Video capture tips (and limits) on the IDOL 4 Pro and Elite x3

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I've done video capture tutorials before on AAWP, not least of all here and here. And I'm going to lift some tips from those in what follows. However, the assumption in previous articles is that we're dealing with an imaging flagship - so Lumia 1020, Lumia 950, and so on. However, in the modern age (2017) we're often now dealing with Windows 10 Mobile hardware that's more powerful in terms of chipset and RAM but less capable on the imaging side. Which got me thinking? How good is video capture on the Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro (and, by extension, the HP Elite x3)? Let's find out - warts and all!

It's quite a shock to move back to a Windows-running phone which doesn't have OIS, but that's the position here with the IDOL 4 Pro (IDOL 4S in the USA) and Elite x3. Now, all is not totally lost, since the IDOL 4 Pro does have a 21MP sensor (or so), mimicking the likes of the 950, 930 (etc.) in terms of lossless zoom when capturing video. And indeed I demonstrate this below. Plus Windows 10 Camera does have built-in digital (frame-based) stabilisation, so maybe OIS isn't essential after all?

Well, maybe. Take a look at some test footage that I filmed this week and see the in-video comments and those below. As usual, maximise the window to at least 1080p for full analysis:

You'll see that the footage is divided into two sections. In the first two thirds, I'm using auto-focus in Windows 10 Camera and all is generally well. With a steady hand (even against the bracing and strong wind), my pans (see below for more on these) were fairly effective and the lossless zooming (to just over 3x when filming here at 1080p) worked really well with the usual swipe up the screen.

NB: my test IDOL 4 Pro has a dodgy spot on the sensor towards the bottom right of the frame - so if you notice a small shadow in the footage then that's why. And yes, I'm investigating ways of getting the phone returned or replaced!

I was a bit disappointed by the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the digital stabilisation in Camera, but perhaps I've been too spoiled by the OIS assistance on the usual Lumias - the IDOL 4 Pro is quite a step back!

The last third of the compilation has 'fails' caused by a horrible Camera auto-exposure bug. I can only assume that no one at Microsoft tested Windows 10 Camera fully on non-Lumia devices. On the likes of the Lumia 950 you can tap to set focus (and disable auto-focus), so that there's no 'hunting' while you pan around and generally reframe your footage. However, on the IDOL 4 Pro (and, I suspect, the Elite x3) when you tap to focus then the exposure is set at the same time, almost down to the level of individual pixels at the centre of the frame. Fine if the framing doesn't move much - but the moment your hand wobbles ever slightly, let alone reframe the show by a couple of degrees and the brightness values at that same precise tiny spot in the viewfinder is used to adjust exposure - dramatically and violently. The results are horrible, as you'll have seen above.

What's needed, of course, is for exposure to stay set according to the whole frame and just set the focus exactly. I don't see the same on the Lumias, so it's just a bug and a result of lack of testing attention by Microsoft.

EIDOL 4 Pro camera island

So.... with all of this in mind, and bearing in mind that 'tap to focus' is out the window in terms of options, here's a cut-down version of my original video capture tips, stripped back and adapted for the IDOL 4 Pro and HP Elite x3.

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' (pun intended!) 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 LED 'video light' on the phone 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. As we're talking here about phones with no OIS, turn on the 'Digital stabilisation' in Windows 10 Camera's 'Settings' - it's not perfect, but it's usually better than nothing!

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?

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.

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 IDOL 4 Pro 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. Sound matters

Good audio is just as important as good video, arguably, and the IDOL 4 Pro (and Elite x3) microphones can produce 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. 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 (at each end on the IDOL 4 Pro). 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)!

8. 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.

9. DON'T tap the viewfinder!

As mentioned above, on the IDOL 4 Pro (and 4S) anyway, stay away from tapping to set focus in Windows 10 Camera. It will cause havoc!


Comments welcome then. What do you think of the OIS-less video footage from the Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro above? Good enough for you? Missing your Lumia already? And chip in if you have an HP Elite x3 too.

PS. I did try shooting video in ProShot and 1Shot UWP applications too - the former's UI defeated me at the time for switching to 1080p, plus it doesn't support digital stabilisation (unless someone knows different?) While the latter app is perpetually in beta and too buggy for video, it seems - the UI kept freezing and my settings and tweaks weren't working. No doubt I'll come back to both applications in due course here on AAWP.