Richard Lackey

Shooting Cinematic Video with the Original iPhone SE

Is it possible to shoot cinematic video with an original iPhone SE? Here’s how my journey shooting and color grading iPhone video began.

The short answer is yes. It is totally possible to shoot what most of us are describing as “cinematic” video with an original iPhone SE. In fact, you can shoot professional looking video with older iPhones as far back as the iPhone 5S. It requires a combination of a fully manual camera app like FiLMiC Pro, and thoughtful shooting technique. The normal rules of composition, style, and framing apply. Professional color correction finishes it all off.

The term “cinematic” is troublesome for a variety of reasons. It means different things to different people and doesn’t do much to actually define anything. So first let me define what I mean by “cinematic iPhone video”.

Here are the bare minimum technical criteria that I believe underpins the ability to produce a “cinematic” result in post.

  • Sharp, detailed 1080p (or 2K DCI if really for DCP) output in post.
  • Minimal visible image compression artifacts.
  • Good color and dynamic range, adequate shadow detail and unclipped highlights.
  • Holds up to reasonable color correction and stylistic grading in post.

A few years ago these expectations would have been completely unrealistic for a phone camera. Now, however we have UHD 4K, high frame rates and fast enough sensor read out to put some professional cameras to shame.

A Cinematic Video Shot with the Original iPhone SE

My whole iPhone video journey started in June 2016 with an original generation iPhone SE and an idea. The idea was simple, could I shoot a video with nothing but the iPhone SE, and color grade it in DaVinci Resolve just as I would video from any professional camera. How would it hold up?

I wanted to shoot this test with the bare minimum tools necessary, in order to achieve results that anyone else with an iPhone 6s / 6s plus / SE could replicate. So I shot everything handheld with an iPhone SE and Filmic Pro version 5. I had no special case or lens attachments.

My three biggest concerns going into this were image compression, dynamic range and rolling shutter. I was also interested in seeing the high frame rate mode at 1080p, and how far I could push cropping into the UHD image and still get a clean, sharp 1080p output (spoiler… you can safely zoom in a full 200% if your focus is sharp).

Image Compression

The Filmic Pro camera app is a must for anyone wanting to shoot great looking content with an iPhone. It allows UHD (3840 x 2160) at up to 30fps to be recorded at 100Mbps. Now the fact of the matter is this is H.264 media of 8-bit color depth with 4:2:0 chroma sub sampling, but in all honesty, the image quality is fantastic at 100Mbps. Since I was never intending a UHD output I knew there would be some improvement downscaling it to 1080p in Resolve.

In any case, image compression never once caused me to complain.

Dynamic Range

Another key factor in my assessment of the iPhone for any kind of real filmmaking is dynamic range. I have no scientific test of what Apple’s 12Mp iSight camera is capable of, but my guess is a solid 10-stops. I could be wrong about this, but that’s what the image looks like to me. Apart from a couple shots, of which only one made the cut, I didn’t shoot in high sun midday because I knew it would struggle, besides I wanted to work with the rich color palette of a low, setting sun.

During golden hour, dynamic range was never a problem, highlight detail never clipped in a single shot, apart from directly into the setting sun of course.

Rolling Shutter

I have to admit, I didn’t really move the camera much, and the only real motion is one shot of the tram on the bridge which isn’t really fast enough to get a feel for any jello effect. Still, for my purposes jello wobble was a non-issue, so nothing to report.

High Frame Rate

The slow motion shot of the water fountain was under midday sun, and you’ll be able to notice the highlights in the water are clipped, and the light reflecting off the bright concrete on the other side of the railing is way too high, so I definitely hit the limit in terms of contrast ratio. There was no information to pull back in the grade. The range of luminance in this shot was too high for the camera.

It was shot at 1080p, 120fps and Filmic Pro throttles maximum recording bandwidth down to 50Mbps. It works well, the results are great (clipping aside) and it’s something I will definitely explore more in future shoots, just not under midday sun.

Interestingly, I did happen to have a 52mm thread screw-on ND8 filter with me which I attempted to shoot through but got a major color shift which I assume is due to IR, that’s what it looked like. Sadly, I don’t have an image to show. While the iPhone SE (and 6s / 6s plus) do have IR filtration (so I have read) it doesn’t seem to cut all IR out with the addition of heavy external ND. I’ll try shooting through an IRND at some point.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is something that you must keep in mind when your intent is to produce results that look more cinematic, and less video. Filmic Pro gives you full control over ISO and shutter speed. However, you have no control over aperture, because the iPhone camera lens is fixed at f/2.2. Therefore your primary exposure control is shutter speed. This fact is not well suited to shooting cinematic iPhone footage, because ideally you want to be able to imitate the 180deg shutter angle you’d typically shoot with a real cinema camera. If you try to do this by setting shutter speed to 1/48th sec when shooting at 24fps, in outdoor daylight situations you’ll be hugely over-exposed. This is why I tried the ND filter, but more tests need to be done using an IRND to cut out unwanted IR spectrum light pollution.

The best I could do for these tests was keep the motion to a minimum, which means the really fast shutter speed wouldn’t matter too much. In the case of the shot of the tram in motion, I added some motion blur to the tram in post.

4K (UHD) Crop

The great thing about shooting 4K or higher, for a 1080p or 2K delivery is that if you have to, you can turn one shot into two by cropping into a wide to make a medium, or a medium to make a close-up. Now I know this practise is frowned upon by some, and I get that. You should frame and compose (and light) the shot how you intend it in the first place. I agree, but I see both sides of the argument when it comes to saving an edit by creating a desperately needed additional angle that was never shot for whatever reason.

Regardless, it makes a good test of how well the UHD 4K image from the iPhone stands up to 1:1 pixel scrutiny. How far you can really take this depends on many factors and I was highly skeptical of getting a useable crop and reframe from the iPhone’s still highly compressed H.264 UHD footage.

I was totally wrong. There are a number of 150% crops in the final video, and one at a full 1:1 pixel 200% which I bet you couldn’t tell if it wasn’t labelled.

Palm Tree 100% (No Crop)

Palm Tree 150% (1.5x Crop)

Dubai Marina 100% (No Crop)

Dubai Marina 150% (1.5x Crop)

Reflection 100% (No Crop)

Reflection 150% (1.5x Crop)

Reflection 200% (2x Crop)

Just the Beginning

The original generation iPhone SE started my journey as an iPhone filmmaker. Everything else you see on this website and all the videos on my YouTube channel started here. I still keep a number of iPhone SE’s in my kit, mostly as audio recorders.

From the original SE I moved onto shooting video with the iPhone 7 Plus, the iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR, and iPhone 11 Pro Max. FiLMiC Pro has progressed from version 5 to version 6. The original FiLMiC flat and FiLMiC Log profiles have given way to FiLMiC LogV2, and there is more to come.

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Please don’t hesitate to comment with your questions either here, on Youtube, or hit me up on Twitter, I will always reply.

Further Reading

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