Stability is a problem with most small cameras, especially lightweight mobile phones. With its handles, extra lenses and mic, the Owle Bubo is designed to add some weight to mobile shooting.
Not too long ago I set myself the task of shooting and editing a music video entirely with the iPhone 4 (SOS December 2010). This experiment was inspired not only by the impressive HD video‑capture capability of the device, but the fact that it is capable of running editing software, in the form of iMovie and Vimeo for iOS.
Despite its limitations, the iPhone actually has a lot going for it as a video camera. It's small, portable and always in your pocket, plus if you're already paying for one over the course of a network contract it saves you having to pick out a new camera! It may only have a fixed lens, but the wide angle of view allows plenty of composition options and close focusing.
One problem when shooting with such a tiny device is that low weight most often equals low stability. Without body‑weight to anchor the device in your hands, and lacking the ergonomic features of a purpose‑built video camera, the mobile is hard to keep steady. Hand‑held footage is prone to some of the most distracting shaking imaginable.
This particular type of shaking can also attributed to the CMOS sensors used in such devices, which scan the image very quickly, line by line and from top to bottom. As a result, moving the camera horizontally during recording will result in a unnatural skewing of the image, also know as the 'rolling shutter' or the 'jello effect'.
Owle hope to solve these issues with their 'Bubo' stability device. Designed to make filming easier with an iPhone 3G, 3Gs or iPhone 4 (with two versions available), it also makes it possible to attach numerous accessories, and comes with a microphone and a two-part wide-angle lens.
The Bubo looks a more like a Formula One steering wheel than a standard tripod! It's milled from a single piece of solid aluminium, and as such feels pretty much indestructible, a great thing considering the reputation the iPhone 4 has for being easy to crack. A silicon case for the iPhone is provided, and after easing the phone into this, you can place it into the Bubo.
It took me a couple of tries to work out the best way to do this: rest the bottom edge of the phone in the indent and press on the top. To remove the phone, push through the cutout on the front of the Bubo. The fit is very snug, and I'm confident it would withstand plenty of movement without the precious phone becoming dislodged. In fact, I gave it a very thorough shaking just to make sure!
There are cutouts in the aluminium to allow easy access to the volume buttons, as well as the 3.5mm jack socket and the charge and sync-cable socket. There's also a cold‑shoe cutout on the top of the Bubo. This is precisely the same shape as a camera's 'hot shoe', which is used to hold accessories like powered flashes and microphones, and so is compatible with many add-ons designed to fit on top of cameras. One such accessory is the clip for mounting a Rotolight RL48, one of which is included if you buy the HD Video Kit (see 'HD Video Kit' box).
In order to maximise usability in confined spaces, the Bubo has a tripod thread on each 'corner' of the device, allowing four orientations. The phone is smart enough to flip the video the right way up, so whichever way you have to twist it to fit into your location, you won't be shooting upside‑down.
One setup tip though: be sure to turn on the 'flight mode' setting before you start filming, so you don't get interrupted by tweets, messages or calls while shooting your masterpiece!
The weight of the Bubo can make a difference to the stability of your footage, particularly with pans and other movements where your feet remain still. It definitely helps with judder when walking with the phone, but since it's not a balance-based system, you won't achieve the 'floating' or 'steadicam' look, and footsteps are still evident.
Like any camera-support system, the Bubo requires a little practice to get the best from it. Gripping too tightly will transfer a lot of your movement to the sensor — think of the difference between a car with soft, comfortable suspension and one with hard, sporty ride. If you want to keep things smooth, be sure to stay loose and allow your arms to absorb some movement before it reaches the phone. The same goes for your grip: a tight grip allows precise control, but also transfers more movement to the footage. The Bubo's biggest advantage, stability-wise, comes from the tripod mounts, which allow any standard tripod to be attached.
The additional wide‑angle lens comes in two parts. The first is a macro adaptor. For those unfamiliar, a macro adaptor is a positive 'diopter', a lens that allows closer focus than is usually available, just like a lens used in glasses for the far‑sighted. This macro lens allows the phone to focus as close as 4cm, which increases the versatility of the device: it's useful for capturing cutaways for editing together in iMovie or the new Vimeo app.
If you want a wider view, a 0.45x wide‑angle adaptor can screw onto the front of this macro lens; this also makes the depth of field shallower when focusing on close objects.
Adding the wide angle lens to the Bubo has a couple of effects, some of which are easier to understand than others. The most obvious effect is that it widens the angle of view, meaning that from a given position your footage will show more of your surroundings than if you don't use the adaptor. This is great for working in confined spaces, or when you're trying to capture something big from a short distance.
The side-effect, given that it's a simple optic with few corrective elements, is that the lens distorts the image to a degree: straight lines become curved. In some shots — such as images of architecture (see image at the bottom of the previous page) — this can quite distracting, while in other shots it's not such a problem.
When using the wide-angle lens, the corners of the image are subtly 'softer' (less in-focus) than without, another side‑effect of an adapted lens system. The fact that the lens focuses more light onto the sensor, coupled with the fact that light is passing through coated optical glass, also makes the image brighter, slightly higher in contrast and a little more saturated than that captured by the iPhone lens alone. Whether you prefer this look or not is a matter of taste.
The macro adaptor brings with it no obvious distortion side-effects, and is extremely useful. While the quality of wide-angle, distant shots is always going to be compromised by the limitations of the iPhone itself, the macro lens provides an excellent way of getting more detail into a close-up without any real down sides. Cutting some macro footage into an iPhone video edit (or indeed any edit) can raise the interest level significantly, as it adds another point of view separate from the main shot.
The mic in the iPhone is designed just for making phone calls (though it can be useful for taking notes) and it's ill‑positioned for capturing decent audio when shooting video. The Bubo's additional mic plugs into the jack socket at the top of the iPhone, hingeing 90 degrees to point in the same direction as the lens. Because the mic is positioned very close to the lens, it's able to significantly improve on the quality of recording compared to the iPhone mic in terms of directivity, even before we talk of timbre or headroom.
Though it's a simple and inexpensive mic, it does increase the clarity of recording a fair bit. The frequency response is very much focused around the 1‑3kHz band where speech tends to sit, and there's not much low end to speak of. Once again, this lends itself very much to interview situations, where voice clarity is of paramount importance.
There was one question that was posed to me repeatedly during my review time with the unit, both by shooters and laymen alike: "Is it worth it just to shoot with an iPhone?” The answer really does depend on whether or not you have an iPhone already, and what you want to shoot with it.
If you own an iPhone and would like to take some relatively simple video, then downloading the free Vimeo app or Apple iMovie gives you a 720p shooting and editing system. Granted, manual control options are limited, but you will be able to shoot and edit footage easily. If you find you like this way of working, then having a Bubo, Rotolight and simple tripod or Gorillapod is a good way of expanding the potential of the device without adding too much complexity or spending too much cash.
There are already plenty of people shooting with mobiles, especially for blogging and interview situations, so for them it's a useful solution. They can use the phone with a tripod for an interview or similar, then trim and edit the clips and upload directly from the device. If you don't intend to run around shooting with the iPhone, then the kit adds quite a few options and expands the usefulness of the phone as a video tool.
Though I've yet to find an alternative iPhone mount that allows the attachment of other lenses, there are alternative methods of stabilisation available. The Steadicam Smoothee is designed for portable devices, and unlike the Bubo, uses a balance system to eliminate 'jello' and shake. It costs £159$180. Using the same method as the Smoothee is the iSteady Shot, which is also adjustable for use with many different devices ,including other phones and Flip pocket video recorders. It costs £179$233 from the US.
The Bubo is available in a package called the HD Video Kit. Along with the Bubo comes a Rotolight RL48A: a 48-LED light powered by three AA batteries, as featured in the Rotolight Interview Kit reviewed in SOS Video Media October 2010. That kit consists of two Rotolight RL48As plus case, filters and stands. The iPhone HD Video Kit includes the case, a clip and the basic filter pack. It's a nice addition to the Bubo, since the iPhone's own LED isn't up to much, and feasts on the battery. The case is also designed to house the phone as well as spare AA batteries and all of the other included accessories.
The Rotolight is a decent tool for close-lighting at distances of around a metre in relatively bright conditions, and can bring a nice lift to interviewees. Especially good are the included filter gels, which can be stored neatly in the back of the light when not in use.
At least one critically acclaimed short film has been produced using the iPhone 4 and a Bubo. Paranmanjang (which translates as Ups And Downs, but has been renamed Night Fishing for Western audiences) is a ghost story about a fisherman. It's the work of South Korean director Park Chan‑wook, who directed the famed Vengeance trilogy, the most popular instalment of which was 2003's Oldboy, winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. The iPhone was used for all of the location scouting, auditions, documenting and shooting of Paranmanjang.
As well as extensive lighting setups and grip work, the production team made use of the Owle Bubo iPhone and a number of adaptors, which allowed them to attach Canon EF lenses to the diminutive device (check the September 2010 issue of Sound On Sound for my earlier coverage of this method).
This does go some way to proving what many established film-makers say: that the format you shoot on is not as important as the story, acting and lighting, and it's quite possible to capture a great story on simple equipment. That said, the total budget for the piece was around $130,000 and was provided in part by KT Corporation, who distribute the iPhone in South Korea. Paranmanjang joins The Commuter as a high‑profile mobile phone movie, the latter being shot using only a Nokia N8 mobile phone. While we're unlikely to see many big‑budget films shot on the iPhone 4, at least it's proven possible, which bodes well for independent film‑makers of the future!
For those using the iPhone for scouting and previsualisation (a term for a draft video) the Bubo is pretty useful. You can record storyboard shots or video clips with greater stability, and also have access to a couple more views than the standard iPhone allows. One viewfinder app, Cinematic Viewfinder, already contains a mode complete with lens simulation data for wide-angle lenses when you're using the Bubo,, allowing you to simulate the point of view of a wider lens.