The question about whether mobile phone cameras should be the answer to a successful video strategy has been the subject of debate for years.
The attractions are obvious. Everyone has a smartphone, they are simple to use, the image quality is high, and they have a built-in method of transmission via file-sharing apps. At one time or another, many media companies have championed mobile phone journalism. And the viewing public has been conditioned, mostly through social media, to accept many of the downsides of mobile phone video.
User-generated content (UGC) has shown that compelling images of big moments captured on mobile phones offer immediate and unprecedented access to events that would otherwise go uncovered. Most of the time, the first images of an event are captured on mobile devices and are then distributed through social networks. These are often picked up by major news agencies for legal distribution to publishers and broadcasters.
Our first look at history is now often through the lens of smartphones.
But most media companies, including the South China Morning Post (SCMP), have rejected the use of mobile phones as their primary method of image acquisition. We prefer instead to use more traditional broadcast-standard or DSLR-type cameras.
There are many downsides to mobile phone video. Capturing audio natively on smartphones is risky since background noise is often picked up at the same level as the audio you actually want to record, and external microphone attachments you can buy are often fiddly and unreliable.
Visually, mobile phone video is very good, especially when shot on the latest models. But the lenses and sensors simply cannot compare with professional cameras for quality, depth, tone, and flexibility. Phones are also not well suited ergonomically for recording video. Gimbals and mountings can help, but they are also fiddly and not many people choose to use them even when they are available because a mounted phone loses the convenience of portability and small size.
Despite widespread acceptance of less-professionally shot video through UGC, quality is still extremely important. Mobile phone footage of a dramatic news event is great. But a journalist using a phone to shoot a more everyday story would find it a real struggle to produce something with the visual flair necessary for compelling viewing.
And I think that’s where the main problem lies. In the hands of a skilled videographer, a mobile phone can produce excellent results, but even that skilled videographer would probably prefer to use something else. And in the hands of an unskilled user, mobile phone footage can look very ordinary.
All this said, smartphone video is extremely important for a well-rounded video strategy. Our videographers at the SCMP will always have professional DSLR video cameras and accessories, but our crews can’t be everywhere. We often ask our print colleagues to shoot footage at a location or news event when we can’t be there.
We give them some simple tips to get decent footage:
- Shoot at least 15 shots of 30 seconds each.
- Don’t do camera moves unless you are following an action.
- Don’t try and record interviews unless you are in a quiet environment and the phone is very close to your subject.
- Hold your camera horizontally to shoot 16x9 video.
- Don’t zoom in on a scene unless your phone has multiple lenses.
- Try to shoot outside and use natural light as much as possible.
Following these simple tips often allows us to get footage of something the video team wouldn’t have been able to get ourselves. With enough footage, we can edit together a decent package dressed up with captions and graphics to fit within our content offering.
If we find ourselves in breaking news situations, mobile phones can also save the day. During the Hong Kong protests of 2019, video producers would frequently record events taking place in front of them on their phones and then share the footage via the Google Drive app on their phones with editors back at headquarters. It was the quickest way to move breaking news footage, and file-sharing apps avoid the heavy compression compared to messaging tools like WhatsApp.
One disadvantage encountered in breaking news events is the lack of an optical zoom function on most mobile phones. This could tempt a user to move in too close to dangerous events, which can be a safety concern.
Mobile phones are important to a video news gathering operation. They don’t solve every problem, and if they are too widely relied upon, your ability to create quality content will be more difficult. But they do play a critical role.
Future advances will only narrow the gap in quality between what smartphones and more professional cameras can offer.
But with the most important parts of any camera being the glass at the front, the sensor at the back, and the skills of the person using it, mobile phones are still a long way off from being the primary camera for our video team.