DIYP’s ultimate smartphone vlogging gear guide

Feb 7, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

DIYP’s ultimate smartphone vlogging gear guide

Feb 7, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Even before the whole global pandemic thing, vlogging was on the rise. This last year, though, seems to have caused a significant boost in the number of vloggers out there and many have taken to doing it on their smartphones.

We’re on lockdown again here in Scotland and getting out with a bunch of camera gear to shoot videos isn’t exactly possible right now. So, I’ve been testing out some smartphone vlogging gear over the last few weeks during my daily exercise to see how well they hold up.

The Phone(s)

I’ve been mixing things up a little here, but ultimately I’m using Android. Sorry. I’ve primarily been using my OnePlus 7 Pro for shooting smartphone video. I like the unhindered display and the popup selfie camera. The quality is pretty good when shooting with the main rear camera, too.

But I’ve also recently been checking out the new VIVO X51 5G (it’s what they call the X50 Pro outside of China). That’s the phone with the built-in 2-axis gimbal on the main camera, and yeah, it’s as wild and awesome as it sounds. But that review is for another day.

It really doesn’t matter what phone you’re using, though, as long as it’s one you’re comfortable with and offers a level of quality that meets your needs. The software and devices mentioned in this article, are as brand-agnostic as I can get them. That means they’ll work on just about any Android phone (assuming it’s running the minimum required Android OS version) or iPhones.

The Software (for shooting)

For me, there are only two real choices here. You can either use your phone’s built-in camera app, regardless of whether you’re Android or iOS, which is the easy way to go if you just want to create some quick clips. This isn’t a wrong or even bad way to go depending on the overall aesthetic of your videos. I’ve added footage shot with the stock camera app to my videos plenty of times and nobody’s ever noticed – at least, they’ve not mentioned it if they have.

The built-in apps let you quickly and easily switch between cameras, tap to focus and expose and do a reasonable job these days of creating some consistency between shots as AI scene detection and white balance has improved.

The other option, and the one that offers a lot more control, is Filmic Pro. This is a much more polished app for iOS devices, but it also works extremely well on many Android devices, too. You might lose some features with some devices, like the ability to switch between your main and wide-angle or telephoto cameras (although you can still swap between front and rear), and you might not get manual focus control with all devices, but you may not need those features anyway.

You’ll still get manual exposure control as well as a lot of control over your white balance and colour. You can even use it to shoot log footage if you want to grade and match each of your shots more easily in your editing software on the desktop.

The Software (for editing)

This section’s going to be kind of brief, too, because I’m a little set in my ways when it comes to editing and happy with my workflow, so I tend not to experiment too much with other editing software. But here’s what I use.

Even when shooting on a smartphone, I much prefer editing on the desktop. Once I’m home, I transfer all my footage from my phone to my computer and then typically edit in DaVinci Resolve (there’s a free version that offers all the features you need for editing 4K smartphone footage and then some).

Sometimes, though, I will edit on my phone, especially if it’s a quick short video for social media and I just want to edit a few clips together. For that, I use Adobe Premiere Rush. Rush has the added benefit of syncing up to your CC account, so you can actually start your edit in Rush on your phone (and get that short social media trailer), but then bring it into Premiere Pro on your desktop to finish editing the full-length version.

You don’t need an Adobe CC account to use Rush on your phone unless you want the syncing options, which is fine for me, because I only use Rush for videos destined for social media only. When it comes to doing the final edit, I’ll start over from scratch in Resolve and not Premiere Pro.

The Gear

So this is what you’re all here for. What do you need (or might help you) besides your smartphone itself in order to make the most of it when vlogging? As with shooting anything, it’s going to vary depending on exactly what you’re shooting. Yes, you’re vlogging, you’re shooting yourself (mostly), but how you want that footage to look will often dictate what extra bits you might need.

I’ve tried to lay the gear suggestions below out in a logical sense, with each item category building on from the previous one. But feel free to skip things and go straight to skip ahead to things like lighting and audio if earlier items aren’t applicable to your needs. Everybody’s needs are different, which means everybody’s gear requirements will be, too.

With that out of the way, let’s start off simple with phone cases.

Smartphone Case

Smartphone cases have become kind of a necessary evil as smartphones have gotten larger, covered with more glass and seemingly more delicate. And while you can use any case you like to shoot your video, I’ve become a fan of the Ulanzi smartphone cases for one very specific reason. They have a 17mm threaded filter attachment on at least the main camera, if not all of the cameras your phone may contain.

I’m using the Ulanzi case for my OnePlus 7 Pro, which features a 17mm thread for each of the three cameras in the rear of the device. This means that I can screw on one of the various 3rd party lenses that are available or smartphones these days or I can screw on a 17-52mm filter ring adapter and actually shoot video on my phone using a good quality circular polariser or the even more useful variable neutral density filter.

The big issue with smartphones is that in almost all of them, the aperture is fixed. And if you’re out shooting in bright conditions, even with the ISO as low as it’ll go, you’ve got shutter speeds that are far too fast to look good on video.

Being able to add a variable ND over the lens means you can wrangle that shutter speed down to a more reasonable duration.

If you can’t find a case that fits your phone, you could also go with an inexpensive clip-on mount with a 17mm threaded socket that you can attach the 52mm filter adapter to.

Variable Neutral Density Filter

As mentioned above, Variable NDs can be invaluable when shooting on your phone, especially if you’re regularly filming the view in front of you rather than just using the selfie camera to film yourself.

If you do shoot things besides yourself, though, and have the Ulanzi case with the 52mm adapter or another way to mount 52mm filters to your phone, then it’s definitely worth picking one up.

I really like the B+W 52mm XS-Pro 1-5 Stop variable ND filter when working with my phone as it retains great colour, contrast and sharpness throughout its range. That being said, it’s not an inexpensive filter, coming in at around $200. If I were only using it for a smartphone, I would not buy one. But I use this with my Panasonic and Nikon cameras, too, as well as the Insta360 ONE R using the SmallRig cage.

If I were just looking for something that would work for smartphones, I’d look to one of the less expensive brands like K&F, Gobe or Tiffen. If you get one with more than a 3 or 4 stop range, though, don’t stop it down too much when using it, or you’ll get that dreaded X pattern as a result of cross-polarization.

Smartphone Cage

There are various cages out there for smartphones these days. Yes. Cages. For your phone. Some of them are form-fitting to specific models of smartphone, like those from SmallRig for various iPhones.

Personally, though, I like more generic ones that can adapt to different phones of different shapes and sizes. Ulanzi also makes camera-specific cages, but I’ve been using the Ulanzi U-Rig Lite, as I can use it with any of the four different phones I have access to here.

But why use a cage at all? Why not just throw a phone bracket on a little mini-tripod like the Manfrotto PIXI or Joby Handypod? Well, you can do that, and we’ll get to that later, but the main reason you might want to use a cage is to be able to attach other devices like lights and microphones.

If you do want to attach other devices, then a cage will let you quickly whip that phone out to make or receive a call or check your Facebook notifications without having to dismantle a whole bunch of stuff.

Cages like the U-Rig Lite also offer a pair of handles for when you’re shooting something other than yourself that lets you get a nice stable grip on the phone for shooting smoother footage. Yes, the VIVO X51 5G has a built-in gimbal and many other smartphones have optical stabilisation these days, but everything we can do when filming to assist in keeping the phone steady will help the phone’s stabilisation systems to do its job just that bit better.

Lighting

Side note: I designed a desktop stand for using KYU-6 for lighting small products that you can 3D print. Find out more here.

Here’s our first attachment that we’re going to connect to the cage. A light isn’t something you’ll necessarily need all the time, especially if most of your vlogging is done outdoors during the daytime. But if you’re out at night (and here in Scotland, it’s pretty dark by 5pm) or shooting indoors, then a little illuminating assistance definitely helps.

My favourite small light for mounting above phones is the Spiffy Gear KYU-6 bicolour LED light. You can buy just the light on its own or it comes in a Vloggers Bundle which includes the cold shoe mini ball head mount (normally a separate purchase).

Even though it’s a small light, it’s quite versatile. And given the distances one is usually holding the phone away from their face in order to film themselves, it’s plenty bright enough for lighting you up to shoot a vlog when it’s a bit dark. The ball head also allows you to mount and position the light a little off-axis from the lens in order to not blind you while staring at the phone’s camera and creates a little highlight and shadow to give your face a little depth on-camera.

If you think you need a little more power, you can always grab the three-pack with the triple-mount adapter. This would also give you more lighting options when shooting indoors with your phone as you can separate the lights to add a background, fill or rim light.

Other small lighting choices include the Ulanzi VL49RGB, the LitraTorch 2.0 and the LitraPro.

Microphone

The microphone I’m about to mention is definitely overkill for smartphone vlogging. But if you also shoot video with a DSLR or mirrorless camera as well, then it’s well worth looking into. That microphone is the Rode VideoMic NTG. It has a unique advantage over other on-camera shotgun microphones when it comes to smartphones and that’s that as well as being a regular old analogue microphone, it’s also a digital USB microphone.

This means that it can plug directly into the USB port of your computer and will be recognised as a USB Audio Device. It also means that you can plug it straight into your iPhone’s lightning socket (Rode SC15) or Android device’s Type-C socket (Rode SC16) as a digital audio device.

You can still plug it into the regular TRRS headphone jack if your phone still possesses one, but as a digital USB audio device, you’re bypassing your phone’s built-in preamps which results in a much better audio quality, without the hiss you often hear when using external mics.

This isn’t the only good “on-camera” microphone option, though. Rode also has the VideoMic Me-L for iPhone users, but unlike the VideoMic NTG, this isn’t a digital audio device so you’ll have to put up with your smartphone’s preamps potentially adding some hiss. Or you could go with the Rode VideoMicro with a 3.5mm TRRS adapter to your phone’s Lightning or Type-C socket (but again, it’s analogue, not digital).

If you’d prefer to go with a lav mic, you’ve got a few options. You could go wired and just not hold your phone too far away with the Rode smartLav+ or you could go wireless with the Rode Wireless GO, Synco A1 or if you want something a bit fancier, the Hollyland Lark 150. The Deity Connect (review here) is also another option if you want a wireless lav with a backup recording to microSD built right into the transmitter (if you’re not based in the USA), but that is the most expensive of the options suggested here.

Tripods

Yeah, I know, tripods aren’t necessarily something you think about when packing ultralight and small for vlogging with your smartphone, but they’re not all great big unwieldy things like those we often use with “real cameras”. There are a couple of small mini tripods that I like for vlogging.

First up is the Manfrotto Pixi. This is a great little mini tripod that I’ve been using with both my phones and DSLR/mirrorless cameras for the last few years. They let you quickly and easily set your camera down on a surface when you’re out somewhere, but they can also double up as a handle when you want to hold your phone or camera more easily while filming yourself. There’s also a Pixi Evo 2 with extending legs, but personally, I prefer the original due to the quick release on the top.

The other is the Joby Handypod. Vitec, the company that owns Manfrotto, bought Joby in 2019, and now they’ve started to share their tech. The Joby Handypod is kind of an evolution of the Pixi mentioned above but geared more towards smartphone vloggers.

It doesn’t have quite the holding power of the Pixi (it’s close, but there’s a noticeable difference), but easily allows you to mount a smartphone bracket to the top, allowing you to record with your phone while holding onto the tripod in either a horizontal or vertical orientation and has a slightly more ergonomic handle designed specifically to act as a handheld grip.

As a side note to mini tripods, if you find you’re not getting enough range of motion with the built-in ball head, check out the Ulanzi U-80L. This is a tiny Arca Swiss ball head that has a built-in cold shoe mount. Very handy if you want to mount a little shotgun microphone close to your phone.

This also opens you up to other options for handholding your phone or camera while vlogging, as you don’t need to rely on getting a mini tripod with a built-in ballhead. And there are lots of those to choose from.

Gimbals

The other alternative to a mini tripod, and one that’ll help to keep your smartphone level at all times, is a smartphone gimbal. There are three that I quite like and each serves the purpose quite well for vlogging.

We have the Zhiyun Smooth X (review here), which is pretty much targeted directly towards vlogging and photographing yourself. It’s super small and lightweight, offering the versatility of a built-in extending selfie stick to let you get a wider look on the world around you when filming yourself.

Then there’s the Hohem iSteady X (review here), which is very handy if you’re vlogging for a vertical video format like Instagram Stories, Snapchat or TikTok. It will, of course, work in horizontal mode, too, but I’ve found it performs best when shooting vertical video with a smartphone.

And then there’s the Moza Mini MX (review coming as soon as we’re out of lockdown). This is probably my favourite of the three gimbals mentioned here. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily better than the other two, it’s just personal preference based on what I like to shoot and the way I like to shoot it. The Mini MX is geared more towards smartphone filmmakers or “advanced” vloggers that want to tell more of a story and have a lot of different filming options than just want to film themselves.

The Mini MX offers a lot of versatility over the other two videos mentioned above due to its design, which offers both a handle for holding and a separate mounting point for the (included) mini tripod (which you can use for more stable 2-handed movements). It isn’t a quick whip-it-out-and-start-shooting gimbal like the two above, though. It requires a little more forethought and effort to get the most out of it, but its design will help you to get shots that might not be easily possible with the others mentioned above.

Other stuff?

The only other thing to potentially mention at this stage is a bag to put it all on. But how big a bag you need really depends on how much you add to your phone in order to vlog. If it’s just your phone and a tiny gimbal or mini-tripod, then you can probably just stick everything in your pocket. But if you want a few more options that require a little more gear, then a small backpack might not be a bad idea.

If you go the backpack route, then I’m a big fan of the Manfrotto Advanced² Hybrid Backpack. I don’t know that I’d buy one specifically for vlogging, but it’s a fantastic travel backpack (or handle bag or shoulder bag) that can also help to carry your vlogging gear around with you when heading off outdoors.

Wrapping up

Ultimately, there’s no one right way to build a vlogging kit. There are a lot of common elements between different peoples setups, but there will still be differences.

Many might use a smartphone gimbal, for example, but they may use one of several different models depending on their style of shooting. Some might choose to record their audio separately into a second phone in their pocket and sync up in post because they don’t have a wireless lav and don’t want wires trailing in front of the camera while it’s filming you.

So, you’ll need to figure out what you need and want to be able to shoot and figure out what extras you might need to add to your phone. Hopefully, though, this gives you some different options for ways to expand your smartphone vlogging kit to let you increase the level of production or shoot things in a new way that might not have been possible before.

Did I miss anything? What smartphone vlogging gear can’t you live without?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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