No Camera? No Problem

Written by Josias Jensen.

We are in a unique time in history. It has never been easier or cheaper to get your hands on a device with the ability to capture the world around you and its many stories.

Phones with decent cameras are in abundance.

If you have always dreamed of being a filmmaker, lack of finances is no longer an excuse to not produce content. The device you carry around with you every day could help you get started with your career in filmmaking.

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“Sometimes great art is produced with the humblest means”

Last year, filmmaker Sean S. Baker decided to shoot the feature Tangerine on iPhone 5’s to cut costs. Despite the meagre budget and humble equipment, his film made it to Sundance Film Festival and received much critical praise.

The camera on your phone is not as good as a professional grade camera used on bigger sets however, filmmakers like Sean S. Baker have proved to us that if used well, the cameras on phones can be good enough to produce really interesting content!

This is a brief guide to help you to best utilize your camera phone to produce good content.

Understand the limitations of your device and use it to your advantage

Understanding the limitations of your device will help you know how to best utilize it.

The camera on a phone is much smaller than on a professional grade camera. What I mean is, the lenses on camera phones are wide and the sensor is less significant in size. It isn’t possible to achieve the same “shallow depth of field” look we often see in movies. Most phones have really deep focus.

This is something you can use to your advantage.

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Deep focus is when the camera is able to capture everything from the foreground all the way to the background, in focus. You can use deep focus and staging in depth to tell the story of your project visually. One filmmaker who uses this technique frequently is director Wes Anderson.

If you pay attention to the staging in his films, you will notice that he often has many different activities happening in both the foreground, middle ground and background at the same time. All of these activities, their interplay, and the staging itself can be used as storytelling devices.

Spend more time lighting your set

Spending a lot of time and effort on lighting is a good thing regardless of the camera you use. But with camera phones you must be even more aware of how you choose to light your set as they often have poor low light performance and lower dynamic range.

Cameras phones usually do fine if there is enough light, like on most daytime shoots. If you are filming at night or in the evening, you might have to use strong light sources or move the lights closer to the action. If you do not have the budget for lights, arrange the action around a strong light source that is already present. You can then use a bounce board and diffusion to fill in and shape the light.

To avoid problems with the lower dynamic range, that these cameras have, even out the lighting throughout the shot. This means lighting it in a way where there is less of a difference between the the brightest and darkest spots in the frame.

Buy an app that gives you more freedom

The standard camera apps do a decent job if you want to snap photos and capture video on the go with little hassle. However, if you want more creative freedom you should invest in an inexpensive, but highly useful app like Camera FV-5 or FilMic Pro.

With apps like these, you will be able to change the frame rate, shutter speed, white balance and

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other significant settings. If your phone has the ability to capture video at a really high frame rate that is yet another creative tool at your disposal. Use well placed slow motion footage to drive your story forward (again Wes Anderson is great at using this tool as well!).

Treat it like a proper camera

If you hold your camera phone like a phone, the footage will look much less professional. If you treat it like a proper camera, use a tripod, shoulder rig, small steady stick, dolly etc. your footage will look much more professional.

If you plan your camera movement well, chances are people will forget that your film was shot with a phone. Some movements may even be easier to do with a camera phone than a conventional camera simply because of its convenient size.

Doing a long, single take, steady stick/cam shot with a conventional camera can be an incredible challenge for a camera operator. With a simple (and much cheaper) steady stick/cam for your phone you can achieve similar movements fairly easily because of the light weight of the camera phone and the small rig. This is your opportunity to create some beautiful and memorable single takes!

My hope is that you will not hold yourself back from producing interesting content because you can’t get your hands on an expensive camera. Experiment with your camera phone and discover its strengths and weaknesses and use those to your advantage.

Sometimes great art is produced with the humblest means, and creativity often thrives within limitation. Now go make movies!

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