Smartphone mobile journalism has been gaining much interest in recent months, it’s versatility and ease of use certainly has major benefits, and the pixel count arguably rivals professional cameras, but is it the utopian solution some would have us believe?
On the face of it, taking your mobile camera from your pocket and shooting news footage at a moment’s notice has a certain romanticism and seems the perfect solution to fast paced journalism for the 21st century. Smartphones even have enough editing facilities to deliver a “good enough” news package that can be directly uploaded to the broadcaster’s media asset management system.
But if we just dare for a moment, look into some of the detail of the reality of shooting live news in a fast paced and dynamic environment, then we may see things in a different light.
Smartphones in video mode consume battery power like it’s going out of fashion, but unlike their professional ENG camera counterparts they cannot be easily replaced as is often required. Professional field cameras allow batteries to be changed in a few seconds but most smartphones either require open-heart surgery or don’t allow battery change at all.
Despite the best efforts of some marketing departments to convince us otherwise, a smartphone lens cannot defeat the laws of physics. Anybody who thinks a smartphone can replace a broadcast camera should ask themselves a very simple question – why does my smartphone have a lens that is smaller than my thumb nail when an ENG camera has a lens bigger than my shoe?
Then we move onto the video sensor. Again, how can a smartphone sensor even get close to achieving the capabilities of a broadcast ENG camera? The pictures may look acceptable in good lighting conditions and the camera may have 4K of pixels, but as soon as the light drops the video noise will become self-evident, especially as the video AGC winds in. And that’s before we start getting into the technicalities of depth of field and focus. So how do you zoom with a smartphone?
Why do presenters wear lapel microphones? Why is a sound engineer needed to operate a microphone housed inside the windshield resembling a small dog? In fact, where’s the microphone on a smartphone? It’s three feet away from the presenter!
The simplest method of maintaining sharp pictures is to mount the camera on a tripod. The less the camera moves, the better the pictures will look, again, this is just basic physics. Although some smartphone manufacturers profess to using stabilizing technology, the picture quality can be significantly improved by just placing the smartphone on a tripod.
To me, it seems that the best way of getting acceptable quality pictures and sound from a smartphone is to install it in a jig so you can go handheld (otherwise your finger will drift over the lens at the critical moment) and preferably mount it on a tripod. Then we need a method of recording decent sound. A radio or wired lapel mic would probably be best, but who’s going to confirm the sound is recording and set the levels? Are you really going to rely on the AGC?
We could go on all day like this. It’s just basic physics and modern ENG crews are already highly optimized, agile and fast.
Smartphones certainly do have their place as it’s often better to have some footage of a breaking news story than none at all, but they will not replace the ENG crew and associated kit. One argument I hear is that the smartphone empowers journalists to be agile and efficient. So, is the suggestion that efficiency will be improved by dispatching an army of roaming journalists equipped with a heavy rucksack full of smartphone supporting kit so that they can shoot a breaking news story on the off chance that they’ll trip over it in the street?