Avoiding Shaky Footage
Stabilizing Your
Mobile Phone Camera

By Kerric Harvey

The two biggest technical challenges facing the mobile phone film-maker are picture stability and audio quality.

Unless you want to start buying a boatload of peripherals, you can’t do too much about the audio until you get to post-production, except make sure that your camera-phone has the mic and the lens on the same side of the handset, so you record the subject of your filming instead of you talking to the subject of your filming. You can also pay extra-special attention to the audio environment in which you’re shooting, making sure that it’s as “clean” as possible.

Picture stability is another matter altogether. There’s actually quite a bit you can do to improve this, despite the camera-phone’s absurdly small size and weight, and the innate vulnerability to camera tremour that goes with those qualities.

As camera size shrinks, picture shakiness soars, since the lighter the recording device the tougher it is to hold steady without a tripod. The bad news is that it’s difficult to keep a camera-phone steady even with a tripod. It’s so ultra-lightweight that even a slight breeze will send it quivering. That’s outside, of course. Inside, depending on the shooting circumstances, even walking in the vicinity of a locked-down camera-phone can make it vibrate enough to create visible tremour in your footage.

But the good news is that there are ways of dealing with most of these problems, if you’re willing to get creative and leave your cinematic superego on the shelf, because most of the solutions emerge from low-tech -- if not no-tech-- down-home problem-solving.

Here are three tips on how to stabilize your mobile phone camera

Making Money With Mobile Phone Movies1. Get yourself a bunch of bungee cords, a soft padded sleeve of some type (like an old athletic sock or an oven mitt) and a few C-clamps (available at your local hardware store). This bag of tricks will let you attach your camera-phone to almost any solid object that you might find conveniently located somewhere in your shooting environment, like a construction site scaffold, a chain-link fence, an office doorknob, a table leg, and so on.  An oven mitt works exceedingly well as a slip-on protector for the phone handset itself, keeping it from getting scratched as well as adding some bulk for the bungee cord and C-claps to grab onto.

An assortment of cords in different lengths and weights, combined with both plastic and lightweight metal clamps, ought to give you the resources you need to rig your own makeshift tripod wherever you go. Even better, the object onto which you’ve clamped your camera-phone will absorb ground vibration and resist wind tremour, helping offset the phone’s innate tendency to shake like a frightened chihuahua, even when it’s locked down on a travel tripod.

2. Speaking of tripods, those tiny little backpacker tripods you see in travel catalogues and in the “impulse purchase” section at photo stores can be useful, although they usually aren’t enough by themselves if you want really steady footage, especially from  outdoor shooting.

The main advantage they do offer is the ability to pan or tilt while shooting, if you get a backpacker tripod that comes equipped with a mini-handle. This will give you better traction for moving the camera than just grabbing the handset and hoping for the best. Combine a handle-equipped backpacker tripod with the clamp-and-bungee strategy, ‘though, and you’re in business.  

3. The best mobile phone “tripod” of all is the human body, because it absorbs so many types of vibration before they reach the camera-phone and because it’s big enough and weighty enough to provide meaningful stability while shooting. Flesh, blood and bone have a certain degree of “give” built it that you just won’t find in smaller, lighter stabilizing equipment, so it’s important to practice using yourself as a piece of field gear in order to capture the steadiest footage your camera-phone can produce.

The best posture for your life-as-a-tripod is different with a camera-phone than it is for more conventional types of recording equipment. Tuck your elbows into your sides and think of your torso as one solid unit. When you change direction with the camera-phone, such as panning, for instance, don’t move the phone – move your entire torso.

The closer you hold the phone to your body, the steadier your footage will be, as long as you don’t actually rest the phone against your body, because then you’ll pick up your breathing motion on tape.

For really important shots (or anything you try to shoot in close up), borrow a trick from target shooters. The natural inclination is to hold your breath while you take the shot. Don’t do it. The muscle tension generated by holding your breath won’t show up on most video equipment, but it will create problems with the ultra-light camera-phone.

Instead, frame your shot and take a full, deep breath. Release half of it, then press “record.” You’re a lot steadier with half a lung full of air than you are fighting with yourself over no air at all.

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About The Author

Kerric HarveyKerric Harvey doesn’t really sleep very much. As a full-time university professor, a working playwright and screenwriter, an exuberant free-lancer in the online universe, and a consultant in new technologies and media anthropology, she’s resigned to a life of adrenal overload. Fortunately, she loves it.
A Canadian Permanent Resident, American citizen, and cheerful addict of international travel, Kerric can usually be found at 37,000 feet writing adventure movies and plays about magic, or plotting her next research project on the best way to make film and television for very small screen (VSS) media or the cultural implications of vampires, wizards, and pirates.
When she’s not teaching, writing, or plotting, she spends as much time as possible crawling through megalithic ruins, exploring old castles, and getting afloat in all kinds of watercraft. She’s also the founding director of Aldebaran Drama Group and of the OxDocs Institute, found at www.oxdocs.eu.
Her degrees are from McGill University (Montreal), Cornell University (New York), and the University of Washington (Seattle). She’s tenured faculty at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) and also teaches in Continuing Studies at Emily Carr University of Art, Design, and Media (Vancouver, Canada).
She thinks of her life as treasure-hunt in every way possible.

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Avoiding shaky footage