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Getting Started With iPhone Video Apps

By Tom Khazoyan

I have been developing training for beginning filmmakers using mobile devices so I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and experimenting with video apps for the Apple iPhone. What follows is my attempt to capture some impressions of some of the key video camera apps for the iPhone to give you a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. I hope it’s helpful to you as you are engaging in iPhone filmmaking.

As I discuss the apps below, I’m looking at ease of use and manual controls as well as image quality. Basically, you need a camera that will let you control key functions of focus, exposure, and white balance to get a professional image. All of the apps reviewed give you this capability, but they have different ways to get there.

Let’s start with my current set-up; I’ve got an iPhone 4S, 32GB memory – standard stuff. The camera apps I’m looking at today are:

–       Apple Camera

–       FiLMiC Pro

–       CinePro

–       almost DSLR

–       Super 8

–       iSupr8

I picked these apps by recommendations on various blogs and searching the App Store. They are all inexpensive and capable. Some have paid add-ons to extend their capabilities.

Apple iPhone Camera

The ‘stock’ iPhone camera does a great job for basic video capture. It has the advantage of being accessible instantly from the home screen with one swipe. It has good image quality, and records 1080p video natively on the iPhone 4S (and above). However, it lacks the manual control necessary to make it a tool for serious filmmakers. It is possible to lock exposure, focus, and white balance, but only to one point on the frame. There are no options related to frame rates, data rates for capture, or resolution, so Apple leaves the door open to third-party developers to take on a more serious filmmaking app.

FiLMiC Pro

FiLMiC Pro is billed as the most professional camera app available. What they have accomplished is a very clean design and a well functioning app with a deep level of user settings. It is easy and quick to use, gives excellent quality video, and is well supported for iPhone filmmakers.

FiLMiC Pro has a few buttons on the home screen that allow you to lock or unlock focus, exposure, and white balance. You can choose single or dual reticules to separate focus from exposure. There’s also an audio meter on-screen but without any manual adjustments it is only to make you feel good that you’re getting a signal. Deeper user settings allow changes to the data rate of captured video (16 Mbps-48 Mbps), the resolution (480×360 up to 1920×1080), and frame rate (1-25 fps, and 30 fps). This app is the only I’ve seen that allows for uncompressed audio capture, but I would check with your editing workflow as some desktop apps don’t allow PCM audio embedding in their .mov files. (At least one popular consumer-level editor gave me problems until I re-encoded the audio.) There are other features such as an on-screen slate, framing grids, GPS location, etc. that are helpful, but aren’t as crucial to me.

All-in-all, FiLMiC Pro is an excellent tool for serious iPhone filmmakers and video enthusiasts. Image quality is good and it handles 1080p shooting with ease.

almost DSLR

This is an interesting hybid app that combines still image and video capture, much like the Apple Camera. However, almost DSLR adds a wealth of features and is highly customizable. It has selectable video resolution (480p, 720p, 1080p) and frame rates (1-30 fps in one fps increments). Because it can also shoot still images, there is flash control, a self-timer (w/intervalometer), and a remote control link to other devices. You can choose to hide all of the still image functions to create a more simple control panel.

My favorite thing about shooting with almost DSLR as a video camera is its manual controls for exposure and focus. You can set these functions to be locked normally and then reset their values by tapping on the screen. Mine is set to single-tap on your desired subject to set focus and double-tap where you’d like to reset exposure. Other apps force you to unlock and then relock. I find this system to be quick and responsive. Because you can customize the interface, you can keep as little or as much information on the screen as you’d like, and choose colors for buttons and text. I have to say that it feels like it was designed by an engineer with all of the options and screen design, but with the customization, it is very clean. There is no ‘analog’ audio meter, but there is a heads-up-display with exposure and audio level information it you want it. It’s too small and it’s just text, so it’s not much use while shooting, but it’s there if you want the data.

Almost DSLR shoots fine video without dropped frames at 1080p. It’s really a toss-up between this app and FiLMiC Pro in terms of being my favorite. I prefer almost DSLR’s focus and exposure controls for on-the-fly shooting. It does lack the data rate settings of FiLMiC Pro, so if you are interested in very high data rate footage, then FiLMiC Pro would be your choice. Almost DSLR shoots footage in the normal 21 Mbps range by default.

CinePro

CinePro is another video-only app with some features that make it unique in this bunch.  It has all of the frame rate and data rate and resolution controls of the FiLMiC Pro and a pretty clean interface design. It splits the difference in manual focus and exposure controls with a reticule option for exposure and a tap-to-set exposure option. Both work well, but you need to remember what you’re doing and be sure to unlock and then re-lock the settings. It’s a bit slower than almost DSLR for that reason.

CinePro adds a couple of camera features that I’m still playing with. One is a lens selection option. Of course, there is only a fixed focal length lens on the iPhone 4S, so everything is done digitally. However, you can choose different 35mm equivalent lenses from the main screen. I should say that the basic focal length, 32 mm, is a bit wider on this app than the other default focal lengths. I’m not sure why, but it gives you a bit more, about 3mm in my estimation. If you aren’t too picky, you can probably choose up to an ‘80mm’ lens without the picture looking very pixilated. Any higher and the picture really doesn’t hold up, but that’s not the app’s fault. So you do get a little to play with. The other apps don’t ‘zoom’ at all.

CinePro is the only app that offers many different aspect ratios for filming (i.e. 16:9, 4:3, 1.85:1, 2.40:1). ISO control is also a unique feature of CinePro. You can lock the ISO of the camera with a range between 100-1600 ISO in five steps. I like the idea of this because I’m certain the normal mode for the Apple Camera is to act like most consumer devices and use a combination of gain and electronic aperture to control exposure. If I’m shooting with sufficient light, it would be nice to lock a lower ISO to get less noise in the picture. I have not done any controlled tests between these apps but I like the idea of locking ISO.

Finally, CinePro offers an in-app filter set which you can apply either while shooting or post-filming. These range from B&W to various forced color effects, some ‘pro’ filters like a ProMist imitation, etc. These are available as in-app purchases in packs of 6 filters each. You can see and adjust the filter effects in-camera. Some filters are too CPU-intensive to work while filming in 1080p but I would always recommend post-processing so you can take your time after shooting to dial in your effects.

That brings me to the problem I’ve had with CinePro (v 1.4.2). Try as I might, I am not able to get the app to capture full 1080p video without dropping frames at 24 or 30fps. My files always have visible dropped frames and the information on the files shows odd frame rates on playback in any player or edit software. It is solid at 720p. I’m hoping for an update fix for this and I’ll update this post if it is solved. That being said, most users really don’t need to shoot 1080p video, especially if the end product will be distributed on the web. 1080p is nice, but you can tell a great story at any resolution. I would consider saving the data and shooting at 720p without much hesitation. In that case, CinePro is worth a look for its unique feature set.

Special Effects Camera Apps

OK, I don’t know what else to call these last two, but they are fun and useful. They are both Super 8mm film imitators but with very different aims.

iSupr8

With all of the fads in processed still images (Hipstamatic, Instagram, etc.) there had to be a more serious tool for iFilmmakers to create ‘vintage’ footage. iSupr8 is an app that lets you shoot and process footage with the vintage film look, but at resolutions and with control that makes it useful for professionals. It starts by letting you shoot up to 1080p original footage (1080p Super 8??!!). Then it uses an in-app purchase system to buy different looks. These range from imitations of famous B&W and color film stocks (with tweaked names like SuprChrome and Prime-X) to popular looks like a bleach-bypass process. The parameters of each ‘stock’ are adjustable so you can dial in the right look for a vintage, but tasteful feel. In the right hands you can likely use this app for music videos and indie films that need the look, but without the expense of the real thing. [I still have a Super 8mm camera but the stock and processing and transfer costs are sky-high nowadays.] This is not a novelty app, but a tool that aims to help you add something unique to your toolkit.

Super 8

This app is really a very cool ad for a movie, “Super 8” by Paramount Pictures. The film has been out for a while, but the app remains available for download. Basically, Super 8 lets you shoot footage with a variety of bad home movie looks, then ‘develop’ the film and upload it for your friends. The app has a fun interface that imitates a Super 8mm camera body and case and cartridges. You can add things like scratches, vignetting, light leaks, and camera shake. I have had fun with it, but it is only useful for some fun clips on the web. It won’t do HD and the uploaded files are highly compressed. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t make some deeply moving art film with it. (Anyone remember the Fisher-Price PXL-2000?)

Both of these apps work from the home movie paradigm that suggests auto focus and exposure are desirable. So don’t expect manual controls. But you do get a frame rate adjustment in iSupr8 as well as a choice of resolutions so your footage will be hi-res, even if it looks like junk!

Conclusions

I really have to say I’m excited to see video apps that have features to let me use my iPhone as a real tool. I believe in mobile technology, especially if it enables more people to tell visual stories and to tell them well.

I have not yet settled in to using one of these apps exclusively, though I would pick one per project rather than switching around. The footage from these apps looks very similar, as you’d expect from using the same hardware. You will likely discover subtle differences in look, noise, etc. But I’ve mainly focused on usability. FiLMiC Pro has a justly-deserved reputation as a ‘pro’ tool. I think almost DSLR is equal to the task, as is CinePro (if you’re shooting 720p). I have shot some comparison footage and I’ll try to get that up on a new page soon so you can see actual comparisons.

I will also be working on an accessories review with the Phocus mount/lens system and other tools I find useful for iPhone filmmakers. I hope this information is helpful; I’d love to hear gracious feedback.

(rev. August 31, 2012)

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