Even though it has some street cred with Oscar, Sundance, and even South by Southwest, the iPhone (or mobile smartphones in general) need help to actually get a cinematic image. From professional grade apps that allow for manual settings, to lens additions and other accessories, there are plenty of ways to improve the image coming out of your smart phone. But unless you know how to shoot it right, you’re not going to get a look that’s truly cinematic. That’s where Sam and Niko of Corridor Digital come in with some tips to make your videos look more like a movie.
Even though you’re on a cell phone, you can get some thoughtful images that are well composed. – Niko, Corridor Digital
“Cinematic shots basically dehumanizes your footage,” says Sam of Corridor Digital. “It starts breaking through to a different reality. Something not in our world.” With that view, Sam and Niko say that Cinematic looks involve a wide array of techniques to improve your video. These include composition, dynamic range, lighting, movement, sound, and what kind of color grading you use. Here are a few of the tips that Sam and Niko offer above:
We’ve all heard about dynamic range, it’s that filmmaking buzz phrase about that usable range from the brightest light to the darkest shadow that hits your camera sensor. In a mobile phone, it’s not really all that great. When light hits the sensor, it creates voltage, and at a certain point the sensor can’t handle all that light, and it clips out. By contrast, the dark reaches a point where the sensor can’t tell the difference between darkness and noise. Which is why low light images are usually very noisy.
Get a little pretentious, it’ll look good.
Cameras like the RED with its DRAGON sensor can capture an enormous amount of dynamic range, while the iPhone’s sensor gets overwhelmed. How can you fix it? Avoid backlight. Don’t shoot against a bright background unless a silhouette is what you’re going for. When you can’t avoid it, you can always use a reflector to bounce that light back to your subject, which will even out the exposure and allow the sensor to pick up details of your subject since it doesn’t have to capture a wide dynamic range. You can also use a “silk” to soften and even out the light rather than have a harsh hot spot on the subject.
Niko also says to favor your highlights, rather than your shadows. With apps like FiLMiC Pro [$7.99, iTunes link], you can adjust the manual exposure of your image, and if you favor the highlights, you can get more detail. Depth of field is also something that a phone has issues with, since it doesn’t really have an adjustable aperture.
“Pictures are flat, two-dimensional,” says Niko, “Because you can’t separate the background from your foreground with a phone, you have to use lighting to create a sense of depth.” He adds you can do this by creating contrast. Making the subject brighter than the background, or even making the subject darker than the background. This can create that sense of depth.
Niko also says you can actually manually adjust the exposure by touching your iPhone’s screen and then dragging up or down to adjust it. I didn’t know that. Great tip.
Interesting, thoughtful framing goes a long way towards making your shots cinematic. Play with the edges of your frame … think of it more as a 2D canvas. An awareness of how these 3D shapes look in a 2D picture is how you get good framing. – Niko
Another important factor of getting a cinematic look with your smartphone is composition, how you frame your shot. Remember the rule of thirds, where you create an imaginary tic-tac-toe board on the screen, and put your subject where two lines intersect. Also remember the 180-degree rule where you film along that same 180-degree line of conversation and don’t have your characters swapping positions because you “cross the line.”
“One cannot forget the simple rules of composition, says Sam. Just because you use a phone doesn’t mean those rules don’t apply.” Niko also adds that you can use diagonal lines in your shot to leads to a point of interest. Also to balance your shot with your subject and a light source on the other side. Conversely, you can make your image unbalanced to create a sense of uneasiness.
There are a ton of other tips in the video below, including using the app Hyperlapse to smooth out your movement, or employ look up tables in your editor for basic color correction. Check out other mobile filmmaking news and tutorials here.
Visit and give Sam and Niko a follow on YouTube.