motion“. „Short Video“ lets you shoot a clip with a maximum length of 10 seconds (featuring a countdown clock) which is not particularly exciting. „Slow Motion“ on the other hand has some potential. When I first got the phone I was able to shoot slow-motion with a maximum frame rate of 240fps at 1080p which is cool but relatively standard these days for flagship phones. However, some weeks later Xiaomi distributed a firmware update that actually added a new feature to the camera app: slow-motion with a crazy 960fps (at a maximum resolution of 1080p), something that Sony first introduced with the Xperia XZ Premium in 2017. Considering that you can do something like that at all with a 300€ phone is just mind-boggling. But like with Sony’s feature on the XZ Premium, there’s a catch: You can only record at this frame rate for about a second. While it’s quite understandable that recording at 960fps for a longer time is a bridge too far for a phone in 2018 (what ‚big‘ camera can do that?), this limits the practical usefulness and requires luck and/or much practice to showcase all of its glory. The recorded clip actually comes out as a 10 second video ‚packaged‘ in 30fps and plays back in regular (or even slightly higher, I’m not quite sure) speed for about 2 seconds, then automatically switches to extreme slow-motion for the rest. Unlike with slow-motion modes on other phones you can’t change the moment the slow-motion kicks in. As you can imagine this makes it very difficult and occasionally frustrating to capture a particular moment unless you are recording something rather monotone and repetitive (like a waterfall or a fountain for instance). And there’s actually a second catch, one that a YouTube comment for my video brought up: Apparently, this 960fps feature isn’t really 960fps but an interpolated 240fps as the image sensor (Sony IMX 363) can only handle 240fps tops natively. Interpolated means that software fills in the gaps between existing frames with additional, generated frames. The results are not as good as real 960fps, lacking the same crispness and clarity. To tell the truth I had already been a bit skeptical from the beginning for one reason: The more frames you have per second, the less light is available for each frame meaning the higher the fps, the more light you need. When I switched from 120fps to 240fps in the Pocophone’s slow-motion mode I could clearly see that the image got darker. When I switched from 240 to the supposed 960fps nothing like that happened despite the fact that it’s a triple jump in terms of fps. If you want to read more about this check out these articles about another Xiaomi phone (Mi Mix 3) using the same technique here and here. Still, you can achieve some really impressive shots that can spruce up your edit with a bit of practice and patience, so it’s definitely nice to have.
One more thing I would like to mention here is the question of a file size limit. As you might know, certain Android devices still have some kind of file size limitation for a single file (usually around 4GB) which basically is of no concern to anyone except: the dedicated videographer shooting (long) videos! The case of the Pocophone F1 is ambivalent in this respect. I first thought there IS a file size limit because it only allows you to shoot 8 minutes sharp in UHD/4K producing a file of about 2.5GB. But when I tested it shooting in 1080p it went way beyond that and only stopped when the device’s storage was full (the file was about 7GB at this point). In a nutshell: You do have a recording limit but only when shooting UHD/4K, not for 1080p/720p.
3rd Party Camera Apps / Camera2 API Support
As I have shown in the previous paragraph, the F1’s native camera app isn’t the worst around but it’s also not really good enough for many pro use cases that involve the need for advanced manual controls and an external microphone. So you have to turn to 3rd party apps for those features. How many advanced controls a 3rd party camera app can offer doesn’t only depend on the app itself but also on the level of Camera2 API (what is Camera2 API?) implementation the phone maker provided for this particular device. Without proper Camera2 API support, 3rd party developers are limited in what they can offer feature-wise. The good news is that Xiaomi’s Pocophone F1 has „full“ Camera2 API support for both front and rear cameras. This means you can install apps that have this support level as a prerequisite (most notably Filmic Pro and Moment Pro Camera) and get additional manual controls in apps that can be installed even on devices with lower Camera2 API support (Open Camera, Footej Camera, Lumio Cam, Cinema FV-5, ProShot etc.).
As Filmic Pro is the most advanced and best pro videography app overall I took a closer look at how well it works on the Pocophone F1. In general it works really well I have to say, among the best I’ve seen so far on Android! I was particularly surprised by its ability to churn out a consistent 25fps frame rate virtually all of the time which is important if you are using the phone for PAL broadcast (Europe, Australia etc.) or in combination with other cameras that shoot in 25fps. The makers of Filmic Pro have heavily invested in making PAL frame rates work on Android (as it’s not supported natively) but not all Android devices are equally good at producing consistent results so it’s nice to see the Pocophone F1 making such a positive impression here. The only times I occasionally noticed a slight drop/deviation was the very first clip after changing from another frame rate (maybe the encoder needs a moment to adjust?) and in low light conditions (the test clips I shot inside the church came out at 24.93fps).
Speaking of frame rates, we’re looking at the only significant limitation within Filmic Pro’s functionality on the Pocophone: Like with many other Android phones the Camera2 API implementation doesn’t support 50/60fps recording for 3rd party apps which is a shame in general. The F1 is still the odd one out here because it can’t even record at 60fps in the native app (yet) while many other phone makers do support a higher frame rate in the native camera but keep 3rd party apps from doing so. Interestingly, you CAN shoot at 240fps for super slow-motion in up to 1080p though! This is cool but at the same time kind of weird (I have also noticed this on other Android devices like my LG V30) and it will be interesting to see what happens when the higher frame rate update for the native camera app drops. As for the resolution, UHD/4K works just fine in Filmic Pro from what I have experienced (I shot all the test footage in UHD/4K), the selfie camera maxes out at 2K and has a fixed focus. One other thing that’s not supported in Filmic Pro on the Pocophone at the moment is image stabilization (EIS is available in the native camera app) so it might be a good idea to shoot from a tripod or use a rig/gimbal to avoid shaky footage. There’s one small bug in the UI that I came across: When you double-tap the exposure or focus reticle to change into the bracket mode (continuous auto-focus and wider exposure metering) the brackets are not centred but appear in the lower right corner. Only when you turn the phone into portrait mode and back into landscape does it appear in the right place. But I’m sure this glitch can be fixed soon.
Once you have shot some gorgeous footage with the Pocophone F1 you might want to edit it directly on the device without having to transfer it to a desktop computer first. I will have a quick look at how well Xiaomi’s phone performs with the two best video editing apps on Android: KineMaster and PowerDirector (yes, I’m aware Adobe Rush has just been launched on Android but it’s only available for a handful of phones none of which I own currently). As mentioned early on, the Pocophone F1 sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC which should be more than capable of handling most video editing tasks. While this chipset surprisingly seems to have caused some video editing trouble by not supporting 4K editing/layers on certain devices like the US-variant of Samsung’s S9/S9+ (the European/Korean version has Samsung’s own Exynos chipset instead), everything’s looking good on the Pocophone F1: The KineMaster device capability test shows support for UHD/4K (2160p) including one layer in that resolution (4 layers of FHD/1080p) and I was able to work with and export UHD/4K with no problem. It also can handle higher frame rates (50/60fps) if you activate this under „Advanced and Experimental Settings“ but I guess we all remember that the Pocophone can’t even shoot these frame rates (yet) so there should be no need to bother with that at the moment.
If you are shooting/producing at 25fps, KineMaster is definitely the way to go as PowerDirector does not support PAL frame rate projects (you can import the footage but it will be converted to either 24, 30 or 60fps upon export). That being said you can import, edit and export UHD/4K in PowerDirector as well, even with a video layer although for editing purposes the app always transcodes layer clips in that resolution down to 1080p/FHD. It’s a general thing in PowerDirector though, not something Pocophone-specific. From the pop-up you get when adding a UHD/4K layer it sounds like it’s just creating FHD proxy files for smoother editing and that the original UHD/4K quality will eventually be used in the export but the makers of the app have yet to answer my request to clarify this. Both KineMaster and PowerDirector also support the use of clips shot with the H.265/HEVC codec on top of the traditional H.264/AVC. So yes, the Pocophone F1 is a great device for editing video on the go!
All in all I can conclude that the Xiaomi Pocophone F1 is a very capable video production tool with outstanding value! It has a (very) solid camera, great compatibility with Filmic Pro and lots of power for video editing. It also has a headphone jack, support for external storage and runs the latest version of Android (Android 9 Pie). An alternative device at this price point could be the one year older LG V30 which is my personal daily driver at the moment: Unlike the Pocophone it has a secondary and extremely useful wide-angle rear camera that can actually be utilized for videography (and not only photography), a native camera app that is light years ahead in terms of professional video controls and features (but also can’t shoot PAL frame rates) and a chipset that’s practically as powerful for video editing as the Pocophone’s newer one – it’s not quite as good with Filmic Pro though and it’s still on Android 8 Oreo. So while the Pocophone F1 is without a doubt an excellent option for the price, the question whether it’s THE best option depends on the priorities of the potential user. The Google Pixel 3a/3aXL just hit the market and could be a viable rival for Xiaomi’s budget powerhouse. If you have questions or comments, feel free to drop me a line in the comments below!
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.
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.
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 the headphone jack (edit: unfortunately it doesn’t seem to support mics connected via the USB-C port like I originally wrote in this post!) 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.
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. If you have questions or comments, please drop them below or find me on Twitter @smartfilming.
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, most others don’t have this feature. FilmicPro (Android & iOS) meanwhile doesn’t have a “pause” button but you can basically achieve the same thing by activating a feature called “Stitch Recorded Footage” in the settings under “Device”. There’s also MoviePro on iOS which lets you do this trick. Apple however still doesn’t have this feature in the iOS native camera app at this point. 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.
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!
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. If you have any questions or comments, do drop them below or find me on Twitter @smartfilming.
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.
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.
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! 😉 If you have any questions or comments, please drop them below or find me on Twitter @smartfilming.