Brief Guide: How to film yourself with a smartphone 

Never been much of a selfie girl, in fact, I have never really liked it. Yet, when I started working on the documentary series (IN)VISIBLE CITIES, I found out the excited people following the project online were hungry for more visual insights on our travelling around the world. That’s when I began using my mobile phone as a tool to share that life-changing experience. I have learned much from that and I am now ready to share tips on how to film yourself with a  smartphone. 

Short video shot with smartphones can be powerful communication tools if used by team members, ambassadors or even volunteers. Our smartphones are now almost computers and because of their quality, we are not allowed to get this one wrong. So here is a brief guide on how to film yourself with a smartphone. 

To compile this guide I asked for the help of Gianpaolo Bucci who has a wide experience in documentary making and is responsible for the creative side of the media production social enterprise Balobeshayi. Gianpaolo is also a lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Arts, London. 

Here is what he told me about the basic rules on how to film yourself with a smartphone.

  • Have enough space

First thing first, make sure you have enough space on your mobile phone to store your video. Also, keep in mind how long the video should be. If you were asked for a 30-second video, please please please keep it to 40 seconds top no more, no less, for the peace and time management of whoever is going to use it.

But without further ado, here is a list of things to consider when filming yourself with a smartphone.

  • Frame

Frames define the position of the person filmed. There are many choices one can make about them and Gianpaolo told me it depends on the distribution platform. “Cinema and TV only screen content on a horizontal frame, while the web can accept both: YouTube and Vimeo still privilege the horizontal frame, while Facebook and Instagram have adopted a square format as a compromise. That being said, the tradition of composing for portraits advises for the vertical frame as it is more appropriate to the human figure. In fact, the vertical frame is also called portrait while the horizontal landscape.” Some things to keep in mind when considering the frame for your self-shooted video with a smartphone are:

  1. Make sure you are clearly visible within your frame. Ideally, you want to include head to shoulders.
  2. Mind the background: avoid at all cost to wear the same color of the background and opt for neutral backgrounds or those that add a bit (not too much) movement to the video.
  3. As much as possible make sure your sight is not too low nor too high. In order to do so, your arm should be straight in front of you, creating a 90° angle with your chest.

When choosing the horizontal or vertical frame, keep in mind how that would impact on social media, you can get an idea from the image below.

Source: mojo-ad.com
  • Light

“A good lighting scheme should start from taking into consideration the facial features of the depicted subject. Avoid a full frontal light as it flattens the image. Ideally, you should have a key light at a 45-degree angle and a less intense fill light to the other side at about the same angle, plus a backlight to separate the subject from the background,” says Gianpaolo Bucci.

To make things simpler you can stick to a background light (maybe from a window) and a frontal one not directly pointed at your face (again this might come from a window or an artificial light). Light is really important for the video, there’s no point in producing one if you can’t actually see the subject. Some things to keep in mind when considering the light for your self-shooted video with a smartphone are:

  1. Avoid direct light as it flattens your image
  2. Natural light generally looks better
  3. When outside make sure the light is not behind you as you’ll come out as a black shadow

Check out the picture and caption below for a better idea.

This is taken from a video I produced some time ago and is a good example of how to get your light right. As you can see in the video, my face is well-lit on one side. The light only comes from a big window on my right but because of the sunny day it is enough to enlight the background too

  • Sound 

“The volume matters only to some extent. The subject’s position is definitely more important, and the microphone position above all (if you have one)”, tells me Gianpaolo Bucci. If you do have a microphone, make sure is close to you. A good compromise is to look for a fairly quiet location and raise your voice in the most natural way. Have a look at the video filmed for my social enterprise, by Osmel Ox Fabre who did it without a microphone but with a nice clear volume of voice. Some things to keep in mind when considering the sound for your self-shooted video with a smartphone are:

  1. If you have a microphone keep it quite close to you
  2. Raise your voice a bit as naturally as you can (a.k.a. don’t scream)
  3. Choose quiet or semi quiet places to film (it will be very difficult to hear you if cars, voices, trains etc. are too loud in the background)

Check out how Ox is speaking despite the background noise (it doesn’t really matter if you don’t understand the language as he speaks in Italian 😊)

Other suggestions 

  • Once you have found your position and frame you can stop looking at the screen and point your eyes to the camera instead.

  • Make sure the focus of the camera is on you and you don’t see your image blurry. It is enough to click on the image of your face on the screen to arrange the focus. 

  • Keep it simple, keep it clear, keep it visible. 

  • If you are asking someone to film themselves for your cause, consider attaching a brief description of what you need so you keep a certain consistency in all the video you receive. You can download a sample here. 

  • If you are asking someone to film themselves for you, don’t forget the consent forms. 

You are now all set to film your next short video with your smartphone. Feel free to shoot more questions and tips in the comment section. And don’t hesitate to take advantage of the free 20 minutes phone consultations I run early in the morning for more questions and clarifications. 

Happy filming!