How to Shoot iPhone Video That Doesn't Suck

VDSCoverNobody watches bad video. Why should they when millions of great videos stream into the iPhone 24/7? Even your mother won't watch bad video you send her of the kids. Sure, she'll say she watched it. But she lasted about 10 seconds before clicking to Family Guy, just like you. 

In just a couple of short years, we've gone from "Cool—I can watch video on my iPhone!" to "Isn't there anything good on?" If your video's not good, it's gone. And so is all your effort. Like an unheard falling tree, it makes no sound—except the sound of you whining: "No body watched my video!" 

All this leads to my highest principle of creating an iPhone video: Make one that doesn't suck! Here are 7 tips to make your videos better instantly from my new book, appropriately titled How to Shoot Video that Doesn't Suck ($13.95,

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Tip 1: Think in shots

A "shot" is the smallest unit of video. Like good 3rd grade sentence structure, a shot consists of a noun and verb. For example, "a birthday party" is not a shot, "my mother unwrapping a present" is. 

The key here is not to just let the camera run. Instead, consider what you're shooting and what you want to show. Then shoot until we get the point: "Mom unwraps her new sweater"… and CUT. 

What if there's no verb? Don't we want a shot of the birthday cake? Sure we do, but all we need for that is a photograph. In video, we'll be much happier watching "Mom blowing out the candles on the cake." Adding the action verb is what holds our attention. When you've got the shot, stop the camera and look for the next one. Your video will instantly look better.

Tip 2: Keep your shots under 10 seconds

Now that you're thinking in terms of shots, focus on SHORT shots. Keep them under 10 seconds—that's pretty much what you see in movies, TV, and other professional videos. For example, at the company picnic, don't turn the camera on and leave it running. Instead, take 20 or so short action shots:

  • A shot of the boss tapping the beer keg… and CUT.

  • A shot of the softball team taking the field… and CUT.

  • A softball player putting a beer down on the 2nd base line… and CUT.
  • The boss stepping in beer as he rounds the base… and CUT. 

  • Etc.

When you play the footage at the company Christmas party, three minutes of short shots will richly recall the time and place better than if you had let the shots drag on.

Tip 3: Don't shoot until you see the whites 
of their eyes


People communicate half of what they mean with their spoken words. The other half happens non-verbally, especially in the eyes. Miss the eyes, and you miss the message.

Think about the defense lawyer on the news whose mouth proclaims his client's innocence but whose shifty eyes say otherwise. Watch the cheating wife on the TV drama when she says, "Of course, I love you." The husband and the TV viewers know differently. That's why TV (and Web video even more so) is a medium of close-ups.

Subtle facial patterns vanish if you're too far away. Stay close enough to see the whites of their eyes.

Tip 4: Zoom with your feet

Networks cover baseball games with cameras positioned all over the ballpark. The cameras have huge lenses that can zoom in on the pimples on the pitcher's face from high above home plate. These cameras are bolted to huge platforms with state-of-the-art gearing to keep the image steady. If they didn't, a small bump on a zoomed-in shot would look like an earthquake on screen (see Star Trek circa 1966).

To keep your iPhone or digital camera from shaking, you could put it on a tripod instead of holding it. But for better video, don't use the zoom at all. Instead, set your lens wide open (i.e., no zoom), walk closer to your subject, and then shoot. When you stay on the wide end of the zoom lens, minor shaking becomes virtually invisible.

Tip 5: Stand still ! Stop fidgeting! 
No zooming during shots!

VDS2Pros get to move the camera while they're shooting. Until you're at least a "skilled amateur," treat your iPhone like it's a still camera. Move to the desired location, point the iPhone at the subject, look at the screen to make sure you like the framing, and take the shot. When you've got what you want, stop and set up the next shot.

The rhythm you're going for is… Move, Point, Shoot, Stop; Move, Point, Shoot, Stop. This will result in a series of well-framed shots in which the motion of the subject catches and holds our attention, without the distraction of the frame careening all over the place.

Tip 6: Keep the light behind you 
and the camera

The iPhone, like all video cameras, gets confused when it has to deal with multiple light levels in the same shot. It only has one lens, and if it closes that lens in reaction to bright light, something else in the frame that was darker to begin with gets really dark. For example, if you sit your grandmother in front of a bright window to record a video interview, you'll see the beautiful scene outside the window and a black cutout silhouette of grandma. To prevent her from looking like a refugee from the witness protection program, switch places. Keep the window behind you and the camera. The light will fall on grandma; she'll be the brightest thing in the frame.

Tip 7: Keep your video short

iMovieThe record of your mother's second birthday party probably exists as six photos stuck in an album and a grainy two-minute 8mm home movie. Yet when you look at those photos or watch the home movies, you can get a real feeling for the time and place. Back then, the technology forced you to keep things short.

iPhone owners can use iMovie to make their videos short and sweet.

Nowadays, with digital cameras, you can take hundreds of photos and shoot video for hours on end. But just because you can doesn't mean you should. Take a look at any successful TV commercial. They're short and sweet. And unless you've got Martin Scorsese directing a Victoria's Secret commercial, don't even think of going over 3 minutes—and it still better be good.

You don't need 10 minutes to show us your mom's birthday party. In addition to 10-second shots, keep the total length of the video short. The best way to do this is to aim for short from the start. The second best way is to edit down what you captured. iPhone users can do this with the iMovie app ($4.99, Just remember that old show-biz adage: When in doubt, cut it out!

These 7 tips will help you make better videos
July-August 2011
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