How to shoot great video on your phone

The holidays are right around the corner, and you want to make sure you capture and preserve all those wonderful moments so you can enjoy them later. You don’t want your “Baby’s first holiday” video to be dark, grainy and super shaky, do you? Here are some really easy and basic tips for shooting video with your smartphone.

Watch out for “vertical video syndrome”

We’ve all done it. In the moment, we grab our phone and start shooting video without thinking about how it will look when we play it back on our TV at home for everyone to see. “Vertical video syndrome” is when people shoot video with their phones vertically. I think people forget and continue to treat it like a cell phone that you are going to hold up to your ear.

Remember: You’re no longer holding a cell phone! This is now your video camera.

The problem with vertical video is when you play it back on your TV, laptop or tablet computer. On these devices, your holiday memories will only show up on the middle of the screen with two giant black bars on either side. In industry speak, this is called “pillar-boxing” your video. You see this all the time when we play back someone’s web video on TODAY.

Be sure to preserve baby’s first Christmas, Thanksgiving with the family, or your next wedding or graduation by simply turning your phone sideways like a real camera and shooting your videos horizontally.

Get Good Lighting and Sound

This is filmmaking 101, and it applies whether you’re shooting video with your cell phone, a dedicated video camera or even a film camera: you need lots of light to capture your subject properly. Dark scenes and shadows mean your video will be grainy and hard to see.

The best light for shooting video is definitely daylight. If you can shoot your video outdoors, then do that. If you have to shoot indoors, then turn on all of the lights! If possible, try to shoot with warmer lights and not a lot of LED lights. They will literally warm up the shot.

A more advanced tip if that you can get someone to hold up a piece of white paper or poster board by a window and let the sunlight from the window bounce off of it to give your subject nice soft natural light indoors. 

As far as getting good sound, the first rule is to make sure the space you are shooting in is fairly quiet. The mics on smartphones pick up a lot of room noise if you are not careful. It is also better if you don’t shoot in an empty room, because there will be too much echo in the recording. Try to choose a room with carpeting or furniture to absorb the ambient sound. You also want to make sure that you know where the mic is on your phone so that you don’t accidentally cover it up with your finger while you are shooting.

Another tip is to try and keep your camera close to your subject and maybe even ask them to speak a little louder than normal just to make sure the mic picks everything up. I have a little trick where I cup my hand around the mic to help capture the best direct audio possible. You should try it out!


Shaky hands can ruin an otherwise perfect holiday video! Cell phones are so much lighter than big 35mm cameras, and with lighter cameras a lot more of the shaking from your hands will end up in the final video.

The first thing you need to do is to become a human tripod. Just say to yourself, “I am a tripod…I am a tripod…” Position your feet solidly on the ground with a wide even stance. Tuck your elbows in towards your sides and pretend that they are glued to your ribs. When the camera needs to pan or tilt, your whole torso needs to turn and bend as your arms are still glued to your sides. You want to be holding the camera fairly close to your body—don’t extend your forearms out too far or you will pick up more bounce. You also want to make sure that you are holding the camera with two hands. Don’t be lazy and just stick one hand out there with the camera.

If you are still having trouble you can invest in a little tripod or a phone stabilizer. There are also some great apps that you can download that will help take the shake out as well.

With these tips, you can be the next Stephen Spielberg -- or, you know, just capture some better video of your kids.

Digital lifestyle expert Mario Armstrong is a technology contributor to TODAY. Read more from him at and follow him on Twitter @marioarmstrong and on Facebook.