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Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#46 Top tips for smartphone videography in the summer — 28. June 2021

#46 Top tips for smartphone videography in the summer

Photo: Julia Volk via Pexels.com

It’s the dog days of summer again – well at least if you live in the northern hemisphere or near the equator. While many people will be happy to finally escape the long lockdown winter and are looking forward to meeting friends and family outside, intense sunlight and heat can also put extra stress on the body – and it makes for some obvious and less obvious challenges when doing videography. Here are some tips/ideas to tackle those challenges.

Icon: Alexandr Razdolyanskiy via The Noun Project

Find a good time/spot!
Generally, some of the problems mentioned later on can be avoided by picking the right spot and/or time for an outdoor shoot during the summertime. Maybe don’t set up your shot in the middle of a big open field where you and your phone are totally exposed to the full load of sunshine photons at high noon. Rather, try to shoot in the morning, late afternoon or early evening and also think about picking a spot in the shadows. Or choose a time when it’s slightly overcast. Of course it’s not always possible to freely choose time and spot, sometimes you just have to work in difficult conditions.

„Bum to the sun“ – yes or no?
There’s a saying that you should turn your „bum to the sun“ when shooting video. This definitely holds some truth as pointing the lens directly towards the sun can cause multiple problems, including unwanted lens flare effects, underexposed faces or a blown out background. You can however also create artistically interesting shots that way (silhouettes for instance) and the „bum to the sun“ motto comes with problems of its own: If you are shooting away from the sun but the person you are filming is looking directly towards it, they could be blinded by the intense sunlight and squint their eyes which doesn’t look very favorable. If the sun is low you also might have your own shadow in the shot. So I think the saying is something to take into consideration but shouldn’t be adhered to exclusively and in every situation.

Check the sky!
Clouds can severely impact the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. So if you have set up an interview or longer shot and locked the exposure at a given time when there isn’t a single cloud in front of the sun, there might be a nearby one crawling along already that will take away lots of light later on and give you an underexposed image at some point. Or vice versa. So either do your thing when there are no (fast moving) clouds in the vicinity of the sun or when the cloud cover will be fairly constant for the next minutes.

Use an ND filter!
As I pointed out in my last blog post The Smartphone Camera Exposure Paradox, a bright sunny day can create exposure problems with a smartphone if you want to work with the „recommended“ (double the frame rate, for instance 1/50s at 25fps) or an acceptable shutter speed because phones only have a fixed, wide-open aperture. Even with the lowest ISO setting, you will still have to use a (very) fast shutter speed that can make motion appear jerky. That’s why it’s good to have a neutral density (ND) filter in your kit which reduces the amount of light that hits the sensor. There are two different kinds of ND filters: fixed and variable. The latter one lets you adjust the strength of the filtering effect. Unlike with dedicated regular cameras, the lenses on smartphones don’t have a filter thread so you either have to use some sort of case or rig with a filter thread or a clip-on ND filter.

Get a white case!


Ever heard of the term “albedo“? It designates the amount of sunlight (or if you want to be more precise: solar radiation) that is reflected by objects. Black objects reflect less and absorb more solar radiation (smaller albedo) than white objects (higher albedo). You can easily get a feeling for the difference by wearing a black or a white shirt on a sunny day. Similarly, if you expose a black or dark colored phone to intense sunlight, it will absorb more heat than a white or light colored phone and therefore be more prone to overheating. So if you do have a black or dark colored phone, it might a good idea to get yourself a white case so more sunlight is reflected off of the device. Vice versa, if you have a white or light colored phone with a black case, take it off. Be aware though that a white case only reduces the absorption of „external heat“ by solar radiation, not internal heat generated by the phone itself, something that particularly happens when you shoot in 4K/UHD, high frame rates or bit rates. You should also take into consideration that a case that fits super tight might reduce the phone’s ability to dispense internal heat. Ergo: A white phone (case) only offers some protection against the impact of direct solar radiation, not against internal heat produced by the phone itself or high ambient temperatures.

Maximize screen brightness!
This is pretty obvious. Of course bright conditions make it harder to see the screen and judge framing, exposure and focus so it’s good to crank up the screen brightness. Some camera apps let you switch on a feature that automatically maximizes screen brightness when using the app.

Get a power bank!
Maximizing screen brightness will significantly increase battery consumption though so you should think about having a back-up power bank at hand – at least if you are going on a longer shoot. But most of us already have one or two so this might not even be an additonal purchase.

Use exposure/focus assistants of your camera app!
One thing that can be very helpful in bright conditions when it’s hard to see the screen are analytical assistant tools in certain camera apps. While there are very few native camera apps that offer some limited assistance in this respect, it’s an area where dedicated 3rd party apps like Filmic Pro, mcpro24fps, ProTake, MoviePro, Mavis etc. can really shine (pardon the pun). For setting the correct exposure you can use Zebra (displays stripes on overexposed areas of the frame) or False Color (renders the image into solid colors identifying areas of under- and overexposure – usually blue for underexposure and red for overexposure). For setting the correct focus you can use Peaking (displays a colored outline on things in focus) and Magnification (digitally magnifies the image). Not all mentioned apps offer all of the mentioned tools. And there’s also a downside: Using these tools puts extra stress on your phone’s chipset which also means more internal heat – so only use them when setting exposure and focus for the shot, turn them off once you are done.

Photo: Moondog Labs

Use a sun hood!
Another way to better see the screen in sunny weather is to use a sun hood. There are multiple generic smartphone sun hoods available online but also one from dedicated mobile camera gear company MoondogLabs. Watch out: SmallRig, a somewhat renowned accessory provider for independent videography and filmmaking has a sun hood for smartphones in its portfolio but it’s made for using smartphones as a secondary device with regular cameras or drones so there’s no cut-out for the lens or open back which renders it useless if you want to shoot with your phone. This cautionary advice also applies to other sun hoods for smartphones.

Photo: RollCallGames

Sweaty fingers?
An issue I encountered last summer while doing a bike tour where I occasionally would stop to take some shots of interesting scenery along the road was that sweaty hands/fingers can cause problems with a phone’s touch screen. Touches aren’t registered or at the wrong places. This can be quite annoying. Turns out that there’s such a thing as „anti-sweat finger sleeves“ which were apparently invented for passionate mobile gamers. So I guess kudos to PUBG and Fortnite aficionados? There’s also another option: You can use a stylus or pen to navigate the touch screen. Users of the Samsung Galaxy Note series are clearly at an advantage here as the stylus comes with the phone.

Photo: George Becker via Pexels.com

Don’t forget the water bottle!
Am I going to tell you to cool your phone with a refreshing shower of bottled drinking water? Despite the fact that many phones nowadays offer some level of water-resistance, the answer is no. I’m including this tip for two reasons: First, it’s always good to stay hydrated if you’re out in the sun – I have had numerous situations where I packed my gear bag with all kinds of stuff (most of which I didn’t need in the end) but forgot to include a bottle of water (which I desperately needed at some point). Secondly, you can use a water bottle as an emergency tripod in combination with a rubber band or hair tie as shown in workshops by Marc Settle and Bernhard Lill. So yes, don’t forget to bring a water bottle!

Got other tips for smartphone videography in the summertime? Let us know!

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.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

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! 🙂

#45 The Smartphone Camera Exposure Paradox — 11. May 2021

#45 The Smartphone Camera Exposure Paradox

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.

Clip-on variable ND filter

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.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

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! 🙂

#42 Camera2 API Update 2021 – Android Pro Videography & Filmmaking — 15. April 2021

#42 Camera2 API Update 2021 – Android Pro Videography & Filmmaking

I’ve already written about Camera2 API in two previous blog posts (#6 & #10) but a couple of years have passed since and I felt like taking another look at the topic now that we’re in 2021. 

Just in case you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about here: Camera2 API is a software component of Google’s mobile operating system Android (which basically runs on every smartphone today expect Apple’s iPhones) that enables 3rd party camera apps (camera apps other than the one that’s already on your phone) to access more advanced functionality/controls of the camera, for instance the setting of a precise shutter speed value for correct exposure. Android phone makers need to implement Camera2 API into their version of Android and not all do it fully. There are four different implementation levels: “Legacy”, “Limited”, “Full” and “Level 3”. “Legacy” basically means Camera2 API hasn’t been implemented at all and the phone uses the old, way more primitive Android Camera API, “Limited” signifies that some components of the Camera2 API have been implemented but not all, “Full” and “Level 3” indicate complete implementation in terms of video-related functionality. “Level 3” only has the additional benefit for photography that you can shoot in RAW format. Android 3rd party camera apps like Filmic Pro, Protake, mcpro24fps, ProShot, Footej Camera 2 or Open Camera can only unleash their full potential if the phone has adequate Camera2 API support, Filmic Pro doesn’t even let you install the app in the first place if the phone doesn’t have proper implementation. “adequate”/”proper” can already be “Limited” for certain phones but you can only be sure with “Full” and “Level 3” devices. With some other apps like Open Camera, Camera2 API is deactivated by default and you need to go into the settings to enable it to access things like shutter speed and ISO control.

How do you know what Camera2 API support level a phone has? If you already own the phone, you can use an app like Camera2 Probe to check but if you want to consider this before buying a new phone of course this isn’t possible. Luckily, the developer of Camera2 Probe has set up a crowd sourced list (users can provide the test results via the app which are automatically entered into the list) with Camera2 API support levels of a massive amount of different Android devices, currently over 3500! The list can be accessed here and it’s great that you even get to sort the list by different parameters like the phone brand or type a device name into a search bar.

It’s important to understand that there’s a Camera2 API support level for each camera on the phone. So there could be a different one for the rear camera than for the selfie camera. The support level also doesn’t say anything about how many of the phone’s camera have been made accessible to 3rd party apps. Auxiliary ultra wide-angle or telephoto lenses have become a common standard in many of today’s phones but not all phone makers allow 3rd party camera apps to access the auxiliary camera(s). So when we talk about the Camera2 API support level of a device, most of the time we are referring to its main rear camera. 

Camera2 API was introduced with Android version 5 aka “Lollipop” in 2014 and it took phone makers a bit of time to implement it into their devices so one could roughly say that only Android devices running at least Android 6 Marshmallow are actually in the position to have proper support. In the beginning, most phone makers only provided full Camera2 API support for their high-end flagship phones but over the last years, the feature has trickled down to the mid-range segment and now even to a considerable amount of entry-level devices (Nokia and Motorola are two companies that have been good with this if you’re on a tight budget).

I actually took the time to go through the Camera2 Probe list to provide some numbers on this development. Of course these are not 100% representative since not every single Android device on the planet has been included in the list but I think 3533 entries (as of 21 March 2021) make for a solid sample size.

Phone models running Android 6

Level 3: 0

Full: 30

Limited: 18

Legacy: 444

Full/Level 3 %: 6.1

———-

Phone models running Android 7

Level 3: 82

Full: 121

Limited: 113

Legacy: 559

Full/Level 3 %: 23.2

———-

Phone models running Android 8

Level 3: 147

Full: 131

Limited: 160

Legacy: 350

Full/Level 3 %: 35.3

———-

Phone models running Android 9

Level 3: 145

Full: 163

Limited: 139

Legacy: 69

Full/Level 3 %: 59.7

———-

Phone models running Android 10

Level 3: 319

Full: 199

Limited: 169

Legacy: 50

Full/Level 3 %: 70.3

———-

Phone models running Android 11

Level 3: 72

Full: 28

Limited: 8

Legacy: 2

Full/Level 3 %: 90.9

I think it’s pretty obvious that the implementation of proper Camera2 API support in Android devices has been taking massive steps forward with each iteration of the OS and a 100% coverage on new devices is just within reach – maybe the upcoming Android 12 can already accomplish this mission?

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.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

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! 🙂

#40 A whole new video editing experience on a phone! — 28. February 2021

#40 A whole new video editing experience on a phone!

Let’s be honest: Despite the fact that phone screens have become increasingly bigger over the last years, they are still rather small for doing some serious video editing on the go. No doubt, you CAN do video editing on your phone and achieve great results, particularly if you are using an app with a touch-friendly UI like KineMaster that was brilliantly designed for phone screens.  But I’m confident just about every mobile veditor would appreciate some more screen real estate. Sure, you can use a tablet for editing but tablets aren’t great devices for shooting and if you want to do everything on one device pretty much everyone would choose a phone, right? 

While phone makers like Samsung, Huawei and Motorola are currently pioneering devices with foldable screens, those are still extremely expensive (between 1500 and 2000 bucks!) and also have to cope with some teething problems. LG, while not particularly successful in terms of sales figures in the recent past, have proven to be an innovative force in smartphone development for some years now. Not everything they throw at the market sticks, but let’s not forget that for instance the now widely popular and extremely useful wide-angle auxiliary lens was first seen on the LG G5 (rear camera) and LG V10 (front camera). I would also hate to not have an amazing manual video mode in a native camera app like the V10 pioneered.

Instead of making a screen that folds, LG has introduced a series of phones that include (or at least have the option for) a dual screen case that has a second, separate screen – basically making it look like if you were holding two phones next to each other. So the concept is that of a foldable PHONE, not a foldable SCREEN! The actual phone is inserted into the Dual Screen case with a physical connection (initially pogo pins, then USB-C) establishing communication between the two devices. First came the V50 (April 2019), then the G8X (November 2019) and the V60 (March 2020) with the latest Dual Screen-compatible phone release being the LG Velvet (May 2020). As far as I know, the G8X (which I got new for just over 400€) is the only of the bunch that comes with the Dual Screen included, for the other phones, the DS is an accessory that can be purchased separately or in a bundle with the phone. It’s important to note that the DS cases are all slightly different (LG refined the design over time) and only work with the phone they were designed for. It probably goes without saying that they don’t work with just any other Android phone – this is proprietary LG hardware. 

The user experience of a foldable screen phone like the Samsung Galaxy Fold is quite different from that of the Dual Screen foldable phone approach. While an expanded foldable screen can give you more screen real estate for one app, the DS is primarily designed for multi-tasking with two apps running at the same time, one on the phone’s main screen and one on the Dual Screen. The DS is not really meant to use an app in an expanded view over both screens as there’s obviously a big gap/hinge between the two screens which is quite distracting in most cases. If apps were specifically customized, integrating the gap into their UI, this could be much less of a problem but with LG being a rather small player in the smartphone market, this hasn’t really happened so far. LG seems to have been quite aware of this and so they natively only allow a handful of apps (a bunch of Google apps and the Naver Whale browser) to be run in a wide view mode that spans across both screens.

Now, while having an app run across two separate screens might not make a lot of sense for many apps, there is one type of app that could actually be a perfect fit: video editors. On desktop, lots of professional video editors (I’m talking about the persons doing the editing) use a dual monitor set-up to have more screen real estate to organize their virtual workspace. One classic use case is that you have your timeline, media pool etc. on one screen and a big preview window on the second screen. It’s exactly this scenario that can be mimicked on LG’s Dual Screen phones like the G8X – but only with a particular app.

Why only with a particular app? Because the app’s UI needs to fit the Dual Screen in just the right way and currently, the only app that does that is PowerDirector. It’s not a perfect fit (one of the most obvious imperfections is the split playback button) but that’s to be expected since the app has not been optimized in any way for LG’s Dual Screen phones – considering this, it’s truly amazing HOW well Power Director’s UI falls into place on the G8X. The joy of having a big preview window on the top screen with the timeline and tool bars having their own space on the bottom screen (using the phone in landscape orientation) can hardly be overestimated in my opinion. It really feels like a whole new mobile video editing experience, and an extremely pleasant one for sure! 

But wait! Didn’t I mention that LG’s wide view mode is only available for a couple of apps natively? Yes indeed, and that’s why you need a 3rd party helper app that lets you run just any app you want in wide mode. It’s called WideMode for LG and can be downloaded for free from the Google PlayStore. Once you have installed it, you can add a shortcut to the quick settings (accessible via the swipe down notification shade) and switch to wide view whenever you want to. The app works really well in general (don’t blame the app maker for the fact that virtually no app has been optimized for this view!), occasionally, certain navigational actions cause the wide mode to just quit but most of the time, you can pick up the pattern of when that happens. In the case of Power Director for instance, you should only activate wide mode once you have opened your project and can see the timeline. If you activate wide view before that and select a project, you will get thrown out of the wide view mode. Also, if you’re done with your editing and want to export the project, tapping the share/export button will quit wide view and push the UI back on just a single screen but that’s not really problematic in my opinion. Still I couldn’t help but daydream about how cool the app would be if Cyberlink decided to polish the UI for LG’s Dual Screen phones!

What about other video editing apps? KineMaster’s UI, while extremely good for single screen phones, is pretty terrible in wide view on the G8X. VN on the other hand works fairly well but can’t quite match Power Director. Interestingly, while VN doesn’t (yet) support landscape orientation in general, once you force it across both screens, it actually does work like that. The biggest annoyance is probably that the preview window is split between the two screen with the lower quarter on the bottom screen. If you use VN in portrait orientation with wide mode, the preview window is cut in half and so is the timeline area. The UI of CapCut is pretty similar to that of VN, so it’s basically the same here. Adobe Premiere Rush isn’t even available for any LG phones currently.

So is this the future of mobile video editing on smartphones? Yes and no. LG’s smartphone business has been struggling for a while and recent news from the Korean company indicate they might be looking for an exit strategy, selling their mobile branch. This also means however that you can currently get great deals on powerful LG phones so if you are on a budget but are really intrigued by this opportunity for mobile video editing then it might just be the perfect time. The way Power Director’s UI is layed out should also make it great for phones with a foldable screen like the Galaxy Fold series so if we assume that this type of phone will become more common and affordable in the near future, people doing a lot of video editing on the phone should definitely consider checking this out!

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 about important things that happened in the world of mobile video.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

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! 🙂

#39 Should you buy a cheap Android phone? 10 things to consider! — 24. January 2021

#39 Should you buy a cheap Android phone? 10 things to consider!

One of the big reasons why Android has such an overwhelming dominance as a mobile operating system on a global scale (around 75% of smartphones world wide run Android) is that you basically have a seamless price range from the very bottom to the very top – no matter your budget, there’s an Android phone that will fit it. This is generally a very good thing since it allows everyone on this planet to participate in mobile communication, not just if you have deep pockets. But as many of us would agree, smartphones are not pure communication devices anymore, you can also use them to actively create content. In this respect, Android phones are bringing the power of storytelling to the people and could therefore be regarded as an invaluable asset in democratizing this mighty tool. But if you CAN get a (very) cheap Android phone, SHOULD you get one?

Of course the definition of what one considers “cheap” highly depends on an individual background so I won’t get into any concrete universal definitions here. In Germany, the cheapest Android phones start at around 50 Euro I’d say. So what in general is the difference between a 50 Euro phone and a 1000 Euro Android phone? Let’s single out some points from the perspective of a mobile video creator:

1) Build quality

This can actually be surprisingly controversial. Sure, flagship phones have more premium build materials but the move to shiny glass-covered backs has seen many an excited owner making a mess out of his or her new phone with a single drop. So better get a case if you consider yourself among those who occasionally drop their phone. The plasticy build of cheaper devices might look or at least feel less premium but they can often take more abuse in various circumstances. As for the screen itself, more expensive phones tend to have a more robust protective layer but that doesn’t always save you and you can also get a pretty affordable add-on screen protector if you are worried about damaging your phone’s screen.

2) Software updates

Usually, more expensive phones get more updates / updates for a longer period. But there are exceptions. Nokia for instance is known to be very good with updates even on their budget phones so it also depends on the phone maker. Are software updates important? Yes and no. Generally, new software versions (at least the big annual ones like Android 10, Android 11 etc.) introduce new features and optimizations. New features specifically relevant for videography are however pretty rare (the last major ones were introduced with Android 5 in 2014 and then Android 11 in 2020) so it depends on whether the new features are actually helpful for what you want to get done and whether you are a tech-savvy person who always wants the latest updates to play around with. Security updates are important though but ever since Google decided to make it possible to distribute them separately from feature updates, they have also become more common in cheaper phones – mid-rangers and flagships still tend to receive more software updates and for longer periods of time however.

3) Expandable storage

The ability to easily and cheaply add additional storage to your phone via a microSD card has long been a major plus of the Android system when compared to Apple’s iPhones. More and more Android OEMs however have started eliminating this valuable feature from their new releases, Samsung being the latest with its flagship S21 series. Sure, they have increased the internal storage over time, you can easily get phones with 128, 256 or 512 GB these days, but in my opinion it would still be good to have the option for expandable storage – UHD/4K video can fill up your phone pretty fast if you are shooting a lot. Interestingly, it’s now easier to find support for microSD cards in cheaper phones. Actually, many/most of the entry-level phones (still) have it so if that’s important to you, you might want to have a look at the budget or mid-range segment of the Android phone market.

4) Removable battery

An even more exotic but dare I say “pro” feature that has become nearly extinct but was generally very useful for “power users” is the ability to (easily) swap out batteries in a phone. LG was the last major phone maker to include this in a flagship device with the V20 in late 2016 but over time, the practice of a non-removable battery has trickled down even to the (ultra) budget market. The few phones with exchangable batteries that are left can however be found there, last survivors include the Samsung XCover Pro, the Motorola Moto E6 and the Nokia 1.3. The only recent mid-range device including this feature seems to be the Fairphone 3/3+. Sure, power banks are an abundant accessory now and an easy way to juice up your phone while on the go – but the re-supply is incremental and sometimes it’s quite annoying to be tethered to an external device via cable while using the phone.

5) SoC/Processor

While the last two points were very much in favor of budget phones, the tide is about to turn. If you want to use your phone for more than just browsing the web, checking your messages or following your social media feeds, then your phone needs some decent processing power to keep things running smoothly. One of the toughest nuts to crack for a SoC (System-on-a-Chip) is editing high resolution video – even more so when it involves multiple tracks. So if you are planning on editing a lot of UHD/4K video with multiple layers on your phone, a budget device probably won’t cut it because processing power often is a watershed between cheaper and more expensive phones. That doesn’t mean however that you can’t do video editing at all on a budget smartphone. About two years ago I was really surprised how well Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 430/435 SoC did in terms of video editing, allowing for multiple layers of 1080p video in KineMaster on phones like the Nokia 5, Motorola Moto G5 or the LG Q6. Generally, the amount of layers and their resolution in video editing apps are dependent on the device’s chipset. Some apps like Adobe Premiere Rush aren’t even available for any budget phones because they are too demanding in terms of processing power. The SoC can definitely also have an influence on the video RECORDING capabilities in terms of available frame rates and resolution. If 1080p at a maximum of 30fps is good enough for what you do though, basically every phone has that covered these days, even the cheapest ones.

6) Camera

And while the video recording resolution can be an indicator for technical image quality, it surely isn’t the only one – actually other things are (way) more important: Lens quality, aperture size, sensor quality, processing algorithm. That’s why 1080p footage shot on one phone might look better than 1080p footage shot on another. And generally, that’s also an area in which (ultra) budget phones get left behind. Again, this doesn’t mean that you should never use an entry-level phone to shoot video – some of them can capture surprisingly decent footage and if you are “just” doing something for Facebook etc., the difference in image quality might not really be noticeable for the casual, non-pixel-peeping viewer. Also never forget that the content/the story is way more important than the image quality! You will reach/move more people with a good story shot on a cheap phone than with a mediocre story shot on a flagship phone, never mind the superior image quality of the camera.

7) Native camera app

Another aspect that can distinguish a cheap from a more expensive Android phone is the native camera app. Not so much in terms of the general UI and basic functionality but in terms of special modes and features. LG for instance has an absolutely outstanding manual video mode in the native camera app of its flagship lines, one that can rival a dedicated 3rd party app like Filmic Pro, but you don’t get it in their budget phones. The same goes for Sony and – to a lesser degree – Samsung, which at least gives you support for external mics down to its entry-level offerings. Other Android phone makers however have the same native camera app in all of their models, budget or flagship (Motorola for instance, unless they have recently changed something).

8) Camera2 API

I just mentioned 3rd party video recording apps, so let’s look at an even “nerdier” aspect: Usually, more expensive phones have better Camera2 API support. What’s Camera2 API? I have written a whole blog post about it, but in short, it’s basically the phone’s ability to give 3rd party camera apps access to manual control for certain more advanced imaging parameters like shutter speed, ISO, white balance etc. So this is important if you are planning to use such an app (like for instance Filmic Pro, ProTake or mcpro24fps) instead of the phone’s native camera app. While nowadays basically all (or almost all) flagship phones and many/most mid-range Android phones have proper Camera2 API support, there are also entry-level phones that are equipped with it, for instance some from Nokia and Motorola – it’s not that common yet however.

9) Headphone jack

Before wrapping things up I want to look at another aspect that is of major relevance if you want to record audio with external mics on your smartphone – be it as part of capturing video or just audio-only. Like the removeable battery and expandable storage, the 3.5mm headphone jack is a feature that’s been fading away from smartphones over the last years. Some Android OEMs are still holding on to it (for the most part) but many have eliminated it, relying solely on a single physical port (USB-C) and wireless technology (Bluetooth/WiFi). As with those other features, it’s curious that the 3.5mm headphone jack has mostly survived in budget phones. This makes a case for a very particular use scenario: If you “only” want to record audio (be it for an audio-only production or use as an external audio recorder with a lavalier on a video shoot), a budget phone can be an interesting option because you don’t have to care about the quality of the camera and neither (for the most part) the chipset and its processing power since audio processing is much less resource hungry than video processing. The external-recorder-with-a-lavalier scenario is also a clever idea to make use of an old phone if you have one buried in a drawer somewhere that’s only collecting dust.

10) Bonus tip!

What if you DO want higher processing power and camera quality, but are on a tight budget nonetheless? In that case, it can be helpful to look at older flagship models or mid-rangers. Once new Android phones are released, their price – not always but often – drops after a couple of months. If you compare the camera quality and processing power of a budget phone with an older flagship or potent mid-ranger you can often easily go back two or three years and still be on the better side with the “oldie”. Depending on what model/phone maker you choose and how far back you go, you might be stuck with an older version of Android but as indicated earlier on, this isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds.

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 about important things that happened in the world of mobile video.

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#23 A powerful new rival for Filmic Pro — 12. May 2020

#23 A powerful new rival for Filmic Pro

Filmic Pro might be called the “Gold Standard” for highly advanced mobile video recording apps on both Android and iOS, it surely is the most popular and widely known one. Even Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has used it to shoot two of his feature films. The fact that a powerful rival has just recently launched is bigger news for Android users though than for those on iOS. There are a couple of very capable alternatives to Filmic Pro on iOS including Mavis, MoviePro and Moment Pro Camera. While options are available on Android as well they are not as numerous and/or complete and for quite a few development has either ceased completely (Cinema FV-5 and recently Moment Pro Camera) or for the most part been reduced to bug fixes or minor compatibility adjustments (Cinema 4K, Lumio Cam, ProShot). There’s also the solid free Open Camera (plus a whole range of variants based on its open source code) and the pretty good Footej Camera 2 but none of them can really match Filmic Pro when it comes to usability and advanced features. That is until now.

Only two weeks ago, an app called Protake – Mobile Cinema Camera popped up in the Google Play Store (and also the Apple App Store). The screenshots looked quite promising and after downloading it and taking it for a quick spin I can confirm that there’s now another immensely powerful mobile video recording app available for both Android and iOS. Protake gives you full manual control over exposure (shutter speed/angle and ISO), focus and white balance, you get support for external mics and a visual audio level meter plus the ability to adjust input gain, a whole set of exposure and focus assistants (zebra, false color, focus peaking, waveform monitor, RGB parade, histogram), different aspect ratios (including different widescreen formats and square but apparently skipping 9:16 vertical), frame rates (incl. 25fps, but not 50/60 on any of my devices – but that might be different for other phones), resolutions, bitrates (they don’t go as high as Filmic Pro’s though), codecs (H.264/H.265), color profiles/looks etc.. You even have an interesting option called “Frame Drop Notice” which I have never seen anywhere else before and some useful one-tap quick buttons for hiding the UI or switching between maximum screen brightness and current brightness. There’s also support for external accessories like Zhiyun gimbals, anamorphic lenses or a DOF adapter. All in all, it’s a feature range almost as complete as FilmicPro’s and the UI is slick and intuitive. 

There is however one catch: While you can download the app for free and also use the auto mode to record, you can only activate recording for the pro mode (including manual controls and most advanced features) by buying a subscription. The subscription model has become a common practice for many apps in the last years (particularly for video editing apps) but so far I hadn’t really encountered it in a camera app. The subscription price is 10.99 Euros (9.99 US-Dollars) per year which is somewhat moderate compared to other apps (if you break it down it’s less than 1 Euro per month) but as I said, it’s new for this kind of app (at least to me!) so it might need a bit getting used to. It should be noted that the current price is a 50% off offer so the regular price would actually be double, venturing into financial territory not too many of us might be willing to follow. There’s another thing to keep in mind which probably isn’t of any relevance to most users but definitely to someone like me with a whole zoo of different phones: The subscription will only let you use the pro mode on three different devices at the same time. So if you want to use it on more than three I suppose you will need to buy a second subscription. This should however be a very rare use case.

One last thing: If you are on Android, please note that most features of the pro mode (like setting specific values for shutter speed and ISO) are only available if your Android device fully supports Camera2 API, which lets apps of 3rd party developers access the more advanced functionality of the phone’s camera. If Camera2 API support hasn’t been implemented properly by the maker of the phone, 3rd party apps can’t access certain features no matter how capable their developers are. As a rule of thumb, relatively current flagship phones and midrangers usually have sufficient Camera2 API support, entry level phones only sometimes. If you want to learn more about the topic, check out this older blog post by me.

Let me know what you think of Protake! Either here in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this blog, please consider subscribing to my Telegram channel (t.me/smartfilming) to get notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Takeaways Telegram newsletter including a personal selection of 10 interesting things that happened in the world of mobile video during the last four weeks.

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Download “Protake” for Android on the Google Play Store
Download “Protake” for iOS (iPhone/iPad) on the Apple App Store

#21 What’s the best free cross-platform mobile video editing app? — 22. April 2020

#21 What’s the best free cross-platform mobile video editing app?

I’m a big fan of advanced mobile video editing apps like ‘KineMaster’ (Android & iOS) or ‘LumaFusion’ (iOS-only) and I’m very supportive of the idea that one should pay for such powerful media creation tools. However, there might be instances when it’s just not possible for one reason or another to do that. So I have always kept an eye on mobile video editing apps that tick all the following boxes: 1) they should be free to download and use 2) if there are different versions the free version should not include a watermark 3) they should be fairly advanced (for instance include the ability to have a second video track) and user-friendly 4) they should be cross-platform (Android and iOS) and 5) they should handle/export at least 1080p resolution with 25/30fps. I eventually ditched one other prerequisite: that you don’t have to create an account to use the app. To be honest, if you want an app that really ticks all the boxes, there isn’t much around. Actually up until recently I would have only been able to point to a single one: ‘VlogIt’. And even that could have been considered a cheat under strict circumstances because while VlogIt doesn’t have a watermark on the exported video, it has a branded bumper outro. I’m not too much a fan of the app’s UI though and its limited to a 16:9 project aspect ratio. Another theoretical contender was the relatively new ‘Adobe Premiere Rush’ but the availability for Android devices is still extremely limited and you only get three free exports before you have to commit to a paid subscription. So things were looking pretty sobering until last week-end.

While routinely browsing the Google Play Store for new video editing apps, I came across an app named ‘VN’. The provided screen grabs looked somewhat promising and I downloaded the app. After launching it, I was greeted with a splash screen that prompted me to log in or create an account. I seriously considered deleting the app again. I’m at a point where I really don’t want to sign up for the 3478th service, particularly not before even being able to try out the app. Curiosity however got the better of me and in hindsight, I’m glad it did.

First things first: VN isn’t really new. It apparently has been around for about two years according to the release date in the PlayStore but the relatively low number of downloads compared to other popular free video editing apps indicates that not too many people seem to have noticed it. VN is integrated into a video sharing community (where you can post videos to their platform and follow other users) which can seem a bit annoying if you only want to use the app to save the finished project to the device and share it to your platform of choice. You don’t have to share the video to VN’s community though, it’s possible to only export it to the Gallery (Android) or Camera Roll (iOS) and save it locally on the device.

With that out of the way, I have to say I was very impressed with VN’s feature set after taking it out for a spin. While it’s not quite as advanced as LumaFusion or KineMaster, it comes surprisingly close for a free app, covering a wide range of dedicated functions for serious video editing while at the same time sporting a visually pleasing and generally user-friendly UI.

Main timeline UI of ‘VN’

VN has a classic video editor timeline layout and is able to handle multiple tracks of video (important for b-roll editing for instance), audio and other visual elements like titles, photos and graphics. In terms of graphics it’s also important to note that it supports png files with alpha channel (for instance to include brand logos). You can also record voice-over into the timeline as an audio track and for this external microphones are supported as well. Another big win for VN is the variety of project aspect ratios available: 21:9, 16:9, 4:3, 1:1, 3:4, 9:16 and even ‘Round’ which is basically a masked square format.

One area where VN really needs to be improved (at least on Android) is handling audio transitions between video clips. There a multiple ways to achieve this but none is included at the moment: 1) it’s not possible to detach the audio of a video clip to make J&L cuts 2) while visual elements can be keyframed, audio can’t – so no audio ducking / automation is possible 3) while quick fade in/out buttons are conveniently available for audio-only clips (music, voice-overs etc), this is not available for the integrated audio of video clips in the Android version (it is on iOS) 4) no audio-only cross-fade is included in the transitions. With all these critical points in combination it’s very hard to avoid rough audio transitions between video clips in the Android version at the moment, the iOS version is slightly better. I suppose the fade in/out buttons for video audio will be added to the Android version eventually.

Talking about audio, at least in the Android version voice-overs recorded within the app itself don’t sound very good (I tested on two devices so far), like they are recorded at a low audio bitrate or sample rate but I’m sure this can be fixed with an update. Also, you can’t boost the audio in the Android version while on iOS you can. A slightly annoying thing in both versions is the fact that just like many other video editors featuring video overlays, the added b-roll footage doesn’t fill the whole frame but is added in a slightly scaled down version so if you want to have it cover up the frame of the video clip on the primary track seamlessly, you have to manually scale it which is not only an extra step but also includes the risk of accidentally moving the image away from the center. I get that this default setting is useful if you want to use the overlay video as a picture-in-picture but it’s not the best for editing b-roll style. It would also be nice to have a visual audio level meter when playing back the timeline.

Other than that, VN continues to provide you with lots of useful editing options like speed-ramping, nice title templates, filters, basic grading and various visual effects. One very clever UI function is that when long-pressing a video clip in the timeline to rearrange the order of the clips, it automatically squeezes the clip into a compact square storyboard thumbnail and only transitions back to the original timeline view after releasing the clip into its new place. This makes it much easier to rearrange clips quickly. VN also gives you a variety of professional options on export, not only resolution but frame rate (24/25/30/50/60) and bitrate. And it’s watermark-free! And available for both Android and iOS! On iOS it even seems that you can use it without having to create an account first. I have only tested it for about a week now and it’s quite possible that I will come across (more) bugs or shortcomings but so far I can conclude that this is a fantastic app, both easy to use and powerful. So is it the best free-without-watermark cross-platform mobile video editing app?

A couple of days after discovering VN, I took a second look at another app, one that I tested about a year ago when it was still in beta but somehow lost track of it over the months. It’s called ‘Feelmatic’ and is available for both Android and iOS and similar to VN (at least when looking at the Android version), you have to create an account for their video sharing platform/community.

Main timeline UI of ‘Feelmatic’.

Feelmatic also covers a lot of important features for advanced mobile video editing. It’s a bit more basic than VN, lacking some of its “bells & whistles”, but depending on the job you need to get done, it might not be that much of a deal. One might even see it positively as a more focused approach with a toolbar that lets you see all elements at a glance without having to swipe and scroll around, going down the option rabbit hole. It might be easier to grasp for users who are completely new to video editing. When I first tested the app last year it didn’t have the ability to add a video overlay but it does now. Better yet and unlike VN, the video overlay fully covers up the clip in the primary track by default. Feelmatic lets you record voice-over within the app and supports the use of external mics for that. Just like with VN however creating a smooth audio mix can be a problem, as there’s no audio keyframing, audio-only transitions or fade in/out buttons etc. I consider this to be one of two crucial points to improve in Feelmatic. The other is the extremely limited number of available aspect ratios: 16:9 is all there is (unless I’ve missed something), no option for vertical or square. You can bring in footage in other aspect ratios but it will be fit into a 16:9 frame and exported as such.

Feelmatic also has two slightly special toolbar elements, one is called ‘Logo’ which basically invites you to add an alpha channel png file as a brand/broadcaster logo and gives you a choice of four common default positions within the frame. The other one is ‘Subtitle’ which adds text including a half-transparent background for better legibility at the bottom of the frame. This is great for actual subtitles/captions but as far as I could tell, there are no other title options like say for an intro. This is a bit too bare bones for my taste.

The UI is generally good and focused with one minor shortcoming: the toolbar is located in the middle of the screen which makes reaching it in one-hand operation a bit more difficult, at least on bigger phones. If the toolbar were located at the bottom beneath the timeline, accessibility would be better.

The process of getting your project out of the app is a bit more cumbersome than with VN (you have to select a category for your video even if you don’t want to publish it on the Feelmatic platform for instance) but it is possible. That being said, you do get a solid set of export settings including video and audio bitrate. The video bit rate however maxes out at 10 Mbit, the audio bit rate at 128 Kbit which isn’t exactly great. And there are even more limitations: resolution is limited to 1080p (no UHD/4K), fps to a maximum of 30fps. While on iOS this does at least include 25fps as well, the Android version only supports 24 and 30 which is disappointing because other editing apps on Android like KineMaster, VN or CuteCut don’t have a problem with exporting 25fps.

So while I think that Feelmatic is actually a pretty solid and interesting video editing app with great potential definitely worth checking out, VN is more powerful in terms of features and the export process is less cumbersome. You should definitely check out both apps if you are into mobile video editing unless you are worried about their business model. If you don’t mind a watermark on the exported video or paying for a subscription, KineMaster is still the best and most compatible option available for both major mobile platforms. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming.

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Download ‘VN’ for Android or iOS.
Download ‘Feelmatic’ for Android or iOS.

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (incl. Update 2021) — 5. October 2019

#19 Stabilizing shaky video footage on your smartphone (incl. Update 2021)

The fact that nowadays pretty much everyone owns a smartphone and shoots video with it has brought a gigantic wave of shaky handheld footage along. While some folks are actually allergic to any kind of shakiness in video, I personally think that depending on the amount and context it can work just fine – but definitely not all the time and under any circumstances. So there is a need to stabilize shaky handheld footage. Now the best thing to get smooth n’ stable footage is to avoid shakiness in the first place while shooting. While there are techniques for shooting (more) stable video handheld, the most common thing would be putting the phone on a tripod (using any kind of rig or clamp for mounting it). But maybe you want to move around a bit? More and more smartphones do have internal stabilization, be it on the hardware side with OIS (optical image stabilization) or on the software side with EIS (electronic image stabilzation). Over the last years there has also been a considerable and increasingly affordable influx of (motorized) gimbals that allow smooth camera movements. But let’s be honest: Unless you’re going to a planned shoot, you probably won’t carry around a tripod or gimbal (if you have one) – as compact as they have become over time, they are still too big and clunky to just put in your pocket. So it’s likely that you will find yourself in situations where you shoot video handheld and want to smooth out some distracting jitter afterwards. While most desktop video editing software has a built-in stabilizer function these days, things don’t look quite as bright on mobile but there are still a few (good) options.

Android

Google Photos
The easiest way to stabilize a pre-recorded video clip on your mobile phone is probably to use a little known feature of an immensely popular (and completely free!) app: Google Photos. Select any video clip and open the edit panel (sliders icon in the middle), then tap on the rectangle with the tilted image inside (to the right of the “Export frame” button). When I first used it I was really surprised how well it worked! The stabilization process doesn’t alter the resolution and frame rate but you will have to live with a lower video bitrate (sample clip: 17 to 11 Mbit/s) while the audio bitrate remains the same. Google Photos is basically available for all Android devices which is great. I have however found that very ancient pre-Android 5 devices (I tested it with two devices running Android 4.4) do not have the stabilization feature baked into the app. “What about iOS?” you may ask as Google Photos is also available on the Apple Appstore. Unfortunately, just like with the ancient Androids, the stabilization feature is not available in the iOS version of the app. Maybe at some point in the future.

PowerDirector
If you are looking for a stabilization feature already built into an advanced mobile video editing app with which you can produce your final edit, then Cyberlink’s PowerDirector was for a long time your only choice across platforms. Select the clip in your timeline, open the editing panel by tapping the pen icon on the left side bar and choose „Stabilizer“. Unlike with Google Photos where the stabilization is basically a one-button operation, PD does give you a 0-100 slider to increase or decrease the level of correction (default value is 50). The higher the level of correction, the more the image will be cropped. PD can keep the footage’s fps as long as it is a frame rate that is supported for export within the app. That means 24, 30 and 60fps – no PAL frame rates unfortunately. Resolution on the other hand shouldn’t be a problem at all, PD supports export up to UHD/4K resolution. You also get to choose between three bitrate options (Smaller Size/Standard/Better Quality), the actual bitrate will be depending on your export resolution. In the case of the sample clip used here the bitrate of 17Mbit/s remained unaltered when using „Better Quality“ but that seems to be the maximum for projects with FHD resolution. If you use a clip recorded in a higher bitrate it will be compressed upon export. The audio bitrate is reduced (sample clip 320 to128 Kbit/s). PD is free to download with watermark and some restrictions regarding certain features – watermark-free export and the complete feature set are only available with a paid subscription. In 2020, PowerDirector also became available on iOS for iPhones and iPads.

CapCut
Following PowerDirector as the second full-fledged mobile video editing app with an inbuilt stabilization tool, CapCut comes from Bytedance, the company behind the popular video network TikTok. To stabilize a clip in your timeline, tap on it, then select “Stabilize” in the bottom tool bar. You can now choose how aggresive the stabilization process should be by placing the slider at the different options. “Minimal cropping” will be best if there’s only a little bit of shake in the image. “Recommended” is for more shaky video applying a bigger crop and “Most stable” will smooth out even more shakiness but also crops in the most into the frame. Once you have chosen your favorite, tap on “Stabilize”. While CapCut does not support exporting in UHD/4K resolution you can import such footage and it’s actually a good idea to have the original footage in a higher resolution than the final export since the stabilization tool has more additional pixels to smooth out the shakes and cropping might not have any negative effect on the image quality. CapCut is free to download and use without any limitations or watermark, it’s also available on iOS for iPhones and iPads.

Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile
There’s a third option on Android. Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile shouldn’t be confused with Instagram’s „Hyperlapse“ app (which is only available on iOS so far). They are actually somewhat similar in that their main purpose is to speed up and stabilize video but while Instagram’s app can only do this for footage shot „live“ within the app, Microsoft’s version allows importing pre-recorded clips. By default, the result you get will be a 4x sped up clip but if you want the original speed, you can move the speed slider to „1x“ instead. As for the resolution, Microsoft Hyperlapse only supports import of clips with up to FHD resolution and you have to activate FHD export in the settings as the default setting is HD (720p). The frame rate remains the same, the video bitrate is seriously crunched (sample clip: 17 to 8 Mbit/s), the audio bitrate is kept intact. The stabilization result isn’t as good as Google’s Photos and while the app is free, you do get a Microsoft Hyperlapse branded bumper screen. There are no in-app purchases to get rid of this so you will probably have to trim it off using another app.

VideoStabilizer for KineMaster
If you were asking me which app I consider to be the best video editing app for Android, I would probably choose KineMaster. It lacked a video stabilization feature though and many people have been asking about it. In 2020, KineMaster did something rather unexpected: They released a separate app called VideoStabilizer for KineMaster (alongside another separate app for speed ramping, SpeedRamp for KineMaster). The official take on this is that they don’t want the size of the main app to become too big (in terms of MB) and they also want to keep it available for as many devices as possible (resource intensive video stabilization might cause problems with entry-level processors). If you ask me, I would definitely prefer to have it as part of KineMaster and not a separate app. And despite the fact that the app is now out of beta and officially released, it can still be pretty buggy at times and the results aren’t as reliable as with some other apps. It’s not quite up to the standard that we have come to expect from the main app but I guess it will get better over time. The app is free to download but if you export the video directly to the Gallery, the video will have a watermark in the bottom right corner. You can only avoid the watermark by sharing the stabilized clip directly to KineMaster and you also need to have an active KineMaster subscription (because otherwise you will get a watermark when exporting from KineMaster). There’s currently no (beta) version on iOS but I think chances are good that there will be one later on or alternatively a version of the final production release.

iOS (iPhone/iPad)

Emulsio
As mentioned above, while Google Photos is available for iOS, the stabilization feature from the Android version is not. Also, none of iOS’s best video editing apps including the likes of Luma Fusion, KineMaster, Adobe Rush, Videoleap or Splice feature a stabilization tool at this point. The only (fairly good) option to stabilize pre-recorded video that I was able to find was an app called Emulsio. The interesting thing about Emulsio is that unlike all other apps for stabilizing mentioned here, there’s a whole bunch of controls over the stabilization process at your fingertips. Just like PD it gives you a 0-100% scale for the strength of the correction, cropping more of the frame the higher the % is. But on top of that, you get control over which axes (X,Y,XY) are corrected, you can switch rotation compensation and wobble removal on or off and even reduce rolling shutter. Emulsio does keep resolution and frame rate intact but reduces both video bitrate (sample clip 17 to 15Mbit/s) and audio bitrate (320 to 256Kbit/s). It’s free with watermark, you can get rid of the watermark by purchasing a 8.99€ pro upgrade.

PowerDirector (discription see under “Android”)

CapCut (discription see under “Android”)

Windows Mobile

Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile
Before I wrap this up let me tell you that while Microsoft Hyperlapse Mobile isn’t available for iOS, it (still) is for their own (now quasi-dead) mobile platform Windows Mobile. So just for the highly unlikely case that you are a die-hard Windows Phone enthusiast still holding on to your Lumia: You can join the stabilization fun! It basically works like the Android version described above but only supports import/export of HD (720p) clips, higher resolution clips will be transcoded to 720p. So when the resolution is reduced it shouldn’t come as a surprise that video bitrate (17 to 7 Mbit/s) and audio bitrate (320 to 192 Kbit/s) are as well. The frame rate remains the same as the original source clip.

And here’s a video presenting the deliberately shaky sample clip (shot on a Motorola Moto Z in 1080p 30fps handheld) in stabilized versions by each mentioned app (in the case of Power Director and Emulsio the default settings were used):

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

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

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

Hardware/Software

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

Cameras

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

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

The Native Camera App

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

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

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

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

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

3rd Party Camera Apps / Camera2 API Support

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

“Filmic Pro” on the Pocophone F1.

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

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

Video Editing

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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#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 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.

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. If you have questions or comments, please drop them below or find me on Twitter @smartfilming.

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