A beginner guide to taking great travel videos with a smartphone
Traveling and taking photos along the way is quite expected – in particular these days with everyone carrying a smartphone in their pocket, pack or bag. However, too many smartphone travel videos are hard to watch with various problems – changing focus or simply out of focus, over exposed or too dark, colors washed out, and more. Want to take great travel videos with a smartphone? Of course you do, and it is much easier than you think.
It starts with having the right gear, apps and accessories. And then there are a few basic video tips to keep in mind too. With these tips, and a bit of practice, you will become a great smartphone travel video documentarian in no time at all. And best of all, people will really want to watch the travel stories you are telling with your images. Ready? First step, the right gear:
Recommended gear – just the basics:
Smartphone –Be it an iPhone (which I use), Samsung (which Therese prefers), LG V20, Google Pixel, or any other brand now or to come, as long as you have at least a 12-megapixel camera resolution lens, optical image stabilization, and plenty of on-board memory, you are golden. Ignore all the hype and pitch around digital zooming … you won’t use it, ever! For memory, if you are opting for an iPhone, get nothing less than the 128gb size. For phones that take microSD memory cards, pick up 64gb ones because video gobbles up memory.
Apps – No matter what phone manufacturers claim, built-in photo apps are simply not adequate if you really want control over focusing, exposure, audio levels and more … which you do if you want to shoot travel videos worth watching. There are several apps I use regularly – ProCam (iPhone only) and FiLMiC Pro (iPhone and Android versions). Each has strengths and weaknesses, but each is easy to use and will provide plenty of control over your video.
Tools and accessories – the next step:
Smartphone rig – As you get more serious about the quality of your videos – especially for live streaming and more professionally-produced videos for YouTube, Vimeo, or similar – a “rig” is a must. With a smartphone rig, you secure your phone in a stable frame on which you can mount a microphone, optional lenses, external lights (for interviews, for example), and even another small camera like a GoPro. These rigs — brands include, iOgrapher (iPhone only), Beastgrip and Shoulderpod — are very easy to hold and use, mount easily on a tripod, and improve stability immensely (although for walking and for shots where you are moving quickly you will want to think about using a gimble which I talk about below).
Selfie stick with stabilizing legs – We are not advocating you start taking video selfies! But a selfie stick will allow you to hold your smartphone up high above a crowd for excellent overhead shots, even to the point of looking down as if you are actually flying a drone. Some selfie sticks have optional stabilizing legs that you can fold out or add on so your selfie stick becomes a workable tripod too. Multifunctional – love it.
Extra tools – getting more advanced:
Rode VideoMic Me directional mic – While microphones in smartphones have gotten infinitely better, nothing beats a good external mic with an appropriate wind shield for capturing great audio … and trust me when I say a video with lousy sound quality is a video not worth watching. Sure, you can add soundtracks and voice overs in production, but if you are trying to hear someone talk or want to record bird sounds and other ambient noise for setting the mood, your video is essentially ruined if audio is bad. These types of mics are not very large or expensive so are worth considering as one more addition to the gear above even if you don’t opt for the items I talk about below.
Handheld gimbal – A gimbal is essentially nothing more than a motorized balancing system. It keeps any camera, including a smartphone, steady and level even as you move around. It is key for preventing videos that bounce up and down or side to side when you are moving around. I currently use a gimbal from Smove.
Camera lenses – You can and do want to purchase additional lenses for your smartphone. When I relied on my iOgrapher rig, I used a Polaroid 2x telephoto lens when I wanted to get closer to my subject. But there are many options. I would recommend you look at brands such as Moment or Olloclip with my personal preference being lenses from Moment for their incredible optical quality.
Editing software – No matter how good your video shooting skills are, real magic behind creating great travel videos happens in the editing process. With this, you can take 30 minutes of assorted video clips down to a 2-5-minute masterpiece. You can also add smooth fades, transitions, and excellent audio that includes live recording, perhaps voice overs, and certainly various soundtracks and select sound effects. I rely on a Macbook Pro with Final Cut Pro editing software (a professional choice), but there are many simpler editing tools you can start with. One that comes highly rated for beginners is Filmora Video Editor (software for Mac, Windows, Android and iOS). If you have an iPhone or an iPad, iMovie is fantastic basic video editing software that comes with your iOS device.
Tips for shooting great travel videos with your smartphone
- Never shoot in vertical mode. (That is, with the camera lengthwise up and down). This may be fine for Twitter or social sharing, but for videos you want people to watch on computers, tablets, smartphones and maybe even televisions, you need to hold your phone in landscape or horizontal mode.
- Lock your focus and your exposure. Most smartphones these days will automatically focus and choose exposure for your shot. That works great for a quick photo, but is awful for video. Why? As you move or pan the smartphone, your video will continue to re-adjust exposure and refocus on different objects. That means images may be bright and then dark, focus may move in and out. Lock your focus on the farthest most point you will be shooting. And lock your exposure in a place that offers the most balanced level of light. (Check your phone’s camera app to determine how.)
- Limit the length of your shots. If you want more than “home movies,” plan a video, and shoot according to plan. Try to think through what kind of story you want in a particular shot, then shoot footage from various angles in no more than 5 to 15 second increments – I prefer 10 seconds. That way, you have sufficient footage for editing, but not so much you have to wade through minute after minute of similar footage to find the material you want to use. There is indeed such a thing as too much footage!
- Think in terms of transitions. Depending on what type of travel video you are trying to create, you will likely have at least 10 and perhaps two or three times that number in transitions in a video that is two to three minutes long. (That is where you change or transition from one scene to the next.) So it comes back to shooting according to your plan. Plan what shots you want, and how you want to move from one to the next, as well as how you will do that in the editing process. As you move from one scene to the next, you want to lead your viewer smoothly through the story you are showing, not simply by jumping from Boston to Budapest without a visual cue of how and why.
- Be steady when shooting. If you don’t want your video footage to come out distorted, blurred, or shaky you must work to keep your phone as steady as possible while recording. Which is why a smartphone rig is so useful. The key is to use both hands to hold your smartphone and keep your elbows as close as possible to your body as you record. If you can, use a tripod, or a selfie stick with a tripod base, to stabilize your smartphone. If you don’t have that option, use physical objects for resting your phone while shooting – I have used walls, fences, tables, chairs, even a log or a large rock.
- Never use digital zoom. Until smartphones add additional lenses that may help facilitate optical zooming, all digital zooming does is enlarge the image you are seeing digitally, which means pixilation (pixels are the dots that make up an image). To increase the size of the subject in the frame, either move closer or, use an accessory telephoto lens that clips on or screws into your phone mount.
- If you are worried about memory, do not shoot in 4k. Yes, Apple and Samsung and others tout 4k as the best video around. And in terms of resolution, it is. But it also gobbles up huge amounts of memory. And unless you are shooting in 4k with a companion DSLR, in which case you absolutely want to shoot in the same resolution and frames per second to make editing easier, I’d advise selecting a video resolution of 1080 HD at 60 fps. The 1080 HD is the resolution you are shooting and means 1,000 horizontal resolution lines in a single frame – more than enough detail for any smartphone, tablet or computer playback. The 60 fps means you are shooting at 60 frames per second. The standard is 30 fps, but 60 fps means your action shots and any movement (either by you or by your subject) will appear less fuzzy, more detailed and smoother. Viewers will notice this, even if just subconsciously. For the record, I always shoot in 4k and 60 fps with my iPhone because often it is a second camera for me, with my primary camera being a Panasonic GH5.
- Move and pan slowly. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing is worse than fast or jerky pans and quick spins or turning when watching a video. In fact, it can even make some people nauseous when watching. Focus on moving slowly and steadily when panning or spinning. It takes some practice.
- Sound makes great travel videos. If you are planning to record live ambient sounds – for example, cars, crowd noise, music, birds or rushing water – be sure your microphone is up to the task. See my gear suggestions, above. Beyond live sounds, adding various soundtracks can really spice up a great travel video. Music sets the tone and, properly used, really makes a video. You can download free music from a variety of sources, where you simply need to give the musician and source proper credit. These include Freemusicarchive.org, danosongs.com, and incompetech.com.
We have a great travel photography tips series
Taking travel videos is loads of fun and a great way to capture your trip memories. Travel photos are important too and we’ve got an excellent series to help you learn how to take amazing travel pics. We’d recommend you start with 8 tips to take amazing travel photos with your smartphone camera, 10 simple tips to take better travel photos and then read Photography tips for improving your travel and street scene images followed by 9 top tips for taking amazing landscape photos and finally Tips for eye-catching fall color photography anywhere you travel. Then for more advanced techniques read Learn how to take stunning sun flare and sunburst photos.
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