A gimbal will help to hold your phone steady
A gimbal will help to hold your phone steady

Top tips for creating outdoor films with your smartphone

James Cox
By James Cox
20 minute read

Making a video of your adventures can be a great way to remember your trip. Whether walking, trekking, running, cycling or another favourite activity, the chances are that you’re carrying a smartphone with you and they are more than capable of producing YouTube-worthy films. Here are our top tips for creating better outdoor films on your phone.

Disclaimer: the specific filming and video editing products mentioned in this article are those known to the author. James has no commercial affiliation with the suppliers of the products and has not been paid to endorse them.

Why create short films of your outdoor adventures?

The smartphone in your pocket is a marvel of modern engineering, and most likely contains a very capable camera for both photos and video. With some prior thought, minimal effort during the trip and a couple of evenings’ effort after the trip is over, you can use your smartphone video camera to produce short films of your adventures. These make excellent souvenirs and bring back memories of your travels in a way that still images or random video clips can’t.

Making a video is a great way to remember a day out cycling
Making a video is a great way to remember a day out cycling

You might already have loads of video clips on your phone that you never look at again. There are probably far too many of them; you can never find the one you want and they don’t give you a coherent view of your trip. Eventually they simply become lost in the mass of photos and video clips we all have on our phones.

To make the most of your videos, you must be willing to edit them together into a short film that tells a short story of your trip and then delete the clips you don’t use. This story is the key, with a good narrative you’ll be able to gain and hold the interest of others, and show them your trip in a way that will engage your viewer.

Like all good stories, it should feature the adventures of a hero (most likely you and the people on the trip). It should have a beginning, middle and end, and proceed from one to another via a series of incidents along the way.

How to tell a story in video

One starting point for your film is to think: why? Why am I doing this, why would anyone care? The answer to that question will trigger in your mind the sort of images that you want to capture.

Once you decide why, remember to show people what is happening rather than telling them. If black clouds roll in and it starts to rain, show that: show the clouds building, the rain, people donning waterproofs, the raindrops landing in puddles or dripping off stones. Don’t simply narrate to camera that after 20 minutes on the route it rained and everyone had to put on their jackets.

Don’t forget to add human interest. Expressing your emotions and those of the people around you can add a compelling dimension to your narrative. All my favourite YouTube artists give something of themselves in their work. And the more difficult the trip or the worse you feel, the more compelling the video will be afterwards.

Think about your shots and subjects

For every shot you take, think: what is the subject of this shot? Think about what you are pointing at and why, and take a shot that exemplifies this. In general, you won’t move the camera to look at something else, so think, point, shoot, stop, repeat.

In order to tell your story, you need to collect a selection of different shots covering the incidents that occur on the trip. In the edit stage, you can assemble the library of clips into a coherent story.

Taking a close-up shot of the bike
Taking a close-up shot of the bike

Whenever I get my camera out, I use the mantra “wide, medium, close, b-roll”.

  • Wide shot: stand away from the subject to give plenty of space around it. Also known as an establishing shot, this shows the audience where the action is happening.
  • Medium shot: stand closer to the subject. This allows more details of what is going on to be shown
  • Close-up shot: right up on the subject. If it’s a person, you’ll be close enough to capture facial expressions. If it’s an object, you’ll be able to see details and texture.
  • B-roll: a selection of random subjects in the vicinity that you might use later to fill in gaps in your narrative.

You need to fit all this around actually taking part in the trip to you doing. This usually means taking out the smartphone and taking a few hurried shots as and when the opportunity arises. If you’re with others, they won’t appreciate frequent film stops or re-takes of messed up dialogue or shots.

How to edit your smartphone video

I find it easiest to edit my videos on a PC. I transfer the clips from my phone using a USB cable and the phone’s transfer app. My PC gives me access to plenty of disk storage, a large screen, a comfortable chair and headphones.

I use the paid-for edition because filmmaking has become a hobby in its own right, and some of the editor’s advanced features such as noise reduction, advanced stabilisation and automatic colour matching between different clips are only available in the paid edition. But you can get started for free.

What is the best video editor to use?

I use the paid edition of Davinci Resolve on my PC. The free version is fully capable of making excellent videos. It takes longer to learn to use than more consumer orientated products; the paid version offers me certain colour advanced tools that I find indispensable. I have previously paid for Pinnacle Studio and found it easy to earn and use, but eventually outgrew it.

On Mac, I would get started for free with iMovie and pay for Final Cut Pro. On my iPhone and iPad I use Lumafusion; iMovie is available on these devices for free and is great for getting started. Sadly I don’t have experience with Android editors.

I avoid subscription-based editors because they demand annual or monthly fees. The tools mentioned above are all single purchase, or free, with no recurring fees. I also use a paid-for editor on my smartphone so I can edit clips together when I am on the go. There are many smartphone editors to choose from, ranging from free to dozens of pounds.

All editors offer the following facilities:

  • A gallery view where you can see a thumbnail image of each clip in the collection
  • A “timeline” where you can assemble the sequence of clips into the sequence you want
  • A facility to trim clips to the length you want
  • A means to change the sound volume of the clips
  • Ability to add sound effects and music tracks
  • A tool to “produce” the final version of the video in common video formats.

You need to spend some time learning how to use the particular editor you have. Once you know the basic facilities of your editor, the only way to make better films is to make films, learn how to improve, then make some more.

A Video Editor Lets You View and Assemble Your Video Clips Into a Film
A video editor lets you view and assemble your video clips Into a film

What style of film should I create?

I have two styles of films that I make:

  • A sequence of clips strung together over some music.
  • A proper story with beginning middle and end composed from wide, medium and closeup shots.

The first of these is dead easy. I do it when I was rushed during filming or hadn’t really thought about what I was doing, but still wanted a nice postcard from the trip. All you do is collect the clips, edit them to between three and five seconds in length, assemble them in a pleasing order and add music.

Beach holidays and skiing holidays work well with this format and editing doesn’t take too long. The possible downside is that only you or the people you were with will watch it.

The second type, the considered film, takes much longer to edit, but is ultimately far more rewarding. Find the set of clips that illustrate the beginning, middle and end of your trip. Use the wide shots to establish each scene, the medium and close ones to tell the story of the incident and your b-roll clips to fill in any gaps.

To keep the narrative moving, you generally need to use clips of between three and five seconds long, but of course you need to be flexible in your approach. This is where the time is consumed whilst editing, making everything just right. If I am rushing, a 1½ minute film will take a long evening to complete, whereas my 15 minute film of a cycle ride around Scotland’s north coast took me over 30 hours to produce.

Important technical aspects to consider when making a video on your mobile phone

The camera on your smartphone will have some settings you can control, so some of these are described here, as is the thorny topic of music licensing.

Should you shoot your movie in landscape or portrait?

When you watch programs on TV, the screen format is always landscape. If you are going to the trouble to make and edit a film, always make sure you shoot with your camera held in a landscape position (i.e sideways) so that the video you shoot is wider than it is tall.

Holding your phone vertically to shoot video has a place, and that place is Instagram. If you’re using a video sharing site or going to watch your film on the TV or laptop, make sure it is in landscape format.

What resolution is best for mobile video?

This says how big the images in your video will be and give you an idea of the video quality. You may have heard of HD, 1080p or 4k. HD means high definition, and refers to the image quality on any TV produced since about 2010.

There are a number of flavours of HD, and my recommended setting is 1080p. This means the images recorded will have a size of 1980 by 1080 dots or pixels. Images recorded at this resolution will look great on phones and tablets, and still be very good when viewed on a TV.

You may have a recent TV that says it is 4k, which uses four times as many picture elements as 1080p, and you may be impressed by the superb image quality possible. The downside is that files you create in 4kwill be huge, taking up a lot of computer power to edit successfully. For this reason I recommend 1080p.

What frame rate should you use for filming?

I have no specific recommendation, but if you are mixing video clips from different cameras or phones, make sure all are recording at the same frame rate. It stops the image looking jumpy, which occurs if some clips have their frame rate converted by your video editor.

The frame rate says how many images a second are recorded by your camera. Most smartphones will automatically set this to 30 frames per second, which is fine. In the UK and Europe (and if your phone supports it) you might choose to set it to 25 frames per second. In some circumstances, a 30 frames a second video will look jumpy and less smooth when played back on a UK or European TV.

If the phone allows, some people choose to double the frame rate to either 50 or 60 frames a second. The benefit is that the video seems to provide a more intimate experience, particularly when people are shown or someone is talking. It certainly has a different look, which you might find pleasing. The files produced are bigger and your video will be very noisy in low light. I have recently started experimenting with this frame rate.

I suggest you ignore those who say you must set it to 24 frames a second because that’s “more cinematic” or “its what Hollywood uses.” I can’t tell the difference between video shot at 24, 25 or 30 frames (except occasionally when 30 frames a second video looks jumpy on my UK TV).

What's the best aspect ratio for mobile phone video?

The aspect ratio says how wide an image is relative to its height. The most common format used on phones and TVs today is called 16:9, and is generally the shape of your TV screen. In general there is no need to change this.

Does your mobile phone have image stabilisation?

Many recent smartphones have built-in image stabilisation. This is a combination of mechanical and electronic techniques that the camera uses to remove the jitters and shakes that handheld shooting adds to your video. Usually, you should make sure the facility is turned on.

Adding music to a smartphone video:

You should always license any music that you use. However if you are editing a video to show on your own smartphone or PC, in practice you won’t always.

It becomes more complicated if you want to share your music on YouTube or similar sites. You can:

  • Use one of the music tracks that YouTube or other sites specifically provide for use in your video. These will be licensed for you to use, and no adverts or notices will appear in your video. The drawback is there are not many of these tracks. I don’t like it when I hear the same YouTube free music tracks used in different videos on different subjects; it draws me away from the story and instead I think about the other videos that used the same track.
  • License a track from one of the specialist providers. There are many sites that offer the ability to purchase or license music to use in your video, and there will be no copyright issues when you then upload your video. The downside is cost, but the upside is that no one else uses the same track as you.

Tips for increasing your smartphone video production values

One of the joys of filmmaking is the infinite variety of films you can make, and the vast number of improvements you can make to the quality of your output.

The story is the most important thing about what you will create, but if you can tell a story that also looks fantastic, you will draw immense satisfaction from it and other people might care to watch it too. Here are some tips to help you increase your production values:

What's the best camera app to use for making video?

I have an iPhone and the built-in camera is very good, but you shoot video the way that Apple tells you. One annoying habit of all built-in camera apps is that they will change the exposure and colour balance mid shot. This can lead to annoying colour and brightness changes during the clip which can be distracting and looks bad.

To solve this, I use an app called Filmic Pro. It is not cheap to buy, but it gives you control over all the settings mentioned previously. Additionally, you can tell it to lock the exposure and colour balance at the start of the shot to avoid the problem of colour and exposure changing during it. The resulting video looks much better.

Hold your camera steady:

The steadier you can hold your camera, the better your results will be. If you are just handholding your phone, try to hold it in two hands and tuck your elbows into your body to improve stability.

The steadiest results will come from putting your camera on a tripod, although using one throughout your trip may not be practical. A mini tripod will help; it makes a good hand grip for your phone and you can stand it on something to take a steady shot.

A gimbal is a device that uses sensors and motors to even out the jitters you introduce by hand-holding your phone. Attach the phone to the gimbal and turn on the gimbal: it holds your phone steady. They give much better images that handholding your phone. The downside is that it is more weight to carry and it’s another electrical item that you need to keep charged up.

How to improve the sound quality of smartphone video:

As important as image quality is sound quality. The microphone on your camera will pick up any sound it hears and is very susceptible to wind and background noise. Wind noise occurs as the wind blows over the hole of the phone microphone, making a roaring sound on your video out of all proportion to the wind speed you remember.

An External Microphone Will Improve Sound Quality
An external microphone will improve sound quality

If you use your phone’s built in microphone, you need to be within three feet or one metre of someone speaking to get good results. Try to shelter it from the wind as much as possible. If it is very windy with no shelter, the results of trying to record someone speaking will likely be unusable.

To really ramp the sound quality, there are many low cost external microphones available for phones. If you will be the only speaker, consider getting a lapel mic (also known as a lavalier). This plugs into your phone and clips onto your shirt near your neck. It lies close to your mouth and picks up your voice in preference to noise and wind.

Another choice is a mini directional microphone (also called a mini shotgun microphone). These can be used to record someone else speaking. They prefer to pick up sound from the direction they are pointing and can give excellent results.

In both cases, using a foam jacket, or even better, a hairy cover over the microphone (called a deadcat), will considerably reduce any wind noise.

Consider using colour matching/grading:

Each time you shoot a clip the camera will make a slightly different decision about the scene, so your clips will have a slightly different brightness and colour feel to them. When edited together, these differences can be jarring.

Colour grading is a technique that solves that problem, allowing you to make them look the same. You need to have shot your clips with a setting called “log” or “flat colour” in order to make that work effectively. Discussion of this vast topic is beyond the scope of this article.

Why you should never use your zoom for video:

Your camera may have a zoom function, but don’t use it while recording. You almost never see a shot in a film or documentary where the lens zooms during the shot. You might be tempted to zoom as a means of bringing your subject closer.

Most phone cameras will use digital zoom, which means the camera takes part of the image and electronically expands it, often with a noticeable loss of image quality. In general, use your legs as the zoom. Keep the camera unzoomed and walk closer or further from your subject to get the framing you want.

Add a few seconds pre-roll and post-roll:

When shooting your video, start the recording a few seconds before you’re ready, and keep it running for a few seconds after you are done. This will make editing easier, and reduces the risk of cutting off anyone’s first or last words.

Case study: filming a wintery hike in La Dôle

In February 2020 I was lucky enough to visit my brother in Geneva and we made a snowy hike up La Dôle, a peak in the Swiss Jura. I was travelling light and only had my smartphone with me. I started thinking: “why film this.” The answer is that mountain days with my brother are lovely and rare things and I wanted to capture the essence of that trip in a film. The audience is my brother and me, so I didn’t have to try too hard to make it interesting to the audience. At the start in the car park, I shot a few clips of what I could see, filmed a small piece to camera saying what we were doing that day and shot some clips of packing up and leaving.

The first incident occurred when we reached the snowline and stopped to put on snowshoes. I shot some clips of snow shoes being unpacked, feet going in, things I could see at that point, and finally a clip of my brother in his snowshoes continuing the journey.

The second incident was when we came to a stunning view of the Alps above Lake Geneva. We stopped for a snack. I recorded the views, my and my brother’s reactions to the scenery, and some shots of my brother walking away from that spot.

The third incident occurred when we encountered a sign giving contradictory directions: two arrows in opposite directions indicating the same place. My brother explained the “problem” in a piece to camera and I illustrated it with some clips of the objective, the contradictory sign and my brother heading in one of the directions offered.

When we reached the summit, we had something to eat and enjoyed some stunning views. It was windy there, so there was no point trying to say anything to the camera. I recorded a number of shots of the view, items seen at the summit and the pair of us reacting to the views. On the return leg, the only incident was crossing some steep snow slopes. Nothing else “new” happened on the way down, so I finished filming with a clip of my brother approaching some cars and me doing a piece to the camera.

All in all, I spent less than 10 minutes filming the trip, leaving me with plenty of time to engage with and enjoy the trip itself.

Editing it together was pretty simple, as I had about 30 video clips to choose from. I put them together largely in the order they were filmed to recount the sequence of incidents, using some of the b-roll clips to fill in gaps or to break up shots that were too long. I shot the clips using “flat colour profile” in the Filmic Pro app, which meant I was able to match the clips to each other to take out any jarring colour changes. This can be challenging as I am colour blind, but the paid edition of Davinci Resolve has an artificial intelligence colour matching tool that helped me out.

Some of the clips were quite shaky, so I also applied some stabilisation using the video editor. Finally, as it had been windy most of the time, I set the video to a music track I bought from Musicbed. This is one of many suppliers of music tracks that you can use on YouTube without encountering copyright problems. I uploaded the video to YouTube. It doesn’t attract any views because it is too specific; a couple of chaps walking up a hill in Switzerland isn’t going to go viral. But that doesn’t matter. My brother and I enjoyed the day, and I enjoyed making the video. I work away from home a lot and wrote this article over some evenings from my hotel room. Watching this video again for the article reminded me of the lovely trip I made with my brother.

Where next?

We have only skimmed the surface of smartphone filmmaking in this article. The best place to look next are the well-established video sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. These have hundreds of video tutorials, of varying quality, on how to make films. There are also many books and courses on the subject; I have read The Digital Filmmaking Handbook by my friend Mark Brindle and also How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck by Steve Stockman.

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