There’s an adage often quoted by photographers: “The best camera to use for shooting is the camera you have with you.”
And that well-worn saying applies to both still photography and video.
What this means is that even if you own “The World’s Most Expensive” camera, it’s worthless unless you’ve got it handy when the perfect “Kodak Moment” arrives, especially when you’re traveling away from home.
So what is the camera most of us always have with us today?
The answer: A smartphone.
The good news: That high-tech gadget that is combination telephone-computer-GPS device-camera is usually in your pocket or purse.
The bad news: There are some downsides to shooting video with a smartphone.
The good news: There are some simple accessories that can make your travel videos more likely to win an Oscar, or at least please your family and friends.
Three weeks ago I was at an event hosted by Spud Hilton, Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Like me, Spud wants to carry a minimum amount of photography/video gear when traveling. He was shooting video and photos at the event using three relatively small and inexpensive accessories attached to his iPhone.
Although the native iPhone Camera app, and other video apps designed for Apple mobile devices, have software that’s intended to minimize your video clips turning out blurred if you don’t hold the phone steady, your best bet for avoiding that problem is to use a tripod, especially one with a fluid head that will allow you to smoothly pan the smartphone from side-to-side or tilt it up-and-down while filming.
But such tripods can be fairly expensive, and aren’t something you would probably want to carry with you when you travel by air. They are better suited for filming at your “home base” or when you are driving your own car on a road trip and the amount of gear you lug along isn’t a major issue.
A hand-help grip is an alternative to using a tripod to hold a smartphone relatively steady during filming.
Spud was shooting video and still photos at the event with his iPhone held in the ShoulderPod S1 Smartphone Grip.
I recently purchased one and gave it a brief tryout.
The removable “Filmmaker Handle” and wrist strap seem just a little shorter than I’d like, but the S1 grip works reasonably well for shooting hand-held. You do have to unscrew the handle from the clamp part of the grip in order to attach the clamp to a tripod, “selfie stick,” or another other gadget that has a standard tripod mount.
Unlike similar grips that have a spring-loaded clamp, you tighten the S1 securely around the phone with an adjusting screw.
When you are not filming, you can use the clamp as a stand to hold your phone while you watch video.
Here’s the S1 in action.
And it is small enough and light enough to put in a pocket of your daypack or jacket, or as the company suggests, hang it on your belt with the wrist strap.
There’s an adage among filmmakers: “People will watch a visually awful film, but not one with poor audio.” In other words, we can tolerate watching crummy looking video, but not listening to lousy or hard-to-hear audio that accompanies it.
The microphone built into smartphones works pretty well when you are filming indoors if there is little background noise that would override the soundtrack of the video, such as someone talking.
But when shooting outdoors, wind can blow across the face of that microphone, causing the sound you want to record to be drowned out by a loud whooshing noise that is nearly impossible to edit out later.
To prevent that from happening, you should use an external microphone.
A lavalier (“lapel”) microphone that plugs into your smartphone’s audio jack works well enough, especially for interviewing people on-camera. But it attaches to the smartphone with a wire which limits the mobility of both the person shooting the video and the person being interviewed.
A better choice would be a “shotgun” microphone, such as RØDE’s VideoMic, that picks up sound from the direction in which it is pointed. But you probably will need a special case with a “cold shoe” in order to attach the microphone to your smartphone.
Spud was using RØDE’s VideoMic Me which is a much smaller directional mike and better designed for use with smartphones and tablets than the larger RØDE VideoMic.
It plugs directly into the iPhone audio jack and attaches to the phone with an adjustable piece that you squeeze down onto the phone’s body. That means it will probably fit any iPhone or iPad, although not if they are in a case.
It comes with a “Dead Cat” windshield that easily slips on for use outdoors in windy conditions.
If you are shooting with the iPhone’s rear-facing camera and have the mike pointed toward the sound source, such as a person you are interviewing, and then switch to the Facetime camera to do a “selfie,” you can remove the mike from the phone, turn it around, reconnect it to the phone, and point it toward yourself.
The VideoMic Me has a 3.5 mm headphone jack so you can monitor sound levels while recording.
This promotional video shows the microphone in use.
Smartphone camera lenses are designed to keep everything in focus, and although apps have a “fake” digital zoom function, they don’t provide the versatility in focus, zoom, and depth-of-field control that you get with a point-and-shoot camera whose lens actually moves in and out of the camera body, from wide-angle to telephoto, or a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) that uses interchangeable lenses.
One way to address that smartphone limitation is to use lenses that attach to the phone. Some gadgets that do so are fairly bulky, especially ones designed to let you use DSLR lenses.
Others, such as those made by Olloclip, simply slip over the smartphone or tablet built-in lens.
Unfortunately, each Olloclip lens will only fit specific phone or tablet models, and you’ll have to remove your phone or tablet from a case in order to slip on the lens. If you buy a new mobile device, you may have to buy new Olloclip lenses for it.
Spud was using an Olloclip supplemental lens, probably the “Active Lens” which has both ultra-wide angle and telephoto lenses, which I also use on my iPhone 6s.
This video shows how the lens works.
These lenses are very small, come with lens caps and a small carrying case, and fit into a shirt pocket. The Olloclip “Active Lens” for my iPhone 6s has a lanyard that allows me to hang it around my neck to keep it handy when it isn’t attached to the phone.
The Bottom Line
For about $200 or so, you can buy all three of these accessories and markedly improve the look and sound of your travel videos.
And who knows what might come of that? Maybe a “trip down The Red Carpet” at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony!