5 mobile journalism basics to remember

February 4, 2016

By Judd Slivka
Reynolds Journalism Institute

We talk about apps and frames, quick-to-social and between-casts. And we talk about when we should and shouldn’t use mobile devices for journalism. Well, let’s stop talking about application and talk for a few minutes about execution.

Let’s go back to basics with a few mobile journalism tips to make your life easier, regardless of the equipment you’re using. The inspiration here is the number of outlets that are having reporters shoot video on phones and the resulting number of videos that are painful to watch.


First basic

Hold the phone sideways. You want video that fills up the 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio of the device your audience is using to watch your video. Portrait (that is, vertical) video doesn’t work except in limited circumstances such as SnapChat and the startup VerVid’s site. Will we eventually go to more vertical video and be less annoyed with it? Yes. But as long as TVs are rectangles, narrow up-and-down video with black bars or generator graphics around them are going to be ugly. Besides, video is about immersion and showing, not telling; you should use every inch of the screen that you can.


Second basic

Put the phone in airplane mode. This sounds simple and yet many videos are marred by the ding or vibration of incoming mail, text or calls. This obviously makes a difference when you’re recording audio, but I’ve seen the phone’s vibration jar video, too.


Third basic

Remember, the microphones really aren’t that great. The fact that we can record on a phone is pretty impressive in itself, but the microphones aren’t professional quality. They tend to be in the wrong place, and they pick up everything in the room because they’re omnidirectional. And because the microphones are in the phone case, they’re susceptible to handling noise. So take a few common-sense precautions:

• Make sure the microphone is pointed directly at the sound source you want to record. If you’re recording audio on the iPhone, that means pointing the bottom of the phone at whatever you want to record.  If you’re recording video, the rear microphone is located right next to the camera lens. Android phones vary, but a quick Google search should get you an answer.

• Get close. If you’re shooting video without a supplementary lens, you’ll want to be within about 3 feet of your subject anyway. Be as close as you can without freaking out the person. And make sure there’s minimal noise between you and them, because the mic will pick it up. Block the wind with your body, for example.

• Don’t cuddle the phone in your hand. The proper way to hold a microphone is three fingertips on one side and the thumb tip on the opposite side. It keeps the movement of your hand from being transmitted through the mic body. Same thing with your phone, which is even more prone to handling noise when you have a case on it. Hold the phone like an egg; watch the sound quality go up.


Fourth basic

Pay attention to light. This is a basic rule for all photography and videography, but the sensor size on mobile phones is small enough that it intensifies the exposure gap between light and dark much more than would a DSLR or mirrorless camera. A few common-sense precautions will make shooting mobile easier:

• Be aware of where the strongest light is and don’t be opposite from it. Think of a half-circle extending from your shoulders to behind you. If the strongest light sourcein the room is along that 180-degree arc, you’ll be fine. Shooting outdoors? If you can feel the sun on your back, you’re in the right shooting position.

• Don’t be afraid to position people for lighting purposes if you have to. I could go into a whole thing on how to fake a three-point lighting set up out in the field, but you don’t want to read that. Remember this: The strongest light should be facing the interview subject, the second-strongest light should be from the side and the third strongest should be from behind. Want well-lit interviews while inside? Bring your interview subject toward a window and have him or her face it. Then stand in front of them, offset about 20 to 30 degrees. Natural light will fill their face, your phone’s sensor will be happy and life will be grand.


Fifth basic

Stabilize to the extent you can. Because we’re not talking about mobile kits here, let’s assume all you have to stabilize your phone-that-weighs-less-than-a-sandwich is you. Because you’re holding the phone horizontally (right?), you should have a thumb and forefinger on either end of the phone. Tuck your elbows into your body. That’ll provide some stability. Try and shoot leaning up against a wall. If there are no walls, make yourself stable by placing your feet shoulder width apart with the back of your dominant foot about 12 inches ahead of the toe of your back foot.

None of these tips are rocket science. They just bear repeating. We can connect $1,500 of lenses, frames and sound equipment to our mobile equipment. And if it’s narrow video or video with audio that’s unbearably soft or has weird “you’ve got mail” sounds in the middle of it, all we will have done is annoy the audience.


Judd Slivka is an assistant professor of convergence journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a MobileVideoDIY instructor at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.


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