Tips for Smartphone Multimedia

By James W. Brown Ph.D.

Beginning video storytellers often try to emulate television reporters operating in the usual mode of the TV news story. In television, reporters try to convey immediacy by being photographed at the scene of the story. They may not know what the story is yet, but they are talking and the camera is on them.

But the best visual story is one in which the people in the story tell what is happening and what they are feeling. You as the video reporter should not have to say anything in a perfect world. The subjects of the story will give you sound bites, and your journalist mindset will craft them into a logical story by editing. That should be the ideal but often the ideal needs help. Voice-overs can sometimes help the story bridge between segments or convey important information that is not mentioned by people in story.

The Phone as a Reporting Tool

I can remember a time when people turned a handle on the side of a wooden box to make “rings” on a party line much like Morse code. If the pattern of rings matched your pattern, you picked up the receiver and talked. In those days we had other ways of organizing our life and getting to meetings on time. The iPhone had not yet been invented. I am now on my third iteration of an iPhone and it is increasingly hard to imagine life without it. Smart phones, like the iPhone and its competitors, have matured to the point that they are serious reporting tools. Not only can you shoot pictures and video, and edit them, but also send them for Internet consumption from wherever your phone can reach a cell phone tower.

Home videos sometimes go viral. But most home videos use horrible technique and could be much improved with a little knowledge about how a story is crafted.

Authors have defined hundreds of story forms. Traditional journalism has many forms too, news, feature, sports, obits, etc. Yes, obits should tell a story too. Visual storytellers have forms too, and they have evolved from the German picture magazines and Life and LOOK in this country. Pictures became equal partners with words and even in the case of LOOK magazine dominating words. LOOK used lots of white space in their layouts. The pictures in a story were arranged first with white space with copy blocks where text would go. Writers and editors worked until the story fit the space where layout dictated where text could go.

In the last century, Journalism grew into specialties. Word people became the best that they could be, and photo people did likewise. The skills are quite different. Rare is the person who can perform at a professional level in both words and pictures.

With the collapse of the business model of journalism, the number of employees working in journalism has been vastly reduced. The remaining employees now have to do more and in different modes. This is the era of the generalists. General reporters should now be able to write a story, make publishable photographs and videos, and use social media to draw readers to the newspaper. In Gannett papers, every reporter is issued an iPhone and is expected to make respectable, storytelling pictures and video. The Chicago Sun-Times made this point dramatically by laying off the entire photo staff ( ).

Paralleling the rise of the cell phone, the cost of digital cameras has come down and features have gone up. Even shirt-pocket cameras are capable of shooting HD video.

Everyone is a photographer, or so they think.

While there is training in writing in K-12, there is little training in visual skills. Most people never learn to “see.” The best writers do see. They put what they see into words. Professional photographers put what they see into pictures.

Visual people will often say a story should have a beginning, middle and end. Perhaps that is simplistic but it is a very good concept and is easy to implement.  In the field and under pressure, easy is better than difficult.


Must Have Equipment
External microphone for smart phone
Extra battery for microphone
Adapter cable(s) for the microphones you have to adapt to the smart phone

Must Have Software
Software to shoot in phone
Software to edit in phone


You need a defined workflow to get your story back to the paper. This will be worked out with your editor and tech people at the paper.

Good to Have
Battery charger for smartphone

The Importance of Sound

Beginning multimedia practitioners generally underestimate the importance of working to obtain good sound. Still photographers and word people NEVER believe it when they hear great video journalists say they think about their sound as much as their pictures, and they often work just as hard to get the right sound to go with the picture. The audio director for the movie Lincoln traveled to a museum just to record the sound of the Lincoln’s actual carriage door opening and closing.

Before Shooting

Before setting up to shoot your video, write on paper or in your mind a single declarative sentence that states your story idea. If you can’t do that, do more research by talking to people at the scene. If you don’t know the story you are trying to tell, you are not ready to make the shots that tell it. Stories do not magically appear from a vacuum of thought. The story structure appears from your mind’s organization. Mentally writing this single sentence will provide the focus for your story structure. Now you will know what to shoot and whom to interview. This will save you time in the field and make shooting and editing more efficient.

This is commonly called a Commitment Statement. Once you have it in our mind, set out to do that story well. The Commitment Statement helps you eliminate shots that are not needed and saves time in the field.

Put your phone in “airplane mode” before shooting.

Camera Orientation

All video should be shot with the smart phone in the horizontal position, NOT VERTICAL. There is no video display device that is vertical except the cell phone if you mistakenly shoot in the vertical orientation.

The Shots

Video shots are described by their relationship in distance from the camera to the subject. The three basic shots are Long Shot (LS), which is also called a Wide Shot; Medium Shot (MS) and Close-up (CU). The LS is sometimes called the Establishing Shot because that is what it does. It shows the whole environment of what is going on. The MS gets us closer to what is happening, and the CU shows us the detail that we missed from the longer viewpoints. These three shots are often used in sequence such as LS, MS, CU, but they don’t have to be in that order. This is where the craft of storytelling comes in. You may want to introduce a little suspense by showing a CU of something first. The detail is not sufficient to know what is really going on. The following MS or LS lets us know what is happening. The order of these shots – and what they reveal – are part of the craft of editing.

A Point of View shot (POV) puts the camera in a position so that we see what the subject sees.

A reaction shot (RS) shows people reacting to what the subject is doing.

The POV and RS can be of any magnification (LS, MS or CU).

How long should these shots be?

While there are no absolutes when shooting, make sure each shot is at least 10 seconds in duration. You can always shorten a shot in the editing process. You cannot lengthen a shot except by creating a still frame and holding it or by using more sophisticated software such as Final Cut Pro X or Premiere to expand a shot into slow motion.

There are many moving camera shots but they should be used sparingly and only if they contribute to the story.

The Pan moves the camera in a horizontal sweep. Try to avoid pans and if you must pan, try to shoot motivated pans–where the camera follows something as it moves through the frame. The shot should have several seconds of stationary camera before the sweep is made. Hold the camera steady for several seconds at the end. Beginning video makers usually pan too fast. If you must pan, move the camera from left to right. This is the way we read and our eyes are used to moving in that direction. Panning right to left feels unnatural, like swimming up stream.

A Tilt shot moves the camera vertically. The orientation of the camera is still horizontal.

The Pan and Tilt can be combined in one movement.

Video editing controls time.

Generally one does not edit in the middle of a moving camera shot. It is visually jarring. Therefore if you include a 10-second pan shot, you have just used 10 seconds of your total project time. You would probably be able to accomplish the same thing visually with several shots in six seconds. That said, sometimes a moving camera shot contributes to the story better than separate shots.

A good rule of thumb with using LS, MS, and CU to make a sequence is that the image size and viewpoint should change between shots. In others words, don’t walk a straight line to the subject making the shots along the way.

Repeating Action

If your subject is doing something repetitive, you have an opportunity to do a Matched Action shot. Imagine an assembly line procedure. The subject is doing the same thing in a repetitive cycle. You can make LS, MS and CU shots from a variety of angles and viewpoints. When editing, you can cut a shot in the middle of a motion and pick up the motion from that point in a different shot from a different viewpoint. Even though the camera has moved to a different viewpoint and image magnification, the action will appear very smooth. Beginning video shooters tend to end at the end of the motion rather than in the middle.

The Interview

The prime purpose of an interview is to capture sound bites you can use to help tell your story. If the answer is confusing or goes off on unrelated tangents, you don’t have a usable sound bite.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s the quote you might use in a story. Part of your job in managing the interview is to direct your questions to ensure you get those bites and not waste time with useless conversation. Steve Sweitzer, past president of the National Press Photographers Association, uses a method that often gives him the bites he needs, ”Sometimes I just play dumb and dumber. How does that work again? I don’t understand?”

Your challenge is to elicit comments that will interest the viewer and not some pedantic explanation of a process.

If possible, you should use a tripod for interviews.  Use an external microphone unless you can be very close to the subject in a quiet environment. Before you start the interview, take a moment and listen to the room. Are there sounds that will detract from the interview–an air conditioner, a radio playing in another room, etc.

The microphone cable should always be inside the shirt or blouse. Dangling cords are unprofessional. The exception might be a spot news situation. In a hurried situation, you can route the microphone cable underneath the collar to emerge at the back of the collar.

Generally, you don’t want your own voice in the interview. Unlike word interviews where you can have a back and forth conversation, multimedia interviews should get the subject talking, usually without interruption. One way to do this is ask a compound question. Do not ask questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” You might ask the subject to frame the question in his/her own words in the response.  Use body language to keep the interview going. If you think something could be explained in a better way, use the Sweitzer technique of playing dumb to get the person to rephrase.

If you have talked with the person and know generally what they might say, you also can frame the response to fit the requirements of your story such as, “In about 45 seconds to a minute, tell me what is happening here.” Actually that works pretty well. Otherwise people may tend to go on and on and on, especially older persons.

Usually pros will use manual focus for interviews. Otherwise auto-focus will constantly test itself to achieve focus. Your video will go in and out of focus. People in an interview setting are usually seated and don’t really move much. If they do shift position, they will usually settle back where they were. The occasional slight blurring of the subject is less objectionable than the constant test of autofocus. Not all smartphone apps let you lock focus. Video Pro Camera for the iPhone does.

Covering Shots or B-Roll

Suppose you have a five-minute interview and you only want to use the first 20 seconds and the last 10 seconds. You make the cut. Now you play the video. At the point you made the cut the head of the person will suddenly jump to a new position in the frame.  That is because when people talk, they naturally move their head a bit. Perhaps the person shifted position in a chair. Sudden jumping of an object is called a Jump Cut and is generally to be avoided. Keep in mind that viewers like to know who is talking so it is important to see the face of the person being interviewed for a few seconds. But once we know what they look like, a long “talking head” is boring to watch, that’s why you want to cover most of the interview with b-roll or cut-aways.

TV news reporters will be shooting shots at the scene that are away from the interview. Those shots are called cut-aways. In editing, one of those shots can be dropped in over the cut in the interview so that you don’t actually see the head suddenly jump from one position to another. If you have software that can do that, you can never have too many cut-aways.  They allow you to edit interviews for the content you want. You are then using the edited audio and using cutaways to cover the jump cuts and hopefully illustrate the points being made in the interview.

iMovie on the iPhone does not accommodate b-roll shots, but you can do a work around. Split the interview shot and insert cutaways in between. You will not have the audio of the interview running underneath the cut-aways but the cut-aways have their own audio. If necessary you can narrate a transition underneath the cut-aways within iMovie. A weaker solution is to put a dissolve at the point the interview was cut. Dissolves indicate a passage of time.

The 1st Video app and its evolution Voddio for the iPhone does allow b-roll, but the learning curve is higher than iMovie.

The Water Hose Shot

At some point in your life, you have probably watered the lawn or a garden by waiving the hose so the water covers a wide area. Amateur video shooters do the same thing. They turn the camera on and point it at a moving subject as it wanders from place to place.  This is how NOT to shoot video.

Instead think of how you take in a new scene with your eyes. First you “take” a wide shot that takes in the whole scene, then our attention moves to the most interesting thing in the scene, and then onto the next most interesting thing. You do this with a series of separate “shots” or looks with your eyes. Separate camera shots mimic the way we see.

Another thing you need to think about as you shoot is “How am I going to edit this together so that something that takes two minutes in real time can be conveyed to the viewer in a few seconds.

Suppose you had to make a video of a person moving from one building to another three blocks away. Suppose the walk takes seven minutes. Using the water hose technique you would have one shot seven minutes long. But the strength of video is to control time. Using three shots of six seconds each, you could accomplish the same building-to-building movement in the viewers mind. You have to be in good shape and think ahead of the action so you can be there with the camera before they arrive.

Practice anticipating what the subject will do next and be there to let the person come into the frame and leave cleanly. You NEVER want to direct your subjects, but it’s fine to ask them to tell you what they are going to be doing or what steps are necessary to create the widget they are going to make.

Is there a case where the water hose shot might be used? Perhaps in spot news situation where things are happening rapidly there would not be an opportunity to set up separate shots or would be dangerous to run ahead of the police. But even then, your pictures need to be steady, and your camera movement needs to be smooth.

In stories where you have time to anticipate, don’t use the water hose shot.

The 180 Rule

Editing shots that don’t conform to the 180 Rule can confuse the viewer and thus confuse the story. Perhaps an easy way to understand this is to think about screen direction. The frame has a left and right side. If a person enters the frame from the right going toward the left, the following shot of that person should have the same screen direction. Otherwise, she would be walking toward herself. Chase scenes in movies have the two parties entering from the same side. Shots that imply a meeting such as when Tom Hanks finally meets Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” have Tom and Meg walking to the park with each entering the frame from opposite sides. In the viewer’s mind, there will be an implied meeting.

If your shots stay on the same side of a person’s nose, you will maintain screen direction. Imagine a line drawn through the person’s head and nose. Now imagine that line is the diameter of a circle. If your camera is anywhere within the half circle where you started shooting, you will be fine.

But what if you want to change screen direction for some reason? Fortunately the brain only remembers one shot behind.  So you can use a cut-away to change screen direction. You can also show the change of direction in a shot. You also can use a screen neutral shot such a person coming directly toward or going directly away from the camera.

Knowledge about screen direction and its use is part of shooting and editing skill.

Looking for Kind of Shots

Think action, reaction, and interaction. If someone is doing something, look for a shot of someone reacting to the something. If a child is playing baseball, look for a parent cheering as reaction. If a teacher is teaching a skill, look for interaction.

Action, reaction and interaction are the content elements of a story.


Backlight is usually a terrible problem. It causes the auto exposure of the camera to assume there is a great deal of light on the scene and will reduce exposure to compensate. The person sitting in front of a window will now be a silhouette or nearly so.

Use window light but don’t include the window in the composition. Shoot along the window, not into it. When you are shooting outside, put your back to the sun.


Remember, our eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest object in the image. Extreme contrast in light in the frame should be avoided if possible. Normal photographic processes can’t deal with both bright sun and deep shade. If you expose properly for the detail in the darker areas, the brightly lit areas are overexposed. If you expose properly for the bright areas, the shadow areas are black. Where possible, try to have everything in the frame under the same general light condition. So, if you’re shooting an interview outside at noon, try to find some shade to shoot the interview; it will reduce the harsh contrast in your subject’s face and it makes them less likely to squint.


Doing multimedia is more intrusive than traditional journalism. Putting a microphone on someone is more intrusive than simply talking to him or her. It is very important to have a talk with your editor about any question you have about doing a multimedia story for the publication you work for. Different papers will have differing positions on some issues.

Please read the following:


Where can you see good examples of multimedia stories in journalism? The National Press Photographers monthly multimedia competition is a really good source of what is good in current journalism.

Example Story Structures

Here are some sample editing structures to consider when making a video story.

• An Interview segment, followed by LS, MS, CU any order of what subject is talking about, and ending with an interview segment. This structure uses a sound bite to set the scene, followed by a sequence showing the activity, followed by a closing sound bite.

• (LS, MS, CU any order) showing what is happening, followed by interview closing sound bite.

• A commonly used storytelling sequence is LS, MS, CU, POV and RS. This is very effective to tell a story.

These are merely examples to get you thinking. Story structure is where your training and instincts meet creativity. Keep it simple at first while you are gaining experience with the medium.

Last Thought

Writers get better by writing; photographers get better by shooting. Your ultimate success in the current world of the generalists is to practice BOTH writing and shooting. As you become a life-long student of how to get better at what you do, your writing skills will improve your shooting and vice versa.










Note. I appreciate Steve Sweiter’s helpful comments on these tips. Steve was Indiana News Photographer of the Year and is retired as Operations Manager for WISH-TV, Indianapolis. He owns Sweitzer Productions and is co-chair of the National Press Photographers Association Advanced Storytelling Workshop.