The iPhone is capable of producing surprising good video and as a result, quite a few documentary makers are using their iPhones as their go-to B camera and in some cases even as their primary camera. In order to get the best video possible from the iPhone you’ll need to get (if you’re not already using it) FiLMiC Pro from Cinegenix, available via the Apple App Store for $4.99. At this price it’s a really good deal and hard to resist: if you’re serious about video, you’ll want this App on your iPhone. FiLMiC Pro also runs on the iPad.
FiLMiC Pro, when combined with an iPhone 4, 4S or 5, makes a sweet and respectable video camera out of the iPhone. This application provides you with more control over the function of the camera than the Apple Camera app does. Focus and exposure sampling areas can be selected and locked. The current white balance setting can also locked. Image stabilization can be disabled for better looking shots when the iPhone is supported with a tripod or stabilization device. To help in composing your video, FiLMiC Pro sports aspect ratio overlays (4:3, 16:9, 2.35:1) and a rule-of-thirds guide, both of which may be turned off.
The image capture rate can be set from 1 to 30 fps and the output rate can be set from 1 to 60 fps for a variety of slow and fast motion effects. File names can be set to reflect the project name along with scene and take numbers. When the slate feature is enabled, the slate can display the project name along with scene and take numbers. The application settings screen is well-organized and easy to understand. There’s also a set of clearly structured help screens you can scan through that help you figure out how the application works.
FiLMiC Pro offers three exposure/focus modes. In Double Reticle Mode two separate adjustable reticles (spot exposure sampling and focus sampling) are displayed in the viewfinder. In Single Reticle Mode a center fixed positioned spot sampling reticle appears in the viewfinder and determines both exposure and focus. In Full Frame Mode FiLMiC Pro determines both focus and exposure by sampling the entire frame. The viewfinder information includes audio meters. Apple’s audio filter can be disabled when using an external microphone. The sampling rate can be set to 44.1kHz or 48kHz and the audio encoded either as uncompressed (Linear PCM) or compressed (AAC). FiLMiC Pro records mono audio using either the built-in microphone or an external microphone connected to the 3.5mm TRRS jack on the iPhone. It is possible to record in stereo with a compatible third-party audio interface but those are expensive and bulky. At some point you gotta say, this is a phone.
If you are using an external microphone, an essential accessory for audio recording is the iPhone Microphone Input Jack Adapter sold by KV Connection that allows you to plug a self-powered microphone (with a 3.5mm plug) into the iPhone. The adapter incorporates passive components providing DC blocking/isolation for device protection. It also has impedance matching components enabling the use of a wide variety of microphones. KV Connection also sells a iPhone Microphone Input Jack Adapter with Headphone Jack that’s useful for plugging in both a microphone and headphones at the same time [Revised 9/1/2013: FiLMiC Pro now supports audio monitoring, so you can use this cable to plug in a microphone and headphones at the same time!
(although FiLMIC Pro does not support real-time audio monitoring while recording). ] This is the cable I opted for because it’s nice not to have to keep switching plugs between the mic for recording and the headphones for listening to what you recorded. But I digress, back to FiLMiC Pro.
Video can be recorded in the Apple Standard format (H.264 @ 4 Mbps) as well as FiLMiC Quality (H.264 @ 6 Mbps) and FiLMiC Extreme (H.264 @8 Mbps). Resolution can be adjusted to one of four settings (960 x 540 iFrame, 1280 x 720, 1280 x 720 iFrame, or 1920 x 1080 full HD resolution). Given the many setting options, you’ll appreciate that FiLMiC Pro allows you to save six custom presets.
After shooting video you can go to the media directory screen to review you video clips. For each clip FiLMiC Pro shows you the name, frame rate, size, and length. From here you can delete the shot, copy it to the Camera Roll, copy it to iTunes (via USB cable), or upload it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Dropbox, or an FTP server. Large files can take quite a bit of time to upload even when you’re on a fast WiFi connection. Don’t try uploading media when you’re on a 3G network unless you have the patience of a monk. For my workflow I’ve settled on copying the keepers to the Camera Roll and then using the Image Capture application on the Mac to drag the video files into the desired media folder on my hard drive for editing with Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro.
I’ve shot video using FiLMiC Pro occasionally and I can tell you that shooting video with an iPhone is no cinematographic nirvana by a long shot. I’m certainly not planning to replace nor curtail my use of my beloved Panasonic HPX170, however, I’m thrilled I can use the iPhone for impromptu shooting or capturing pick-up shots. Video displays serious rolling shutter artifacts and the iPhone lens is not as wide as I often want for close quarters shooting. In addition, since I can’t zoom the lens into telephoto mode, there’s a lot of shots I simply can’t shoot with an iPhone. The digital zoom is by no means a reasonable substitute for a telephoto lens.
One thing that irks me is I can't monitor audio while I'm shooting, so for anything important that requires the aural dimension, I'm going to shoot double system sound with my Roland R-09HR recorder (no longer sold but Roland replaced it with the R-05, a dandy little recorder). FiLMiC Pro recently added audio monitoring, so with the right cable (a TRRS w/ two jacks, one for audio out and the other for mic input) you can now monitor the audio you are recording with headphones! ] Another issue is that if you shoot a lot of video, you’ll quickly run out of battery or storage space or both on the phone. Having to juice up with an external battery or finding a wall plug, or downloading video so there’s room to shoot more, this all adds to the hassle factor if you’re doing anything beyond casual pick up shots or behind the scenes documentation. Given that every 10 minutes of video shot in Apple Standard at 1,280 x 720 resolution is going to take up 1 GB of storage, depending on the storage capacity of your iPhone, you might find yourself needing to upload media more often than you’d like. Power and storage management issues place some constraints on the iPhone as camera concept.
While there are numerous accessories available that allow the use of macro, wide-angle, and zoom lenses for the iPhone, along with contraptions that enable attaching a light or microphone to the iPhone while making it easier to hold the iPhone in a more stable manner, by the time you purchase all of these accessories, you’ll start to wonder why you didn’t simply get a small camcorder that can do almost everything you need to do in one small package. I’ve seem some impressive work done with the add-on lenses, so they certainly have their place. At the end of the day, however, the iPhone is still primarily a phone and micro-tablet. And while the quality of the video may be compromised, the versatility and portability go along way in making the iPhone a sweet and respectable video camera, the Super8 camera of today, albeit with some serious limitations.