Should You Shoot Your Movie on an iPhone?

What you need to know about using your iPhone in your filmmaking.

“The best camera is the one that’s with you.”

I graduated from film school not so long ago, but it’s been eons in technology years.

Back then, the film program at my school required students to shoot their first year film on actual film. You had to buy the film stock and get it developed, which was expensive – especially when mistakes were made.

Allow me to explain. I acted in my friend Evan’s first year magnum opus, a silent short film with a climactic scene featuring a girl getting a pie thrown in her face. Starstruck? I’d be happy to sign an autograph! The shoot was in January, so I wore a wool sweater to ward off the cold. Unfortunately, when Evan got his film back, he discovered that it was overexposed. So we shot again in March. This time, unbeknownst to Evan, the film hadn’t been loaded into the camera properly, so it was destroyed. We shot a third time in May (with me still in that wool sweater for continuity, now in the sweltering sun!), and once the film came back, we gathered our friends for a screening of the footage. Surely, our long journey was about to come to an end! Alas, the film was overexposed again. Evan threw a chair. The film never saw the (properly exposed) light of day.

Do you still want my autograph?

For aspiring filmmakers open to digital instead of (or in addition to) traditional film, technological advancements have lowered the bar to entry into the film industry. It’s entirely possible to make a movie with the gear you already have – for example, an iPhone! And I don’t mean just a passable movie. I mean a movie that’s worthy of top film festivals.

The iPhone debuted in 2007, and since then, it has helped transform how we communicate with each other, consume media, take photographs, and of course, shoot and perceive video. Now, with the release of three new iPhone models – the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X – it’s possible to shoot even better video on the device.

Let’s ground our discussion by profiling the iPhone’s history as a filmmaking tool. Then we’ll reveal the pros and cons of using an iPhone as your primary camera, and we’ll round up some of the best apps and gear you can use to maximize the device’s cinematic potential.

Tangerine | Magnolia Pictures, 2015

I. In the Beginning

Although a few films were shot with the iPhone previously, 2015 was arguably the breakout year for the device. It was director Sean Baker’s Tangerine, shot using three iPhone 5s devices and premiering at Sundance, that really made a splash and woke people up to the iPhone’s video capabilities.

In an interview with The American Society of Cinematographers, Baker shared that he knew he had very little money to work with for his film – the entire budget came in around $100,000 – so he determined that shooting on mobile phones was the only way he’d get the film made. Plus, he wanted to set the film apart visually:

“Aesthetically, it worked to enhance the way we were covering our subjects, which was almost a happy accident and something I’m grateful for. It brings the audience closer to these characters. Empathy is the most important thing, allowing the audience to experience this stuff with them. That’s why we went with this style, to immerse you in the hardship and chaos of the era.”

Here at Lights Film School, we’re big fans of developing your film around the tools you have available. For example, in the case of Tangerine, Baker embraced the aesthetic of the iPhone as an essential part of his storytelling, not just as an unfortunate result of budgetary constraints.

The look of Tangerine is quite stylized, but yours doesn’t have to be. Since 2015, the camera technology in the iPhone (and other phone cameras) has improved, and more and more filmmakers are embracing it in different ways. In fact, recently, indie film legend Steven Soderbergh shot Unsane on an iPhone. Hollywood veteran Zack Snyder did the same with Snow Steam Iron, convinced that “anyone with a phone can make a movie.”

But what about you? Should you use an iPhone to shoot your film? Like so much in filmmaking, the answer is: It depends. Let’s explore the pros and cons of iPhone cinematography so that you can determine whether or not using an iPhone as your primary camera suits the movie you want to make.

Framing a low angle shot for Citizen Kane

II. Pros of Shooting with Your iPhone

It’s available.

You may well already have an iPhone – perhaps you’re even reading this on one! In the words of visionary photographer Chase Jarvis, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.”

It’s portable!

Did I mention that you probably have an iPhone in your pocket?

Apple’s flagship device is designed to go anywhere and everywhere with you, which means that even if you’re shooting somewhere crowded, cramped, or in motion, your camera can adapt. The iPhone’s small size lets you get really creative with where you place the camera and what angles you can choose. Gone are the days of having to dig holes in the floor to get an extreme low angle, Ă  la Orson Welles in Citizen Kane!

Recent models shoot 4K.

Not so long ago, 4K was exclusive to higher-end cameras, but now you can get it on the same device you use to scroll through your Facebook feed. Beginning with the iPhone 6s, 4K became the standard, empowering filmmakers to milk some pretty impressive resolution out of the device.

Of course, it’s important to note that an iPhone’s 4K is not necessarily comparable to, say, the 4K of a higher-end camera like an ARRI, RED, Blackmagic, or even a GH5. The iPhone, like many consumer DSLRs, shoots in a compressed H.264 Quicktime format, with an 8-bit 4:2:0 color space. While you certainly can create beautiful images with these specs, you’ll start to see visible compression artifacts when you do intensive color grading, which happens less with footage shot on higher-end cameras.

For example, if you’re shooting gradients in a compressed format, then you might start to see color banding in the image, especially if you’re raising the contrast or brightening anything. The issue isn’t unique to the iPhone – color banding can happen in any video shot on a camera that records to a compressed format, from GoPros to DSLRs – but it’s worth noting.

Regardless, Apple has spent a lot of time and money refining the iPhone’s camera, and it shows. In fact, 4K video at 60, 30, and 24 fps is a key selling point of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X models. Moreover, the sensor is larger and faster than previous models’, featuring a 12-megapixel primary camera.

You have a choice of framerate and zoom, along with optical image stabilization.

In addition to 4K at 60, 30, and 24 fps, all three new iPhone models shoot 1080p video at 60 and 30 fps. For comparison’s sake, the 7 Plus and 7 shoot 1080p at 30 fps. The new models also support 1080p at 240 and 120 fps, compared to the 7 Plus’ and 7’s 720p at 240 fps. The 7-megapixel selfie camera records at 1080p, too. In other words, you’ll be working with HD video, even in slow motion and when you’re indulging Myspace moments.

From the iPhone 6s Plus onwards, there’s optical image stabilization to help counteract shake and allow longer exposures. As The Verge so succinctly explains:

“What does that mean? It’s when the camera uses information from the phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer to precisely move the camera’s optics to compensate for the movement of the phone. So if your hand is shaking a bit, or you’re walking while you’re shooting, the phone can calculate and correct for that movement.”

The 8 Plus and X also include optical zoom and a digital zoom of up to 6x, while the 8’s digital zoom is capped at 3x.

There are apps!

Although many cameras receive firmware updates, the iPhone has the extra advantage of access to third-party developers who are constantly dreaming up new and exciting apps to keep unlocking the iPhone’s cinematic potential. We’ll take a look at some of the best apps in just a bit – but first, we need to point out that shooting with an iPhone does present some unique challenges.

III. Cons of Shooting with Your iPhone

You have less control over the image.

The iPhone’s lens(es) are fixed, and the aperture is not adjustable. The 8 and 8 Plus include a wide-angle lens that opens to an f1.8 and a telephoto lens that opens to an f2.8, while the X includes a wide-angle lens that opens to an f1.8 and a telephoto lens that opens to an f2.4.

The iPhone’s small, so it can be hard to stabilize.

The iPhone’s compact form factor is a double-edged sword. It’s great for facilitating unique angles and on-the-fly adaptability, but it can be difficult to achieve steady shots if you’re moving a lot and operating the camera handheld. Granted, most iPhone models feature image stabilization these days, but you’ll probably want to use a tripod or shoulder mount to help with smoothness.

Low light is not the iPhone’s forte.

Because the iPhone’s image sensor is relatively small, it produces noisy images under certain conditions. In low light and at higher ISOs, the noise is especially apparent, even though the aperture is reasonably wide.

Wide-angle lenses can be creatively limiting.

Before the 7, iPhone models were stuck with a single wide-angle lens. The iPhone 7 Plus and models thereafter feature two lenses, but that second lens is still fairly wide. Relegation to wide angles has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to framing up medium and close shots. For example, a wide-angle lens doesn’t accommodate shallow depth of field the way that longer lenses do. And while you certainly can move your camera closer to your subject to get a closer shot (circumstances permitting), you most likely will notice a difference in the look and feel of the image then if you’d used a longer lens. Wide-angle lenses tend to exaggerate space and shapes and “bend” lines, which can be unflattering for faces.

It must be noted that you can buy attachable lenses for the iPhone. We’ll talk about lenses more when we get to gear!

IV. Maximize Your iPhone Cinematography: Apps and Gear

“The Film Look”

Apps allow you to address some of the shortcomings of Apple’s native camera app. Arguably the most well-known app (and what Sean Baker used for Tangerine) is FiLMiC Pro. It’s a robust, professional app that’s frequently updated with fixes and new features.

Some of these features include 24p functionality with easily-adjustable ISO, shutter speed, and focus settings, affording greater control over the image. You can achieve so much using FiLMiC Pro that during Zacuto’s comparative camera shootout back in 2012, an iPhone 4 with FiLMiC Pro held its own amongst professional cameras like the Canon 7D and C300, ARRI Alexa, and RED Epic.

FiLMiC Pro enables shooting at a high bitrate, which means fewer compression artifacts in the image. While the iPhone natively records at 32mbs, FiLMiC Pro can record as high as 100mbs! The app also brings useful tools including exposure and focus peaking indicators to the table, and more recently, greater control over the color, saturation, and contrast of the image. A log picture profile was introduced, echoing the log functionality of high dynamic range cameras.

Another great app is MoviePro, which is similar to FiLMiC Pro in that it allows you to shoot at even higher bitrates (up to 130mbs). Anecdotally, however, MoviePro seems to be less user-friendly.

When you pair apps with some iPhone-specific gear, beautiful things can happen. Further good news is that, compared to many professional cameras, cinematography equipment for iPhone devices is relatively inexpensive.

ND Filter

Because the iPhone’s aperture isn’t adjustable, you might want to purchase an adjustable Neutral Density (ND) filter for as little as $17.

How does an ND filter help? Well, it addresses some of the limitations of the iPhone’s fixed aperture. Most professional cameras have an adjustable aperture – this allows their operators to control exposure and depth-of-field without compromising other settings. With a fixed aperture, however, controlling exposure means adjusting the ISO and/or shutter speed, which can have unwanted side effects.

For example, if you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, then the iPhone’s shutter speed could increase quite a bit in order to ensure proper exposure. This would affect how the motion looks, with everything tending toward weirdly choppy and jittery. An adjustable ND filter allows you to lock your shutter at a more traditional speed and then adjust exposure using it instead – just slide the filter’s ring to your desired setting.

Stabilizers

It’s probably a good idea to invest in a stabilizer for your iPhone, despite the optical image stabilization. A safe bet is DJI’s OSMO Mobile, which will help you steady the camera in your hands. Alternatives include the Beastgrip Pro, a universal camera adapter and modular rig system (if you’re curious, this video takes a pretty comprehensive look at the BeastGrip’s lens compatibility with its DOF adapter).

Lenses

Which leads us to lenses! If you want more than the iPhone’s fixed lens(es) but don’t have the kit to take advantage of the Beastgrip, then you can buy attachable lenses. Our favorites come from Moment, which are made with cinema-grade glass.

Anamorphic Adapter

Yet another tool Sean Baker used to achieve the look of Tangerine, Moondog Labs’ anamorphic adapter lens allows you to shoot a 2.4:1 aspect ratio, complete with lens flares!

V. In Conclusion

If you’re eager to push the iPhone to its technical limits, then check out Richard Lackey’s 4K to 10-bit downsampling technique. Essentially, he recommends downscaling 4K footage to 1080p in order to achieve better quality and more control in the color grade.

If you decide to shoot with your iPhone, definitely remember to embrace the strengths of the device! Wide, well-lit shots will look great, regardless of what apps and gear you do or do not use. It’s amazing what you can create when you apply your imagination and a dash of ingenuity to a camera that’s so versatile and ubiquitous today. Don’t let gear (or the lack of it!) get in your way. Instead, get out there and make your movie!

 Lauren McGrail, with


Want to learn more about cinematography, using your iPhone or other camera you already have?

Then we invite you to join our online film school, complete with a comprehensive filmmaking course. It’s everything you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.

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