HDR: Part 23 - DOPs: How Useful Is The iPhone Really For Professional Production?

We’ve heard the hype, and I admit I’ve contributed my fair share. The iPhone is able to capture impressively sharp, high-resolution images that stand up to critical examination even when magnified and viewed on a 20-meter cinema screen. The iPhone’s onboard software compensates for the most egregious image defects, applying on-the-fly color correction, noise reduction, and broad optical compensation that eliminates chromatic aberrations, barrel distortion, and a host of other things, from what is, after all, an exceedingly modest lens.

Regardless of how you feel about the iPhone or its capabilities as a professional tool, its de facto presence in the pockets of many DOPs everywhere may well trump a lot of the discussion. Consider the most rabid of audiophiles among us: Do any of us still complain about AAC and the iPhone’s hugely compressed music files? The truth is, by now, we accept compromised audio as a given in exchange for the convenience of having, say, a hundred Taylor Swift tunes readily available in the palm of our hand. 

Figure 1a) The camera as a Christmas tree we all know and love versus the iPhone (b) the can-do everything device that is always at hand. We use the iPhone for pretty much everything these days from checking our email to ordering Uber Eats, so why not use it to capture our movies and TV shows?

Figure 1a) The camera as a Christmas tree we all know and love versus the iPhone (b) the can-do everything device that is always at hand. We use the iPhone for pretty much everything these days from checking our email to ordering Uber Eats, so why not use it to capture our movies and TV shows?

In many ways, the iPhone compares quite favorably to the industry-standard cameras we all know and love. Employing FiLMic Pro for iOS (the app is also available for Android), the iPhone is able to access the Apple AV foundation core, providing DOPs with such advanced functions as high-bit rate recording up to 150Mbps, a bevy of aspect ratios including vertical formats and 2.40:1, and dramatic overcranking in one-frame intervals up to 240FPS.

Even more impressively, the $15 FiLMic Pro app offers DOPs familiar operational functions like focus peaking, zebra stripes, and false color. This is in addition to the expected manual controls for focus, exposure, white balance, and zoom speed. 

Figure 2a) iPhone viewfinder.

Figure 2a) iPhone viewfinder.

Figure 2b) False color.

Figure 2b) False color.

Figure 2c) Log recording.  FiLMic Pro for iOS helps transform the iPhone into a serious cinema camera. Accessing Apple’s AV framework, the $15 app supports a host of professional functions like false color, HDR, non-integral frame rates, and the ability to shoot in log.

Figure 2c) Log recording. FiLMic Pro for iOS helps transform the iPhone into a serious cinema camera. Accessing Apple’s AV framework, the $15 app supports a host of professional functions like false color, HDR, non-integral frame rates, and the ability to shoot in log.

With such capabilities already built into every iPhone, the serious DOP has to wonder If the device in our hand for 6-7 hours a day can or should be used for more than just checking our email or calling Uber Eats?

As it is, given the exploding role of IP and remote production, the iPhone exceeds in many ways the capabilities of our most advanced camcorders. The latest model phones, with support for 5G and live streaming, are especially relevant in this emerging workplace. For DOPs, the iPhone with 5G and support for heavy data loads points to a very simple fact: We need to take another look at the iPhone as a serious imaging tool.

Of course. There is more to this story.

For one thing, given the iPhone’s miniscule 3mm sensor, DOPs and the good folks who hire us will have to accept a very different aesthetic. The phone’s wider-than-normal standard lens produces enormous depth of field, effectively eliminating the ability for DOPs to use selective focus strategically. DOPs hoping to use the iPhone then for serious work will have to find other means to properly direct viewer’s attention inside the frame, by employing more pointed lighting, stronger compositions, and a bevy of additional three-dimensional depth cues.

Addressing the depth of field issue, Apple enables phones with multiple lenses to overlay exposures in ‘Portrait’ mode and simulate a reduced DOF. The ruse, while no doubt clever, is not yet applied in video mode, so the depth of field reduction technique offers no current benefit to DOPs seeking a viable workaround.

The iPhone’s wee-size imager poses other challenges as well. Its microscopic pixels, measuring only a few microns across, seriously constrains the camera’s dynamic range, a shortcoming long forgotten by DOPs accustomed to large-format DSLRs and camcorders with sensors ten times the size.

As a consequence, serious iPhone shooters are forced to use increased fill light, especially in high-contrast daylight exteriors. Beyond the expanded use of mirrors and reflectors, DOPs may also reconsider the use of classic contrast filters like TIffen’s Utlra Contrast. The Ultra Contrast filter can lift the shadows in a scene by redistributing light from the scene’s highlights, a behavior that might be particularly useful to iPhone DOPs shooting urban scenes at night.

Of course, any talk about physical filters raises a slew of operational challenges. Regardless of the sophisticated post-camera processes available, most DOPs still employ a glass polarizer or graduated filter, which must be securely affixed to the lens and camera. This is no easy task given the iPhone’s ultra-compact form factor and a design explicitly created to avoid such bulk and encumbrances.

The iPhone’s diminutive shape also lends itself to other problems like a propensity for light to strike the face of the camera lens at an oblique angle. The resulting internal reflections and flare can significantly reduce contrast and resolution and thus produce murky, lackluster images.

Figure 3) The iPhone and a professional matte box.  No can do. At least for the moment.

Figure 3) The iPhone and a professional matte box. No can do. At least for the moment.

Of course, DOPs have used sunshades and matte boxes for years to avoid just such a calamity. The notable lack of such accessories, like a matte box, is a serious impediment to wider adoption of the iPhone by industry professionals.

It goes without saying that the iPhone’s sophistication and capabilities are impressive: advanced noise reduction, error correction, support for HDR and Wide Color Gamut, chromatic aberration compensation – all of these features are state of the art, and most DOPs would not dispute any of it.

Figure 4 a) A stunning image - hiker in forest; 4b) overzealous correction: distorted hiker.  The iPhone can produce stunning, high resolution images because its onboard software compensates for most serious image defects, from barrel distortion and chromatic aberrations, to color shifts and loss of contrast in backlit conditions. Unfortunately, the iPhone is also unpredictable, sometimes applying ‘correction’ in a whimsical way that produces truly bizarre results. Needless to say, serious DOPs require complete control, with unfailing reliability and repeatability.<br />

Figure 4 a) A stunning image - hiker in forest; 4b) overzealous correction: distorted hiker. The iPhone can produce stunning, high resolution images because its onboard software compensates for most serious image defects, from barrel distortion and chromatic aberrations, to color shifts and loss of contrast in backlit conditions. Unfortunately, the iPhone is also unpredictable, sometimes applying ‘correction’ in a whimsical way that produces truly bizarre results. Needless to say, serious DOPs require complete control, with unfailing reliability and repeatability.

The problem is the iPhone’s sophistication can also be problematic, as the camera’s advanced systems are seemingly applied in an unpredictable, non-repeatable way. To some extent, the FiLMic Pro app can help tame the manic beast, but the unexpected varying color and contrast from scene to scene, even moment to moment, can be profoundly frustrating to DOPs trying to do professional work.

Figure 5) Improvised iPhone viewfinder.  It goes without saying. Serious DOPs do not take well to lame, improvised solutions like this one. For the iPhone to gain real traction in professional circles, we need solid, reliable accessories that support a viable workflow.

Figure 5) Improvised iPhone viewfinder. It goes without saying. Serious DOPs do not take well to lame, improvised solutions like this one. For the iPhone to gain real traction in professional circles, we need solid, reliable accessories that support a viable workflow.

Eventually, given the iPhone’s ultra-convenience and economy, it seems inevitable that the device will find more professional applications. But until the operational and workflow issues are resolved, the iPhone will remain a niche player in most DOPs tool kit.

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