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A guide to shooting high-end cinematic video on Apple’s cheap iPhone SE

Abacus logo Abacus 4 days ago Chris Chang chris.chang@scmp.com
a man riding a skateboard up the side of a road: Once you know the right tricks, shooting cinematic video with an iPhone SE is easy. (Picture: Hugo Lee) Once you know the right tricks, shooting cinematic video with an iPhone SE is easy. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

One of the perks of owning an iPhone is the great camera that comes with it. As we've demonstrated before, the iPhone 11 Pro is capable of shooting great-looking cinematic videos. But what if you don't have US$1,000 to spend on a phone?

Fortunately, you don't have to. The recently launched iPhone SE starts at just US$400. Unlike its Pro sibling, the SE only has one lens. But it still shoots high-quality video. So in this guide, I'll tell you the best tips and tricks for shooting cinematic video on Apple's cheapest phone.

Replay Video

BASIC SETTINGS

Beginners don't need any special apps to get started. The default iPhone camera app is perfectly capable of shooting decent video. But first you need to adjust the resolution and frame rate in the camera settings.

a hand holding a cell phone: You can choose different resolutions and frame rates in the iPhone camera settings. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus You can choose different resolutions and frame rates in the iPhone camera settings. (Picture: Chris Chang)

If you're shooting a scene without much motion, choose 4K resolution at 24fps for the best results. If the scene does have a lot of motion, bump up the frame rate to 60fps.

You'll also need to manually adjust the exposure to get the correct brightness for your shots. You can do this by long pressing the focus point on the screen and dragging the exposure slider.

a hand holding a cellphone: The Pro Camera app by Moment is a paid app. (Picture: Thomas Leung) © Provided by Abacus The Pro Camera app by Moment is a paid app. (Picture: Thomas Leung)

If you're an advanced shooter looking for more control over your shots, I recommend Pro Camera by Moment. This app gives you full manual control over ISO, shutter speed, white balance, color profile, video bitrate, and even manual focus. While another camera app called Filmic Pro is more widely used, Pro Camera is more affordable and gets you what you need.

a close up of a phone: You get manual control on settings that the iPhone camera app doesn't provide. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus You get manual control on settings that the iPhone camera app doesn't provide. (Picture: Chris Chang)

One of the main advantages to using a camera app with manual controls is being able to set the shutter speed. For filming cinematic video, the general rule of thumb is to keep the shutter speed at double the frame rate. So when you're shooting at 24fps, the shutter speed should be 1/48th of a second. For 60fps, it should be 1/120th of a second.

Here's a basic checklist to keep in mind when shooting with the default camera app:

Shoot at 4K 24fps for a cinematic lookShoot at 4K 60fps for slow motion playbackManually adjust the exposure by long pressing the focus point on the screen and dragging the slider

And for the Pro Camera users:

Set the video format to H.264Set the video bitrate to high (100 Mbps)Turn on stabilizationSet the shutter speed to 1/48 for 24fps video or 1/120 for 60fpsAdjust the white balance to suit the ambiance

Bonus tip: Pro Camera lets you shoot with a flat color profile. This makes it easier to color grade the iPhone footage to make it look more cinematic.

USE A GIMBAL

a person riding a skate board on a city street: Using a gimbal will give you steadier video. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus Using a gimbal will give you steadier video. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

The built-in image stabilization on the iPhone SE is good, but you'll want a gimbal to ensure your moving shots look as steady as possible to get that epic feel. My favorite gimbal to use with the iPhone is the DJI Osmo Mobile 3. It's affordable and effective.

a screen shot of a computer: You have to turn on Follow Mode in the DJI Mimo app. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus You have to turn on Follow Mode in the DJI Mimo app. (Picture: Chris Chang)

There are many ways to use a gimbal, but here I'm going to cover some basic moves you can easily use to get started. The first one to learn is moving your arm forward and backward. This will let you mimic the effect of a dolly moving toward or away from a subject.

a person holding a cell phone: Moving your arm forward and backwards. (Picture: Thomas Leung) © Provided by Abacus Moving your arm forward and backwards. (Picture: Thomas Leung) Moving your arm sideways. (Picture: Thomas Leung) © Provided by Abacus Moving your arm sideways. (Picture: Thomas Leung)

Similarly, moving your arm sideways will give you a slider shot effect. It's better to hold the gimbal with two hands when doing this, though, as it helps keep the camera steady.

a hand holding a video game remote control: The joystick is useful for tilting and panning. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus The joystick is useful for tilting and panning. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

You can also use the joystick to tilt and pan the camera. This is best used when filming static objects like food and landscapes.

Holding the gimbal like this makes it easier when filming low-angle shots. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus Holding the gimbal like this makes it easier when filming low-angle shots. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

You can also make your gimbal shots look more epic when shooting close to the ground. To do this, you have to hold the gimbal sideways. But keeping the video smooth is a bit tricky, as you have to walk at a steady pace while carefully watching your arm movement.

Sometimes you'll want to use the joystick to tilt the camera up for better framing. This move can result in noticeable shaking, but after some practice, you can get some great results.

TIMELAPSE AND HYPERLAPSE

a group of people walking on a city street: You can connect the Osmo Mobile 3 to a tripod and let the camera roll. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus You can connect the Osmo Mobile 3 to a tripod and let the camera roll. (Picture: Chris Chang)

Creating epic motion timelapse and hyperlapse videos is one of the best tips you'll pick up here. The Osmo Mobile 3 and iPhone SE combo is great for doing both.

One additional thing you'll want for timelapse videos, though, is a tripod. Fortunately, the Osmo Mobile 3 can be mounted on any standard tripod. Then you can open up the DJI Mimo app and start shooting.

a screenshot of a cell phone: Motion timelapse is only possible with the DJI Mimo app. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus Motion timelapse is only possible with the DJI Mimo app. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

Once in the app, you need to go into timelapse mode to set the interval, duration and path. When setting the path, you can choose up to four points, and the gimbal will automatically rotate from one point to another. I typically stick with just two points, which works well for most timelapse shots.

Remember to set the resolution and frame rate for the timelapse video. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus Remember to set the resolution and frame rate for the timelapse video. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

Hyperlapse videos are also done through the DJI Mimo app. Go to hyperlapse mode and set the resolution and shooting speed. I suggest shooting 1080p video with the speed set to 30x, which is as high as the settings allow.

a screen shot of a video game: Hyperlapse on the DJI Mimo app only supports up to 1080p resolution at 30x speed. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus Hyperlapse on the DJI Mimo app only supports up to 1080p resolution at 30x speed. (Picture: Chris Chang)

To capture a hyperlapse video, you need to walk at a normal pace while holding the gimbal as steady as you can. So before you start, look for a clear path to try to ensure you won't be weaving through people or other obstacles. Even a slight shake can ruin a whole hyperlapse video, requiring you to start again.

When you're done recording, the DJI Mimo app will automatically render the hyperlapse video.

a parking meter on the side of a road: You need to hold the gimbal as steady as you can. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus You need to hold the gimbal as steady as you can. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

To try something a little different, you can also mount the gimbal onto a monopod. This lets you shoot from a higher angle, giving you a different perspective. But you need to be careful when doing this in tight spaces to avoid bumping into people or ceilings.

a group of people standing in front of a store: You can mount the gimbal onto a monopod for high-angle shots. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus You can mount the gimbal onto a monopod for high-angle shots. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

SLOW MOTION

There are different ways to capture slow-motion video. The easiest way is the slow-mo mode in the default iPhone camera app, but I suggest you avoid this method if you can because it limits you to 1080p resolution.

The best way to get high-quality slow-mo video is to shoot in 4K resolution at 60fps. Then you can slow the video down to 24fps when editing it later.

a hand holding a cellphone: Slow-mo on the iPhone camera app supports 240fps in 1080p resolution. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus Slow-mo on the iPhone camera app supports 240fps in 1080p resolution. (Picture: Chris Chang)

There's another perk to this: Slowing the video down 40% gives you smoother video with a more cinematic look. This is much better than the super slow-mo look you get from the iPhone setting.

But for the best results, shooting at 60fps requires a high shutter speed. This means you need more light, so the optimal setting is outdoors in daylight to prevent underexposed shots.

ND FILTERS ARE USEFUL

ND filters help to control the exposure, making them useful for shooting outdoors in the daylight. When shooting video, these filters will come in handy when you're using lower shutter speeds.

a hand holding an object in his hand: ND filter is an essential accessory for shooting cinematic video on an iPhone. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus ND filter is an essential accessory for shooting cinematic video on an iPhone. (Picture: Chris Chang)

When you're using a high shutter speed, less light is getting in, giving you darker exposure. So when you're shooting at 60fps with a shutter speed of 1/120, you should be fine in bright settings. But for the more typical 24fps shots with 1/48 shutter speed, the ND filter will balance out the brightness and prevent overexposure.

These filters are also really useful for timelapse videos. If you want to get the motion blur effect, you have to lower your shutter speed. But this will also let in more light. So to protect your motion blur shot from overexposure, you'll want to use an ND filter.

a close up of a cell phone: You need an ND filter for motion blur in timelapse shots. (Picture: Thomas Leung) © Provided by Abacus You need an ND filter for motion blur in timelapse shots. (Picture: Thomas Leung)

Bonus tip: Try using a diffusion filter to get a more organic film-like look in your iPhone videos, helping it look less digital. This helps smooth out the highlights, decreases the contrast and provides a less sharp image.

EXTERNAL MIC

If you need to capture good-quality audio for your video, you're going to need an external microphone. The type of mic you need will depend on what kind of audio you want to record.

a tripod sitting in front of a computer: You need a dongle to connect an external mic to the iPhone. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus You need a dongle to connect an external mic to the iPhone. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

For example, a lavalier mic like the Rode smartLav+ works well for interviews since you can clip it on the person you're talking to. Or if you're a vlogger, you might prefer a shotgun mic like the Rode VideoMicro, which will help pick up your voice when it's facing you from a distance.

Different kinds of mics give you different results. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus Different kinds of mics give you different results. (Picture: Chris Chang)

For the best results, you'll want to watch the audio levels. This is one case in which you'll need Filmic Pro. The app includes audio gain control so you can set the audio recording level that sounds best to you. You can also tweak other settings, including the audio encoding format and the audio sampling rate.

EDITING THE VIDEO

When it comes time to edit your video, you don't need to rely on pricey computer software. Adobe Premiere Rush and LumaFusion are both good apps for editing directly on your iPhone.

a hand holding a cell phone: The Premiere Rush app offers plenty of editing tools that are useful for quick edits. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus The Premiere Rush app offers plenty of editing tools that are useful for quick edits. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

If your editing needs are simple, I recommend starting with Premiere Rush. There aren't too many controls to tinker with, making it user-friendly.

a hand holding a cellphone: On the timeline, you can scrub through videos and cut out the parts you want. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus On the timeline, you can scrub through videos and cut out the parts you want. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

My favorite feature in Premiere Rush is color correction. The exposure, highlights, shadows and color temperature can all be adjusted to get the video looking the way you want. Adjust these settings to give your video a cinematic color tone.

a hand holding a cellphone: These adjustments make it easy to edit the color and exposure of your video. (Picture: Chris Chang) © Provided by Abacus These adjustments make it easy to edit the color and exposure of your video. (Picture: Chris Chang)

But editing videos on your phone can cause some frustration. The biggest problem is the small screen, making it difficult to juggle multiple video files. And the more files you're handling in the app, the more likely it is to crash.

VERDICT

So now you know the best tricks for pushing your iPhone SE to its cinematic limits. But while this affordable iPhone offers great results for the price, remember that it does have its limits.

a close up of a busy city street: Using a gimbal is an easy way to get professional-looking video with the iPhone SE. (Picture: Hugo Lee) © Provided by Abacus Using a gimbal is an easy way to get professional-looking video with the iPhone SE. (Picture: Hugo Lee)

Remember to keep in mind that you have to watch the lightning for your shoots. The iPhone SE's camera is good in daylight, but the image quality starts to degrade in low light. Pulling off great shots with the phone requires some creative use of lighting conditions.

You'll also want to make sure you're changing the color grading on your videos. This is the only way you're going to get a cinematic look with your iPhone videos. To do this, you'll have to remember to shoot in a flat color profile.

Finally, a word about focal lengths: You only have one. This is the most obvious limitation of the iPhone SE. Obviously you'll have more options with the iPhone 11 Pro, which gives you ultra wide-angle and 2x telephoto lenses. But that phone is more than twice the price of the SE.

For the price, though, the iPhone SE can't be beat. And if this is the phone you already own, now you know how to make the most of it for shooting great-looking video.

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