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iPhone 4: Shooting & Editing Music Videos

Tips & Techniques By JG Harding
Published December 2010

Apple's iMovie may be designed for making slideshows of snapshots and holiday videos, but what's to stop you thinking outside the box?

iPhone 4: Shooting & Editing Music Videos

Shooting a video for your band or solo project need not involve spending a lot of cash on gear or spending a lot of time learning video‑specific terminology and techniques. Depending on what you want to achieve, you may now be able to make a promotional video using a mobile.

That sounds far too good to be true, right? Yet video technology has advanced to such a degree in recent years that a number of mobile phones are capable of shooting video at HD resolutions, and some of these handsets are capable of carrying out basic editing and titling.

Having recently upgraded to an Apple iPhone 4, I was eager to explore the possibilities opened up by the 720p video recording, as well as Apple's iOS iMovie App. Since I'm accustomed to using both 'prosumer' and some lower‑end professional equipment, creating a project like this was something of a departure from my usual processes. I suspected that giving up full manual control would be a pretty difficult pill to swallow. Once you get used to having control over focus, exposure and lighting, your ideas begin to form in such a context.

Play To Your Strengths

So why on earth would I want to try such a thing when I have nice cameras and lenses at my disposal? Well, for a start there are plenty of times when the opportunity to record a great piece of footage arises and I don't happen to have an HD camera, tripod, shoulder support, lights and all the rest to hand! In fact, I'm only likely to have all of the above if I've planned a shoot meticulously and have a very specific goal in mind. Sometimes, lovely as it is, all that gear is just overkill.

Having a mobile that's capable of high-definition video capture is great for shooting a performance as and when its happens, but it's only now, when such devices are capable of editing the video footage they capture, that we can think of doing more.

iPhone 4: Shooting & Editing Music VideosWhile there have already been quite a few high‑profile videos created with the iPhone 4, all of those I've seen at the time of writing have been edited using a 'proper' NLE, and heavily colour‑graded and post produced, usually with plenty of noise reduction, too. What I was more interested in is how much you can do with just a phone, not importing the footage for editing, and using no noise reduction or colour correction at all.

The Making Of...

Having such a tiny sensor (See 'iPhone Camera Vital Statistics' box), the iPhone 4 would not be the best low‑light camera, so outdoor shooting would be a wise choice! With no access to multi‑layered editing, either. I'd have to rely on a single audio take for the audio, or import a separate file. So I got in touch with singer-songwriter (and bassist for Atticus Black artist Sometimenever) James Page, and asked if he could send me an MP3 of a track that he'd be happy to lip‑sync to.

A week later, I arrived at the wonderful Sarm studios in Notting Hill, London, where James was recording. The engineer on hand kindly lent us their roof terrace (while Ian Brody lent us a Gibson J200!) for half an hour, so we could shoot a few performance takes and cutaways with nothing but a phone.

Video recording mode has a simple layout. The point of focus and exposure is controlled by touching the part of the picture where you want it to be.Video recording mode has a simple layout. The point of focus and exposure is controlled by touching the part of the picture where you want it to be.The iPhone 4 controls exposure and focus automatically but, cleverly enough, you can touch the screen at any part of the picture and the phone will attempt to focus on and correctly expose that part of the image. Simple as this system is, it can actually be used to pull focus from one object to another and create interesting exposure tricks. It's also possible to create flashing transitions simply by covering the lens for a while and swiftly removing your finger. The camera will fade from pure white to correct exposure, and you can trim the clip to start at pure white for a nice transition into a shot.

James played the track out loud using his own mobile and played and sang along, while I took one continuous take from a still position (resting the phone on the arm of a deck chair) and a few more while moving around and getting some different angles. For each take I made sure not to stop recording. That way I could use the audio to match up with the MP3 I was going to use in the final edit.

Opening a video in the standard photo library allows you to trim your clips down very simply.Opening a video in the standard photo library allows you to trim your clips down very simply.The focus range of the iPhone 4 is from around 6cm to infinity, so for cutaways, getting in close will make the most of the lens. The closer you get, the more likely it is that you can create a shallow depth of field. I was actually surprised at the phone's ability to throw the background out of focus when close to a subject, an uncommon trait for such a small sensor. You won't be able to get a softly blurred background when shooting an interview, for example, but your cutaways and close‑ups can look rather nice.

Keeping the iPhone still enough while shooting is very hard, not only because the CMOS rolling-shutter effect (also known as the 'jello' effect) exaggerates camera shake in an unnatural way, but because the device is not designed to be held still like a camera. The iPhone's slim profile is great when it comes to fitting the phone in your pocket, but not so good when you want to hold the camera still.

However, by the end of our short session I had come to realise the real benefit of such a portable integrated device: minimal setup time! In the end, I had a tiny window of time in which to capture all the footage I would need, and I was glad not to have to fill lots of it with setup and strip‑down time.

iMovie For iOS

Designed for very simple jobs, iMovie is Apple's consumer editing software, included with the iLife package. Despite being targeted at making montages of holiday footage, it can actually be used to chop together a simple edit in a consumer video format. It has recently been ported to iOS for use on iPhone 4 and the fourth generation iPod touch, both of which use the recent and relatively powerful (in mobile terms) Apple A4 processor. The App costs $4.99£2.99 from the App store. Currently there's no editing software for the iPad, but this is sure to change, and I believe we'll see something like Final Cut Express appear on future models.

When inserting a clip, all of the video recordings in your library are displayed as previews (above), while audio can be taken from the iPod library (right).When inserting a clip, all of the video recordings in your library are displayed as previews (above), while audio can be taken from the iPod library (right).Individual clips can be trimmed before they're brought into iMovie, using the standard photo browser, where both in and out points can be set. It's a simple and efficient system: you simply drag the start and end points with your fingertip and press 'Trim'.

Once you're in iMovie, you choose a 'Theme' to start with, which can have background music and titles. I left the music switched off, as I wanted to use the audio track for James's MP3. You can only use either the theme music or an MP3. If your clips have sound as well, iMovie will mix them automatically, ducking the background music. The titles are all a bit 'cheesy', so I didn't use them. The 'Modern' theme is the subtlest, but the option to have simple, plain text fade in and out would be nice.

VM_Mobile Music Video 04VM_Mobile Music Video 05Arranging clips is simple enough. After you choose to insert a video clip, you are presented with a list of all the recorded video clips in your library, complete with preview frames and lengths. Tap the clip and it drops into the timeline in the nearest available point to the current play position. If you tap the clip once to highlight it, you can view the length in minutes, seconds and tens of seconds, and alter that length by dragging the yellow posts at either end. VM_Mobile Music Video 06Double‑tapping the clip brings up a menu for switching the audio on and off, titling and a location tag. The location tag appears to be of little use, as there aren't a lot of locations listed. The audio switch, however, is very useful for lining up the location audio with the MP3, so expect to be turning this setting on and off quite a lot!

If you decide that a clip isn't right for the edit, you can simply touch and hold it to lift it up, then drag it off the timeline entirely, whereupon it disappears in a puff of smoke.

Editing Limitations

iPhone 4: Shooting & Editing Music Videos

As amazing as it is that you can even think about editing video on a phone, the software has limitations when compared with a traditional NLE. Since there's no timecode to tell you where you are in the sequence, the process of editing is very visual. Also, you can only edit to an accuracy of a tenth of a second, where a true NLE would allow frame-accurate editing (one 24th of a second with this kind of footage), so accuracy is limited.

Pinch-to-zoom (where you touch with two fingers and move them apart to zoom in, and vice-versa to zoom out) helps immensely when making adjustments, and I found myself zooming in as far as I could to synchronise timing, then zooming back out again to make timeline navigation a little less exhausting! While touchscreen navigation is wonderfuly intuitive, the physically small screen size takes a little getting used to.

With only a single video track to play with on the timeline, editing is rather linear. Inserting a clip between two others pushes everything further along the timeline, while in a true NLE you would be able to split one clip using another, slipping and rolling footage either way without changing the total length of the piece. For this reason, it's extremely difficult to go back on a decision, as you'll have to re‑match your timings for the subsequent clips. Forethought is rewarded here!

You can work around this a little, though. Let's say you have a clip in sync with the MP3 underneath, and you want to put a cutaway clip beforehand. Touch the main clip and note the length, then drop in the cutaway and trim it to the desired size. Touch the cutaway and note its new length, then pull the start of the main clip forward by that many seconds. You'll probably find you have to 'pinch zoom' in and out a lot to do this properly, but it should help you keep all the clips in time.

iMovie doesn't play nice with other programs running in the background, as it places significant strain on the phone's memory and processor. At one point, I found playback very choppy, but closing a few background Apps solved the problem. That said, I was able to complete a large part of both my video edit and this article on a train using just the iPhone 4, with iMovie and Documents To Go Premium writing a Google Doc in the background. I think I've forgotten that these pocket computers make phone calls!

Once your edit is complete, you can export it at three resolutions, the maximum being 720p (1280 x 720), the size of the original footage.


There are three options for export resolution: two standard-definition settings and a 1280 x 720  HD setting.There are three options for export resolution: two standard-definition settings and a 1280 x 720 HD setting.

So would I do it again? I'd happily use the phone to make more videos, but I don't think I'd attempt a project in exactly the same way. I enjoyed the challenge and the learning experience, and was quite pleased with the result, but I'd like to try out some of the stabilising devices available. I get the feeling that if you accessorise too much you start to defeat the point of the exercise and may as well use a video camera, so perhaps a mount or tripod would be enough to improve video performance. Also, note that the internal mic is adequate but not amazing, so using it as a sole sound source is not the best idea.

Since making a heavily edited piece is so long winded, it's probably best to either tightly plan how long you want each shot to be or simply not attempt to make a heavily edited piece! You'd be more likely to pull off a successful drama or short film, since you can trim the start and end of a clip and put them in a predetermined sequence, rather than having to keep everything strictly sync'ed to a separate music track.

One key frustration is that if iMovie had two video tracks instead of one, creating a satisfactory edit would be much easier. Perhaps this is beyond the memory and processor capabilities of the device, but with two tracks one could run a performance video on the bottom layer and place cutaways on top, without having to worry about interrupting the synchronisation of the main shot. We'll have to wait and see what Apple come up with next.

I was happy with the final video considering the limitations, but just a few little additions to iMovie would make the whole process a little easier. As it is, the simplicity of the system means that it's necessary to work around serious limitations if you want to create anything other than a simple edit.

It seems to me that dismissing the use of mobile technology for audio and video production is foolish. These devices will soon be powerful, portable computers that simply happen to have a SIMM card slot in the side. Add a large sensor and a lens mount, along with a full NLE, and you eliminate the current distance between camera and edit system. Though the iPhone 4 is not the best tool for making a complex edit, it's great for interviews and other simple videos, and perhaps a simple stabilising mount would be good enough to solve most of the camera-shake issues. I think the experience of shooting and editing like this has given me a little glimpse of the future...  

Accessories For Mobile Video

iPhone 4: Shooting & Editing Music Videos

The mobile-phone accessory market is rather large, and any new Apple product, in particular, is followed by a whole raft of cases, portable chargers and other assorted add‑ons. It's only now that phones are capable of sufficient processing power to shoot HD video and record multitrack audio that we're seeing the emergence of related accessories.

Joby — makers of the ever-popular Gorillapod flexible tripods — produce a number of different 'Gorillamobile' models, designed specifically for holding mobiles steady during photography and video capture. The tripod legs resemble strings of beads, allowing a Gorillapod to be stood like a traditional tripod, or wrapped around available architecture in inventive ways.

Owle make two models of their Bubo video support for iPhone, with one model designed to fit the 3G/3GS and another for the iPhone 4. Both are machined aluminium supports that resemble a Formula One steering wheel, and have four tripod mounts and a screw fitting for attaching wide‑angle adaptors and lenses. The mount has already been used by some inventive types to attach SLR lenses to iPhones for video recording, and looks to be quite a solid solution to the stability issues encountered when shooting with small, light devices. There are also plenty of eBay-only mobile tripods available cheaply, but don't expect the same high build quality.

iPhone Camera Vital Statistics

The iPhone uses a tiny 1/3.2‑inch 5MP CMOS sensor to capture images through a fixed lens. The lens itself has a fixed aperture of f2.8 (which is nice and wide, letting in a good amount of light for its size) and a focal length of about 2.85mm. In photography and cinematography focal lengths refer to how 'zoomed in' the picture is, with higher numbers making the subject larger and closer. Because smaller sensors make images appear cropped (or closer and larger), focal lengths are often expressed in terms of their 35mm sensor (or film) equivalent field‑of‑view, where a 'standard' focal length, close to the view captured by the naked eye, is 50mm. In these terms, the iPhone lens has a focal length of around 30mm, a relatively wide field of view. This wide field of view helps the phone to focus very close up, as well as capture wide landscapes.

Video clips are recorded at 1280 x 720 pixels, using 24 progressive frames per second, which is the same frame-rate that most films run at. They are encoded to the H264 codec, resulting in a nice-quality image, yet a relatively small file size.