The iPhone 4 as a Filmmaking Tool

I was very excited when I refreshed Engadget for the 283rd time on the morning of the WWDC and officially knew the new iPhone would be getting 720p video recording. I knew it wouldn’t come close to our 7D, but it might actually be useful for something. Who knows. So no sooner than I got my “phone” in the mail, I had it covered in gaffer’s tape, attached to our 7D and Steadicam Merlin.

The iPhone 4 has a fixed f/2.8 aperture and a relatively large 3.85mm lens (which seems to be approximately the equivalent of 35mm on a crop sensor or 56mm on a FF). It has an automatic, variable shutter speed between 1/15 and 1/10000; an automatic ISO of around 80-1000; and the sensor is 1/3.2″ and has some new backside illumination tech to capture more photons (although, in low light, it’s still noisy as heck). Oh, and it records 1280×720 footage at 30fps (just like the original 5D Mark II firmware, it’s 30, not 29.97). The bitrate is about 10 mbps (not bad) and the audio is a low mono 66 kbps at 44.1 kHz. Here’s a good article with more comparisons and statistics, if you’re interested.

To adjust the exposure (and focus at the same time) you just tap an object in the frame. It’s pretty handy, I sometimes wish our 7D had a feature like this. You can focus in video mode, even during recording (it pulls focus way too fast to do any racking, though). The auto exposure and focus sometimes kicks in during recording automatically if too much changes in the scene (annoying).

Here’s a quick test I did with Lainey playing with her cat, Hemlock (who used to be so small). Shot and edited completely on my iPhone in the iMovie app:

Day 2, I wanted to really test the quality and see how far I could push the phone so I went out on my own and shot a little Bokake*. I failed. I realized because the rolling shutter is so apparent, you absolutely have to have good stabilization. Any sort of movement that is too rapid causes distortion and it just looks awful. You also need to pay attention to what is going on in a scene. Again, if you move too quickly, the auto shutter and ISO and focus will kick in and you’ll notice it. Day 3, I borrowed my sister. I put on my rollerblades and had her push me at walking speed. Static shots work the best, but eventually I got the hang of it and was able to get some decent moving shots (note the basketball backboard POV shot in the video below). These shots are graded. I figure if I’m to be putting this to the test, I would use it like a normal camera and go through the whole process, CC and grading included. One thing that really helped was conforming the iPhone footage to 24p. 30 fps looks ugly to me, so pretty much anything I shoot on my phone will always be conformed. It’s really subtle slow-motion and definitely helps smooth out the movements a bit.

Please watch in 720p, fullscreen if possible. :)

So, do I believe this is a viable filmmaking tool? No. I think without at least some real control over exposure, you would have to make some huge compromises in the way you tell your story. But that isn’t to say the iPhone is useless in filmmaking. Having such decent quality in your pocket will make it that much easier to frame up shots, scout locations, and even document the process. It’s a great little camera.

Finally, since I had my iPhone connected to my 7D (mostly for added weight), I recorded both at the same time for fun. Please please please take note that I was mainly focusing on the iPhone and didn’t really check the exposure or even the focus in some shots on the 7D so don’t take this comparison to heart. It wasn’t my intention to shoot video with the 7D at the same time, but here it is anyway:

33 Comments on “The iPhone 4 as a Filmmaking Tool”

  • Layton says:

    This is great! glad too see a post again! :)

  • Angelo says:

    Good to get you back blogging ! I am amazed by the quality of a such small -supposed weak- device. Will be a tough time now for the Flip cameras !

  • Al says:

    I think you did very well. A few months ago, I would never have guessed you shot this on a phone. Looks like the footage can take a bit of CC too without looking too shabby.

    • Sean says:

      Thanksya. It’s fun to shoot with, but I doubt I’ll use it for anything serious. Took quite a bit of effort and careful planning/testing to get this quality.

  • Gautch says:

    Did you guys see this at all?

    “shot and edited entirely on an iPhone 4″

    • Sean says:

      I saw the actually short film. Decent quality. The most impressive part was how they managed to ADR the audio. I shot and edited that video of Lainey and her cat completely on my phone, but it’s not as impressive. :P

  • freediverx says:

    Your article mentions the iPhone 4′s camera has an f2.8 lens. The EXIF data on all my photos indicates an f2.4 lens. Which one’s correct?

  • freediverx says:

    Also, you note the max ISO is 1000, but I’ve taken numerous low light photos indicating ISO 2000…

    • Sean says:

      You’re probably right, just looked at the EXIF data of mine and both the front and back cameras are at f/2.4. I got my information from that site I linked to. Although, all my low light shots seem to be ISO 1000. Not sure why.

  • VIdiotEIC says:

    Thanks for the post. VERY impressive; some of the better youTube footage out there… Did you CC and grade the Canon footage?

    Here is the (unfortunate) way I see it. The simple fact that you CAN create a rather impressive piece (albeit time consuming) using a $500 “camera”, and about $2500 in hardware and software means for about $3000 (ya know, about a summer working at BestBuy… then add the employee discount ;) you are a film maker. Web distribution is free (relatively speaking)… so does it spell danger for the motion picture companies?

    Lastly, why not write an app to get better control over the capture parameters of the camera?

    Sorry for the long post.

  • Nat Julian Belza says:

    Hi, there’s a new camera app in the app store that can lock focus, exposure, and white balance separately. It’s called “almost DSLR”

    I bought this app and it’s something that you would never want to miss if you’re in photography and filming if you have an iPhone.

    It can shoot videos at 720p while on the fly adjusting the exposure and white balance separately!. how’s that? :-)

    It just have few quirks. (initial release) It’s probably most photographer friendly app. It runs on iOS4 only, so probably it’s using the new camera APIs. Give it a go guys!.. I totally recommend get it..!


  • Radovich says:

    You did a great job! haha, did you use imoive?(edited completely on my iPhone in the iMovie app) iMovie is a simple, easy to use video editing program that comes free with the Apple operating system (it has no Windows PC version). Despite its simplicity, iMovie offers many of the same features – dropping clips on a time line, cropping them, adding transitions between clips, etc. – as more advanced video editing programs like ifunia(mac PC version) or aneesoft(Windows PC version).

  • pedro says:

    Impresionante. Amazing! I’ve loved EVERYTHING, even the song. It’s great to see creative people like you.

  • RandB says:

    Fascinating. I posted a very simple side-by-side (actually, top and bottom) comparison between the iPhone 4 and the Flip Ultra HD on YouTube.

    Seems to me there are subtle differences, but I can’t say that I would describe one as “better” than the other. They’re both acceptable under certain circumstances. The iPhone’s color seems more vivid, but the whites seem a tad more blown out. And there’s one thing for sure: Though this video doesn’t demonstrate it (because I used the sound from only one of the cameras), the Flip’s sound is MUCH better than the iPhone (although whenever I’m shooting and sound is paramount, I’m never using the cammy’s sound anyway, I’ll use some other “real” mic, record on my MacBookPro and sync it up in post).

    I’m just curious as to your thoughts about the Flip Ultra HD. Check out a couple of my vids on YouTube (, particularly those with my dog Mulligan, which were shot entirely with the Flip Ultra HD (the “Love Story” video in particular was all Flip except for a few still images that were inserted — they were shot with my iPhone). Clearly, the video was shot mostly indoors under less than ideal lighting. I’ve thought of getting an actual HD camera, and am looking for recommendations. Got any low budget suggestions? And if so, give me the 411 on their acquisition media (mini dv, card, what?…and what are the up and down sides to each).

    I have a Panasonic DVX100a, but of course it’s only SD. And I’m not willing at this time to spend comparable $$ on an HD camera. Are there any single chip HD cams worth having? Y’know, mostly for home video, vlogs, and possibly a few things I could shoot to promote my business?

    Very impressed with your skills. Seriously. Y’all have “got it.”

    From an old media guy who loves seeing young people with talent, and wishes he’d have gotten started in video a whole lot sooner. (I’m mostly a radio guy; doing professional voiceover work now. If you ever need a voice, look me up!)


    • Sean says:

      Hey Randy,

      I guess the iPhone 4 and Flip are pretty comparable. I’ve never used a Flip, but I’ve seen lots of footage from them.

      My biggest complaint about these cameras is the lack of 24p and manual control. They’re only useful for shots where the camera doesn’t change position too much and you must always convert the 30 fps footage to 24p (which gives it a slight slow motion effect) — unless of course, you’re okay with 30 fps footage (I am not).

      If you’re looking for a real HD camera, look at the Canon T2i ($600), Canon 60D ($1000), or Panasonic GH2 ($900). Or if you don’t want a DSLR, then go with a Canon VIXIA. They all shoot on SD cards. All new cameras use flash media or hard drives (unless you’re looking at broadcast, they still often use tapes — but it’s an outdated and ridiculous format to record on nowadays).


    • RandB says:


      What are your thoughts in general about DSLR versus video cams?

      Don’t the DSLRs have certain limitations when it comes to video? (And if so, what are they?)

      Do you feel that the technology has advanced sufficiently to enable users to get by without a 3-chip camera under certain lighting specifications? The whole reason I bought the DVX100a a few years ago was not so much for the 24p (I rarely use it), but because it was a 3-chip camera. It was a huge step up for me at the time. And sure enough, within a year or so, the whole world started moving to HD. (Doesn’t it always work that way? LOL!)

      And as for the SD cards, what’s the maximum amount of time you can record on them? Aren’t the cards expensive? And what kind of card reader would I need for my iMacs and MacBook Pro? I’m pretty sure none of them have a card reader built in (they’re all 2-3 years old). It ain’t like the old days of DV tape where you could just archive everything you shoot by stashing the tapes away. How do you archive your material shot? You surely don’t buy new flash cards for every time you fill one up? Or do you? (And yes, I called you “Surely.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. :-) )

      Thanks in advance for your reply. (And by the way, I just bought your iBook, “YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to Climbing the Charts.” Love it! A few of my YouTube vids have mysteriously climbed the charts on their own — tens of thousands of views — but none have ever quite gone “viral.” Would love for that to happen.)

      Oh, and Happy Holidays!


    • Sean says:

      Unless you’re able to spend on a really high quality camcorder (something in the $5-10k range), DSLRs are what you want right now. Their quality is the best thing out there for the price. Their CMOS sensor is built differently than a 3-chip CCD, so it’s hard to compare, but it seems like everyone is moving to CMOS now, even the big camera companies like RED use CMOS.

      There aren’t very many shortcomings of DSLRs except for maybe rolling shutter. The batteries last forever, you can store tons of video clips on a completely inexpensive SD card (we have two 32 GB cards — they were about $50 each). We shoot onto our SD cards and then offload the footage to our computer. For backups, we use external hard drives. For audio, we use a Sennheiser MKH-60, which we plug into a portable Zoom H4n ($400). But if you get a smaller mic, something like a Rode Videomic, you can plug it straight into the DSLR. There’s software to sync your audio now, so recording separately is ridiculously easy.

      Card readers are cheap online. Or you can just use the USB port on your camera.

      Unfortunately, it looks like 1080p is on its way out already. Within the next couple years, more and more cameras are going to start offering 4K resolution. You’ll start to hear the name RED everywhere (alongside Panavision and Arri). Panasonic and Sony will be quick to follow. Then, hopefully, it will make its way down to Canon.

      Happy Holidays to you too! :)


    • RandB says:

      Some of this is not completely unfamiliar territory for me. I’ve been doing professional media work for over 40 years (although mostly audio for radio — inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame a couple years ago, so I know a thing or two about that side of the biz). Started monkeying around with video about 8 years ago, ostensibly to add a revenue stream to my company. I already had a fair skillset in the area of storytelling. And in the process of getting my arms around video as best I could (given my late start), I added a fairly solid, if somewhat rudimentary, knowledge of Avid and Final Cut Pro (wish I had more time to learn After Effects, Motion, etc. — I know just enough to be dangerous). I also subscribe to a couple of prosumer rags like DV Magazine. So I’ve seen plenty of articles on this trend toward DSLRs. But since I didn’t consider myself “in the market” to purchase one, I sort of glossed over it all, never really absorbing more than the basic knowledge that a lot of people are moving in that direction (for reasons I never quite grasped since I never really read the articles). Video, as you know, is a rapidly moving target, and my core focus has been on my voiceover work and audio production (more VO than anything, really). I tell people who ask that I merely “dabble” in video. But there’s a strong attraction to video for me. It is enormously creatively satisfying. (Like I need to tell YOU!)

      When I’ve shot some talking-head, green screen stuff, it’s been mostly with the Flip cam sitting on a tiny tripod on the front of my MacBook Pro, with a word processor like Write Room behind the cam, just above the lens, scrolling with a Magic Mouse, like a poor man’s teleprompter. With the cam slightly below the subject’s head and their eyes focused just above the lens (instead of looking down below the camera), you really can’t even tell that the subject isn’t looking right into the lens. It’s a fantastic, cheap way to work (assuming this style of video is what you need to shoot — in my case, it often is….almost like a personal vlog, although I’ve been doing it for different reasons).

      I’ve often thought that everything would look better with a slightly better camera than the Flip. Honestly, when lit properly, the Flip looks surprisingly good (see the outdoor shots I’ve gotten of my dog). But the 720p claim made by Flip (and, for that matter, by iPhone 4) is a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure it’s actually up-rez’d to 720, not TRUE 720p. Either way, I’m still convinced that moving to something better (y’know, something that shoots true 1080p) might dramatically increase the visual quality of the picture, even if I never use it for anything more than web deployment, like YouTube or putting it up on my own website.

      For the record, whenever I’ve shot these “talking head” videos (like newscaster-style shots), I’ve only used the sound from the Flip as a syncing reference. I’ve actually used a USB mic plugged into the MacBook Pro and recorded sound into a program called Twisted Wave, then synced the video and audio in Final Cut Pro and deleted the sound from the Flip.

      For my actual earn-a-living work, I use a Sennheiser MKH416 mic, known in professional voiceover circles as “the Hollywood mic,” since it’s used in virtually every voiceover booth in LA, along with the fabulous Avalon VT737sp tube pre-amp. So I’m familiar with the Sennheiser shotguns. Great, great mics. (Rode makes one that’s almost as good that I know a lot of video people like.) Although the USB mic I’ve used for these talking head videos (don’t laugh) has been the Blue Snowball. For what I’m doing with it, it’s certainly adequate, although unquestionably not the best mic money can buy (although maybe the best for $99.)

      I had not seriously considered a VDSLR cammie until we began this back-and-forth today. Now you’ve got my head spinning. Haha! I’m off to Best Buy to drool. Probably won’t make a decision right away. Much to ponder. I imagine I might be back to you with more questions later. Thanks, Sean!


    • RandB says:

      I knew I would have a follow-up question or two, and here we go.

      After speaking today with a couple of sales guys at Best Buy and Fry’s, I got some conflicting information (surprise, surprise).

      The Best Buy rep said that if I’m going to use a DSLR for HD video, then I would need “high speed” SD cards, and that to get the high speed variety, I would be spending on the order of $300 for 32 (or maybe he said 64) GB. Clearly this is in variance to what you told me earlier in this thread.

      Then I went to Fry’s, and the fellow there told me that, indeed, I would need “high speed” SD cards to shoot HD video on a DSLR (or, for that matter, to use as backup in the Canon VIXIA, which has on-board memory). But, he told me, the highest grade of SD memory is “Class 10,” and he showed me how you could purchase 32 GB cards for around $50 or $60. This would seem to be in the realm of what you were telling me earlier.

      Is this correct? Is “Class 10″ SD cards what I’m looking for?

      And he said that when shooting video in a DSLR, there is a limitation to the LENGTH of video you can shoot in one take. Is that true? (So it would be fine if shooting “scenes” for a movie, but not so good for continuous action video, like a ball game.) Correct?

      He also said that both the Canon DSLRs he showed me AND the Canon VIXIA both will shoot in 24p as well as 30 (29.97) i. True?

      It looks like I have much research left to do. :-)

      Thank in advance for your thoughtfulness in responding.


  • Marko says:

    ….did you try Almost DSLR app?….you can control everything manually…

  • RS says:

    What did you use to convert the 30fps to 24p?


    • Sean says:

      Just used Premiere. Dropped the 30 fps footage on a 23.976 timeline, right-clicked the footage and clicked on speed, then set to 80%.

  • Marc says:

    You mentioned that iPhone shoots in 30p and converted it to 24p. I also prefer 24p for the “cinematic feel.” How did you convert to 24p?

    • Marc says:

      Nevermind just saw the previous comment. But to clarify what is Premiere and is there a free version?

    • Sean says:

      Premiere is a professional NLE made by Adobe. The CS5 Master Collection is about $2300. There is a student version, which is a little cheaper, but definitely not free. You could look into Sony Vegas, which is much cheaper, but still pretty decent.

    • Marc says:

      Wow $2300 is a lot..professional movie makers must use that program..
      I read somewhere that the iphone 4 shoots you know if that’s true?

      Found it here:

  • Seth Hymes says:

    A friend of mine was in a web series shot completely in iphone4, and i thought it looked incredible. It’s an action thriller, pretty cool:

  • matt says:

    Hey there,

    I thought there were some very cool points in this thread. As an iphone film maker myself I thought someone else might also be interested in The Original iPhone Film Festival.
    I love making films on my iPhone 4 and always thought this community should ban together so I took a year and planned a festival for all of us. please check it out-

  • KFowl says:

    I really don’t get these kinds of test’s where you compare camera images online at a resolution of probably 260×150…

    Blow the iphone and the 7D’s footage up and tell me the iphone still holds up next to the 7D.

  • Tony Natera says:

    Excellent review. Technical yet accessible and extremely helpful. If you do a review of the 4s let me know!