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How to make a Documentary on a Smartphone

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How to make a Documentary on a Smartphone

How to make a Documentary on a Smartphone

Everyone (unless you are filming an Amazonian tribe) is so used to seeing people holding and using smartphones, you can be as anonymous as it’s possible to be with a camera in your hand. Smartphones are designed for the specific purpose of speed and ease of use. If you are used to using your smartphone camera in daily life, you can go from reading an email to shooting in 10 seconds.

Depends on which kind of documentary you’re shooting, of course. If it’s mostly studio-based interviews cut with stock footage or stills, then not so much. But an out-in-the-field project, where you’re trying to convey the feeling of being there; where you’re trying to be spontaneous and catch your subjects unaware of being filmed as much as possible – then the smartphone has a distinct advantage.

Documentary filmmaker David Tamés suggests filmmakers “should not worry too much about gear on your first project. The intimacy and rapport you develop with your subject are more important at this point than mastering the technical craft. Consider shooting your first video with a smartphone or an easy-to-use consumer camcorder to keep things simple. If you already own a video camera that is capable of shooting high-definition video, use that. When you’re starting out, the best camera is the one you have.


1. Use a Camera App

Using a camera app, you can film with correct white balance and locked exposure. This will result in a more joyful, less hair-tearing, editing and colouring process once you’ve imported the footage into your chosen editing system.

Over-exposed or under-exposed video results in the lost highlight or shadow details. So using a camera app and learning how to get the best results with it will save you a lot of headaches later.

Of course, there’s a learning process involved. There’s also a need for a healthy balance between spontaneity and technical perfection. Especially with documentary – don’t lose that perfect, dramatic moment while you tinker with the white balance.

To get more manual control over your phone’s camera, you can use a camera app such as FiLMiC Pro.

2. Audio

Sound is still very important. In shooting a documentary, getting good audio is possibly even more important than a narrative fiction film. With actors, there’s always the possibility of dubbing the voice after filming. This is impossible to do with your interview subjects or subjects recorded during spontaneous moments “on the fly”.

You can actually get away with the inbuilt smartphone microphone, especially with later, high-end phones. However, you need to be a minimum of about 1 meter away from the subject. The good news is that smartphones have wide lenses, forcing you to get in close. The closer you get the microphone to the subject’s mouth, the clearer the sound: less background noise, fewer reflections from nearby surfaces such as bare walls, ceilings, and floors which are the worst.

Preferably you will use some kind of external microphone. Good quality clip-on mics can be bought for this purpose. But it is always useful to monitor your sound as you are recording. There can be audio issues you don’t notice without headphones on.

The problem is, if you have a mic attached to a smartphone, it’s usually taking up the headphone socket. There are solutions, however. For example, the iRig Lavalier allows you to connect both headphones and a second iRig Mic Lav.

However, you should try to use headphones that block out as much background noise as possible. You’ll need over-the-ear headphones or sound-isolating earbuds.

3. Frame, focus, wait…

Be thoughtful about how you move your camera. The temptation is to swing left and right, following the subject here and there, searching for interesting images. We have a kind of inbuilt restlessness that drives us to search for better and better or to avoid any second of boredom.

But when you return home with this footage, as a result of this “garden hose” type approach you will find yourself scrolling through take after take, desperate for moments of stillness.

If the subject is moving, allow them to move in and out of frame. This isn’t natural to us, as we normally move our heads to follow the action. Of course, you can still move the camera. But make those movements precise and thought out. Even if you are shooting on the fly, you can still develop a sense of where your view starts and where and how it comes to rest. And you can do this without wildly searching for something to focus on. The more you shoot, the more instinctive this will become.

4. Practice Shooting Footages

Ever heard of the saying that, “Practice makes perfect”? Well, believe it because the more you practice shooting videos with your smartphone; the more likely it is that you will get better at shooting usable videos with a steady hand. Practice shooting and have the videos reviewed for corrections and your documentary may just turn out to be an award winner.

The rise of social media, smartphones, and Web 2.0 technology has disrupted all aspects of media and entertainment over the past 10 years:

  1. Authors can write books without publishers
  2. Broadcasters can start broadcasts without a radio station
  3. Anyone start making a documentary with nothing but their phone

The creative power that was once only in the hands of big companies, is now in the hands of the individual who wants to make an idea happen.

For more information on Movies, Cinema, Lifestyle, Content, and Corporate Video Production you can always trust Film District Dubai. We create inspiring content that works for Consumer & Luxury brands, Property & Construction, Travel & Hospitality, Food & Beverage, and Sports. 

  May 13, 2021       by Eguaogie Eghosa       472 Views

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