Should You Shoot Your Film or Documentary With an iPhone?
There’s no doubt about it: the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 camera capabilities are pretty incredible. The three-camera system on the Pro and Pro Max models feature Night Vision, Deep Fusion, Lidar, and HDR/Dolby Vision, all of which help create professional-looking still photos and videos.
Plus, iPhones are inherently versatile. They allow creators to edit right on the phone or with an outside editing app or software. They’re portable; the biggest version, the iPhone 13 Pro Max, is still just 6.3 inches tall. And as far as cameras go, they’re affordable, considering you’re buying or renting a device that can be loaded with software, serve as your cell phone, provide storage for your content, and boast a great camera setup.
So: based on these factors and the cameras’ advancements, should you shoot your film or documentary with an iPhone?
We think it’s a good idea in many cases. Here are the features that have us convinced, plus some tips for how to shoot video most effectively with an iPhone for professional-looking footage.
The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max Camera Overview and Upgrades
iPhone 13 General Upgrades
The iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max offer a few upgrades from their predecessors. First, the Super Retina XDR display now comes with “ProMotion,” which means a refresh rate of 120Hz for video streaming, gaming, or any “live” animation. It makes it feel exceptionally smooth—no buffering or glitching in sight.
The battery life on the 13 models are about 1.5 to 2.5 hours longer than the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. Plus, you can get up to 1TB of internal storage on these phones, so you can shoot and store with abandon. Here are even more details about each 13 model.
iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max Camera Changes
Camera-wise, there are a few new features that make the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max ideal for creating professional video. First up is the change to the zoom capabilities. With a 13 Pro or Pro Max, the Ultra Wide camera offers 3x optical zoom in and 2x optical zoom out, a bit more than the 12 models.
Secondly, the Pro and Pro Max lenses are also upgraded. The Wide camera has a large sensor and a f/1.5 aperture. The Ultra Wide has an aperture of f/1.8. These larger apertures mean that the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max can let in more light, offering improved quality when shooting in low-light environments or at night. And with the features that we’re used to from the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, Deep Fusion for amazing texture and Night Vision for handling low-light situations, the cameras are well-equipped to handle whatever comes their way.
What really has filmmakers and creators talking this time, though, is the ability to shoot in “Cinematic Mode.” This is one of the major advancements that the 13 models boast. Essentially, users can seamlessly (and automatically!) shift focus from one subject to another within the same frame. In the production world, this is called “rack focus,” and it feels professional, since filmmakers often use this technique with traditional cameras. You can choose a subject to “track,” or you can let the camera do some of the work for you by focusing on the subjects who are facing you and not on those who are looking away. There is also a manual option so that you can control exactly who or what is in focus, without changing the shot.
And! You can edit the focus either while you’re filming or when you’re editing, which is an incredible feature. The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max models offer Dolby Vision as well, but filming with an iPhone 13 while using Dolby Vision in Cinematic Mode lends itself to a super professional look.
Another major camera change is the ability to shoot macro photography with the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max. This means you can get very, very close to a subject for crisp, accurate detail when shooting.
Finally, Apple describes their new “ProRes” feature as “an advanced video codec used widely as the final delivery format for commercials, feature films, and broadcasts, to offer higher color fidelity and less compression.” In other words, ProRes lets users film in a way that’s comparable to other professionally-run shoots—right on the iPhone. (Full disclosure: this feature isn’t yet available but should be via iOS 15 update later this year.)
All of this to say: the camera capabilities absolutely provide the opportunity for professional documentary or filmmaking. If you’re going to do it, here are our tips.
Tips for Shooting Video with an iPhone 13
Consider Your Lighting
It’s true that the cameras on the 13 models are great at capturing detail, even in lower-light environments or at night. And if you’re planning to shoot primarily in the daytime using natural light, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern. That said, we’d recommend utilizing a light source to ensure that your lower-light situations are as clear and crisp as you’re hoping for. Since the iPhone cameras are still small compared to a “regular” camera, you’re looking at more difficulty capturing perfect clarity without first double-checking your lighting plan. There are plenty of rentable lighting options available, if you’re so inclined.
Plan Your Shots Ahead of Time
No matter what, planning ahead is in your best interest when filming. Even if you’re going for an “organic” feeling documentary, ensuring that you know where your storyline is going next is key to creating. Storyboarding this way provides a sketch of the shots you’ll need, the subjects you’ll want to focus on, the lighting components, and more. Really, just about everything rides on this part: we recommend doing your best to plan ahead inasmuch as possible.
Use a Stabilizer
It’s hard to shoot a professional-looking iPhone video without a stabilizing device. Even the most steady-handed person can make an iPhone video look shaky. Stabilizers make video look seamless, professional, and smooth. Unless you’re going for a deliberately shaky film a la The Blair Witch Project, investing in a stabilizer and tripod is definitely worth it.
Rent a Microphone
As you know from reading our opinion above, we think that iPhones are incredible. However, their small size means that they simply don’t have the best quality when it comes to microphones. If you’re shooting a film or documentary on your iPhone, you’ll definitely want to utilize an external microphone source. This will ensure that you pick up on sound that’s at a distance from you and not have the subject sound as far away. If your sound quality isn’t great, it’s distracting and amateurish. Something like a small boom microphone or a directional video microphone can help.
The iPhone itself offers editing capabilities that are helpful for quick on-the-go edits and changes. But there are plenty of apps that are great for editing video shot on an iPhone. Apps like Darkroom and Filmic Pro can take your iPhone video and make it feel professionally-produced. Combined with the powerful and cinematic features that are already embedded when videoing with the iPhone 13, these apps can really make your project “sing.”
When combined with a few extra accessories, filming on an iPhone can produce high quality, professional video. We think that it’s amazing that devices this small can be this powerful. Filmmakers and producers no longer have to rely on uber expensive equipment in order to create professional documentaries or films. Plus, with rentable iPhone options and iPhone accessories, it’s even more doable.
Renting iPhone Filming Kits, Accessories & Setup:
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