How to: shoot better videos on your Lumia 950 or 950 XL

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Although I covered something along these lines almost two years ago and, let's be honest, a lot of the basics of video shooting haven't changed much, I wanted to update my feature for 2016 and the much newer devices and their capabilities. In other words, all the best of our smartphone camera video capture tips in one piece, in one place. Hopefully something worth bookmarking and pointing people towards?

Before going into the individual (updated) tips, I also wanted to provide a quick reference table with some 'check before you head out the door' pointers, in terms of avoiding the most common mistakes people make. The pointers are expanded in the main tips breakdown underneath.

[Sorry table-haters, turn your phone into landscape if you can't see the whole table width!]

Scenario Lighting Subject movement Tips and common mistakes to avoid Suggested resolution Stabilisation
Landscape/tourist Usually good None Shoot in short segments, making sure to pan around very slowly, if at all. THE most common mistake is to swing the phone round too fast, making the footage jerky and tiring to watch. Tap to focus on something at the start, to avoid distracting auto-focus 'hunting' artefacts. 1080p OIS plus Digital ON
Family scenes, outdoors or well-lit indoors Usually decent Plenty, distance variable You'll probably have to rely on auto-focus, but the same rule about panning much more slowly than you think you should applies. In candid footage like this, some jerkiness will be expected, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try and keep things as smooth as you can. 2160p/30fps, since you might well want to extract 8MP still later of golden moments. OIS only
Night/party Low, poor Plenty, distance variable Shoot in short segments again (stitching things together later). Right on the limit of what camera phones can do, try not to move the viewpoint at all within each clip and tap on the subject if needed near the start of each clip, to lock focus and eliminate auto-focus hunting in the poor light. 1080p, anything more is a waste, given the amount of low light digital noise. OIS only
Gigs Hugely variable All at similar distance Make the most of OIS to keep things steady, of course, but bracing yourself against a pillar or wall,or even using a small tripod, all help, especially when zooming in with the PureView zoom. Make sure your hands don't block the two rear microphone holes. The flashing lights will confuse the heck out of the auto-focus, so tap to focus on something bright on stage near the start of recording.  720p or 1080p OIS plus Digital ON

Now 'Tap to focus' needs a little explanation in the context of Windows 10 Camera and the Lumia 950 and 950 XL:

  1. By default, auto-focus is always on.
  2. Tap a spot in the viewfinder to lock focus on that object/distance. You'll see a confirmatory 'circle' appear for a second or so. You can then zoom in or out and reframe as needed, and that focus will be maintained.
  3. Tap again anywhere to unlock focus and re-enable auto-focus. If focus is locked again (on the new spot) then you'll see a new circle indicator.

The uncertainty is because the ability to lock focus is very much determined by what you're shooting, what light conditions you're in and how far away your subject is. Most of the time you'll get the 'circle' - if you don't, and just see a brief flashing dot, then it means that auto-focus is back on.

With the emphasis on slow panning of scenes and using 'tap to focus' wherever possible, I took advantage of a family trip out to 'The Making of Harry Potter' and shot some test video, to show the sort of thing I mean. All of this was on the Lumia 950 XL at 1080p and with digital stabilisation turned on:

(as usual, maximise the playback window and switch the quality to 1080p, if it's not already, for best results)

And so, on with the updated article. If you've ever been to an event, whipped out your smartphone and been disappointed later by blurry, jerky, muffled, badly lit footage, then these tips are for you! From light to movement to mundane practicalities, it's all covered below, in the context of shooting using a 'PureView' Lumia 950 or 950 XL.

Shooting every Phones Show on a phone, I've a fair amount of experience in shooting video on phone cameras. I've come a long way in the last decade of doing the show, as has the technology itself, and here's how to get the most from it.

1. Quick, quick

Try to keep captured video clips/scenes short, for three practical reasons, which I'll come to. In other words, if you're at a party or event, don't just start video capture and leave it recording for half an hour, wandering from grouping to grouping. Far better to select each grouping and shoot some video, then stop capture and move to the next thing to film. My reasons?

  1. Multiple short video clips, each with a definite 'focus' to them, are a lot easier to organise and edit together for a final 'cut' in your editing software later.
  2. If something goes wrong in the device (e.g. battery runs out) or software (a crash of some kind) or you run out of space on your chosen storage medium, then you've only lost the clip you're shooting at the time. If you shoot in one enormous sequence and something then goes wrong, you've lost the lot! All your eggs in one basket, etc. Been there, done that, learned the lesson the hard way...
  3. Smartphone-produced footage can have small audio/video sync issues (it's usually to do with the handling of variable frame rates) that are noticeable when processing very long clips (more than a minute or two) later on, in desktop software, so multiple shorter clips mean that frame sync never gets to be a problem. This sounds a bit defeatist and may not be an issue for you, I'm simply passing on some hard-won experience. Plus think about 'pro' TV shows - they're almost entirely constructed from hundreds of short clips and cuts. Even my own 10 minute Phones Show typically has around 15 separate video clips, spliced together and with stills and transitions to cover the edits. It's how things are done!

2. Let there be light

As with my plethora of features here on AAWP on taking stills on smartphones, the number one consideration when capturing a video is light. In fact, it's even more important - consider that at 30 frames per second, the camera unit has only got 1/30th of a second to gather light for each frame. This is ample when the sun's shining, but 1/30th of a second to gather evening or indoor light through the (relatively) tiny lens and onto the (again, relatively) tiny sensor in your smartphone is always going to be a struggle. 

In general though, aim to shoot in as good a light as possible. Try to shoot a scene before the sun gets too low in the sky. Or maybe you can wait until that cloud blows over. Or maybe you can turn that extra room light on. You won't usually have the luxury of choice, of course, the smartphone video camera is the ultimate spur-of-the-moment capture device, but at least you'll now be able to forewarn yourself as to which situations are likely to turn out well and which will turn out noisy, grainy, streaky video.

You should also be aware of where the light is. So many amateur videos get ruined by having the light behind the subject, in which case they become a talking silhouette, like one of those spy interviews! Keep the light roughly behind YOU if at all possible. Yes, that's cliched advice, but it's cliched because it works.

Oh, and don't bother with the triple LED 'video light' on the 950 and 950 XL unless you're shooting something inanimate, the only thing that will do is make your subjects squint and look as if they're caught in headlights on some Blair Witch Project experiment.

3. Steady as she goes

Nothing says 'rubbish', nothing says 'amateur' more than jerky video. You don't have to use a steadicam or tripod - just hold your smartphone in two hands and try to keep things as smooth as humanly possible - the OIS built into all the Lumia 950 and 950 XL will do the rest, taking out the smaller jerks and wobbles. If you're shooting something inanimate (e.g. a scene or object) then turn on the 'Digital stabilisation' in Windows 10 Camera's 'Settings' - if you're shooting people then you may wish to turn this off, since results may be ugly. (Ditto in low light, by the way.)

Move slowly, move the phone even slower. When panning round, go five times slower than you think you should - trust me. Every movement gets hugely magnified in the video capture process. Try a slow pan, watch the results and see. Doesn't that look far more professional, especially given the smoothness of the OIS? If you do a lot of panning then digital stabilisation may produce 'jellovision' artefacts, so again consider turning this feature off.

The problem is that when you're 'there', in the moment, the human eye can move incredibly quickly, taking things in - don't try to mimic this with what your phone is pointing at (unless you really are going for the 'Blair Witch Project' effect). Think 'TV fly on the wall documentary' - the viewer, with no awareness of the overall context, has to got to work everything out from your 720p or 1080p or 2160p video frame, so give them more time and give them a steady picture to process.

Lumia 950 camera

4. Cleanliness is next to Godliness

All modern smartphones are created without any camera glass protection, meaning that it quickly gets covered in fingerprints, dust and muck. Even a few small particles or a thin film of finger grease is enough to ruin the quality of your video capture, producing a tell-tale blurriness and extra flare from light sources. So, keep a (clean) tissue in your pocket and carefully wipe the 'glass' before any video capture. Or photo, of course.

5. Zoom, zoom

Your Lumia 950/XL camera has a degree of lossless PureView video zoom built-in (varying from 1.5x to 5x, depending on the output resolution chosen) - so use it. Even during footage, you can swipe up or down on the display to zoom in and out without compromising quality. Purists will say that you should stop/cut, zoom and then restart capture, but I'm rather fond of tastefully-done in-video zooms, as they emphasise to the viewer what you were trying to highlight.

Experiment with slow swipes down or up while shooting, which can result in quite arty 'slow' zooms. Either way, use the zoom to get 'closer' to your subject, if appropriate - the end footage will seem more professional.

6. Check space

With 1080p capture eating up a whopping 200MB per minute of footage and 2160p (4K) using more than double that, make absolutely sure that you're saving your videos onto the right disk (e.g. internal storage or microSD card) before you start shooting. The last thing you need is running out of space halfway through a clip!

In fact, it's a good idea to keep a couple of GB free as a bare minimum on your chosen disk, just in case you bump into something that's worth filming during your travels.

7. Shun auto-focus when you can control the subject

Auto-focus is something of a mixed blessing when shooting video. Yes, it means that you can wave the phone around and after a few seconds everything will be back in focus, no matter the subject distance. On the other hand, there's an unpleasant 'hunting' effect while the lens is tracked in and out trying to find the perfect focus - and it's surprising how often the software decides that this is necessary.

As a result, unless you absolutely need auto-focus (i.e. constantly changing, unpredictable subject), either tap on your main subject in the viewfinder or use the manual control in Windows 10 Camera to set the focus with your right thumb on the arc/slider before starting to shoot. Locked or manual focus makes for much more professional footage.

8. Sound matters

Good audio is just as important as good video, arguably, and the Lumia 950/XL Rich Recording system and HAAC microphones can produce stunningly clear audio tracks, in stereo.

You can help the sound side of things by choosing your location wisely. At an outdoor event, find a spot away from swirling wind, waterfalls or crowd noise - the 950 range is especially susceptible to wind noise - I've even been pondering foam protectors of some kind. Indoors, stay away from air conditioning units and other noisy machinery. It goes without saying that you should find out where the microphones are on your phone. And, having found out where it is/they are, make darned sure that your fingers don't either block the hole(s) (in your usual camera 'grip') or brush past it noisily (you'd be amazed how many extraneous noises on peoples' videos are their own fault, fingers, straps and miscellany near the microphone hole(s)!

9. Shoot more footage than you think you need

Indeed. As a guide, when filming my Phones Show, which usually runs about ten minutes, I usually shoot about twenty and then edit down to miss out mistakes, pauses and interruptions. Even more drastically, when shooting 'home movie' footage of family, I shoot about an hour's worth for every ten minutes that makes it onto the final shared MP4/DVD/whatever for passing on around the family tree.

In other words, there will be boring bits, wobbly bits and bloopers, whatever you're shooting. So shoot more than you think you'll need and then you'll be able to cherry pick just the best bits and still have a great final, edited video.

Inside the 950 XL

10. Multi-camera? Oh yes!

If you're a dab hand at video editing later, get a friend to shoot some of the same footage on their phone (of whatever variety) from a different angle, and then splice little bits of this over the top of yours from the Lumia 950/XL (and using the audio from yours). Even if their phone camera isn't as good, the change in perspective with no break in the audio is a tremendously professional trick that you can experiment with.