How to turn your smartphone into a better vlogging rig
Smartphones have become increasingly effective at creating high-quality video on-the-go. From high-resolution video modes and ProRes 10-bit video to multiple focal length choices and super-high framerates, there’s little smartphones can’t do on the video front. But just because you have a smartphone in hand and adventure ahead of you doesn’t mean you can’t step up your game to set yourself apart from the competition.
You can just aim your camera at your face, press record and make a pretty decent video – and many people do. However, if you want to make your production as good as it can be, and to make the most of what your smartphone’s camera offers, you might want to think carefully about how you will complement that great visual quality with better audio quality, improved lighting and some form of stabilization.
I’m sure you will have heard that audio is at least as important as the picture quality of your film, so it makes sense for us to start there.
As important as image quality is, a vlog is only as good as the audio you’re capturing alongside your footage. While some smartphone manufacturers have put great efforts into their built-in microphones, the reality is any integrated microphone is going to capture much more environmental sound than you’re probably planning to capture.
Thankfully, microphone technology has come a long way and it’s now easier than ever to rig up a small lavalier microphone or compact shotgun microphone to your smartphone to get improved audio quality that helps isolate your voice.
|The Boya BY-M1 Pro is a simple clip-on microphone that cables directly to your smartphone, providing an audio pick-up much closer to your mouth than the phone’s own mic|
Generally speaking, you have two choices for external microphones when vlogging: a lavalier (lav) microphone or a shotgun microphone. A lavalier microphone, be it wired or wireless, is typically attached to your chest/throat region onto a piece of clothing. Due to its proximity to your mouth and chest, the lav mic will better isolate your voice from the surrounding environment, resulting in clearer audio.
A shotgun microphone also helps to isolate your voice, but is typically mounted to a camera rig (more on those below), with the microphone facing the subject. Through a more focused recording pattern, the shotgun microphone helps to ignore any noise that isn’t directly coming from the subject it’s facing. Since both lavaliers and shotgun mics will get the job done, it comes down to personal preference.
|A shotgun microphone, seen in the above image on the red shock mount, helps keep environmental noise to a minimum without getting in the way.|
If you’re looking for lavalier mics, Mirfak, Rode and Syncho all make wireless solutions that consist of a transmitter and receiver. Using a wireless lav kit allows you to mount the receiver to your phone and transmitter to yourself without the need to hassle with cables. In the case of the Mirfak WE-10, Rode Wireless Go and Syncope P1T kits, all three have microphones built into the transmitter, so you don’t even have to plug in an external lavalier mic if you don’t want to.
|Consisting of a transmitter with built-in clip-on mic and a USB-C receiver, the Synco P1T is a wireless smartphone audio kit that packs away in a neat charging case for storage and refreshment|
If you’d prefer to take the shotgun microphone mount, Diety, Rode and SmallRig all have compact options that can be attached to a camera rig using either a cold shoe mount or 1/4″-20 mounting point. While you’ll need to attach the microphone to your phone via the USB-C and/or 3.5mm audio jack, the cable will be on the camera side of the setup so no cables will be seen in your footage.
The microphone that comes with the SmallRig kit is good, but it is worth noting that its wide receiving arc picks up a lot of environmental sound – which is great when that is important to the vlog, but not so much when you want viewers to concentrate on the voice. Even though the mic comes with a foam cover as well as a dead cat it still suffers in a stiff breeze.a
Just as you would with larger cameras, you’re going to want to make sure your smartphone footage is as stable as possible. Many smartphones have built-in image stabilization, but even with the built-in stabilization, holding a phone at arms-length without a decent grip can get uncomfortable and make for wobbly footage.
|Mounting your phone on a tripod, or a mini-tripod like this one, is an excellent way to avoid shaky footage, but it does mean you can’t move around as much and it can create a bit of a static feel to your film|
The easiest solution is to get a small tripod, designed specifically for smartphones. They typically fold out for sitting on flat surfaces and collapse down to create a comfortable grip to hold at arms-length while shooting. Joby, Manfrotto and SmallRig all make quality options, including some that offer external mounting points for attaching microphones and lights. If you plan on shooting more stand-still footage, it might be worth it to get a larger travel tripod as well, so you don’t need to rely on tables to keep your phone at eye-height while sitting or standing.
|The SmallRig Professional Phone Video Rig Kit comes with a rechargeable light that can be mounted on the phone cage. It has warm and cool color modes, and has adjustable brightness to match the ambient conditions|
Vlogging is usually done with available lighting, due to its run-and-gun style. But if you want to ensure you’re well lit regardless of where you’re shooting, you’ll want to invest in an LED light. Having a light pointing at your face while shooting will help add a little fill light when outdoors and dramatically improve image quality in low-light scenes as your phone shouldn’t have to bump up the ISO as much to capture your face.
There are dozens of options out there from brands small and large, but you’ll want to make sure the one you get fits your needs. As with all lights, the larger the source, the softer the light. So, go as large as you feel comfortable handholding if you are going to get a light. Lights with built-in batteries are preferable, as it leaves fewer cables to manage, but you’ll also want to make sure you know when your light is getting low so you don’t ruin a shot when the battery inevitably gives up.
|Having an on-camera light when filming indoors can make a big difference and help to fill in dark shadows|
A few popular options include offerings from Godox, LumeCube and Aputure, all of whom have credit card-sized LED lights that are perfect for lighting up a compact vlogging rig. Depending on the model you go with, you can usually fine-tune the brightness and color temperature to match your needs.
Holding your smartphone on its own might be enough for your most basic shots, but once you start throwing lights, microphones and other accessories into the equation, you might want a dedicated rig to hold everything in place.
Similar to cages you’ll see for popular video cameras and mirrorless cameras, accessory manufacturers have developed cages specifically for smartphones, sometimes going so far as to making a specific cage for a specific model of phone.
|Mounting the mic below the camera improves the audio with this kit as it puts the mic closer to the speaker’s mouth while the lens remains at eye-level|
While model-specific cages might be nice, if you want something a little more versatile and future-proof, you might want to consider something along the lines of SmallRig’s Professional Phone Video Rig Kit. This $169 kit includes an adjustable cage for your smartphone, a pair of handgrips, a tripod, a microphone and all the cables you need to get up and recording.
The cage has multiple 1/4″-20 and coldshoe mounts for rigging out the various accessories as your specific usecase requires. There’s even an included powerbank holder so you can plug your phone into auxiliary power for times when you’re expecting to be shooting for extended periods of time.
Whether you go with this model or another, the benefit of a dedicated rig is the ability to quickly get your phone up and running as your vlogging camera without having to reattach every accessory every time you want to start shooting. It’s not a necessity by any means, but it’ll certainly make your life easier, especially if you’re going to have audio gear, lights and other accessories connected to your phone.
Always check your framing before shooting. Since you’ll want to use the rear cameras on your smartphone, it can be difficult to get the framing just right without having a monitor to look at. Practice a bit to get used to holding the camera in a consistent position so your head stays within the frame while walking around.
|If you only start to think through what you are going to say after you press the record button it will be very obvious. You will hesitate, stumble, say ‘err’ a lot and talk in circles. Work it out beforehand and practice a bit|
Plan ahead. You don’t necessarily need to write a full script, but do think about what you want to say in your vlog. Get the main theme straight in your head, decide how you will introduce it and figure out how you will conclude the shot. Try to keep to the point and don’t waste the viewer’s time with self-indulgent ramblings—you can be chatty, but keep your message concise if you want people to watch to the end. Pretend you are chatting to someone in a bar or cafe, slow down a little, and try to be relaxed. You will come across more natural. And smile, given it’s appropriate.
Try to avoid a background that is dramatically brighter or darker than the light that is on you, and be conscious of how busy the scene behind you is as it will compete for the viewer’s attention. If you’re in a noisy area, speak up so you can be heard over the environment, and try to keep the mic as close to your mouth as you can. Keep the lens at eye-level or a little higher, but don’t let it look down or up at you. And try to hold the phone still while you record so the viewer doesn’t get motion sickness.
Above all, have a good time and make the most of the technology you have on hand. Happy vlogging!
Disclaimer: SmallRig and Syncho provided test units to use for demonstration purposes in this article.