Before you read this, fair warning that it’s absurd, frivolous and doesn’t even really count as photography. However, it might give you 30 seconds of fun, and lately we could all use more fun and frivolity in our lives.
I recently had the good fortune to tromp around the desert southwest with my Photo Cascadia compadres, Erin Babnik and David Cobb. In addition to enjoying their company, I was doing my best to stay far away from the virus as well as any news about the election dumpster-fire that was unfolding.
Periodically during the trip, each of us would informally use our phone cameras to record short video clips of our wanderings, as one does these days.
Getting bored with my same old static shots or panning shots, like the one above, I began experimenting with different focal lengths (the iPhone 11 I have has both wide-angle and telephoto lenses in addition to the standard lens) and moving around a bit, walking toward or past my friends while they scowled and shook their heads at me for momentarily breaching their socially distant safety zones.
On one occasion while Erin was photographing from a precipitous edge, I noticed that the combination of the wide-angle lens, smooth movement and forward travel gave me the distinct feeling that it was taken with a drone. Like drone footage, it was more dramatic than the video I had taken while I was just standing there (see clip below). Also, like a drone, it was annoying the heck out of Erin.
With complete disregard for my rule about never naming things that aren’t important enough to have a name, I dubbed what I was doing “phone droning”.
Honestly, capturing this type of smooth and dynamic video motion is in no way groundbreaking, so I’m not claiming I had an original idea or anything. It’s actually kind of the point for videoing with a drone. In a cinematic sense, filmmakers have long used all sorts of complex and expensive contraptions to get smooth footage while the camera is in motion including cranes, dollies, zip lines, rails, gimbals, helicopters…and whatever the thing was they used to film the speeder bikes racing through the redwoods in Star Wars: Return of The Jedi. In 2020, all of these devices have now been robotized and AI-controlled ensuring that Skynet will send paparazzi-bots back from the future instead of Terminators.
You can even get gimbals made to use with phones. I had one, and before I had a phone with video stabilization it did make it possible to get smoother phone footage. But, having to pack an extra piece of equipment that needed to be charged, required some set up and didn’t fit in my pocket pretty much canceled out any advantage of using a phone for video in the first place.
To be clear, it wasn’t just the look of the phone drone footage that interested me. Rather it was that I had accidentally accomplished low budget, low effort dynamic video that didn’t give me motion sickness, using nothing more than my phone and my feet. I’m not going to win any filmography awards, but it will definitely spice up my otherwise unimaginative video clips.
To get the phone drone look, you just need a phone that has video stabilization (most have it these days) and a wide-angle lens. In wide-angle mode, you simply walk as smoothly as you can while “flying” your phone through the scene. Making airplane or spaceship sounds with your mouth is optional.
Full disclosure, I’m pretty lazy about a lot of things, including making videos with my phone. Despite not really having anything better to do with my time, I only experimented with this one move. However, I can imagine the potential for many variations. “Flying” your phone drone around with it mounted to the end of a tripod or hiking pole would probably achieve even more drone-esque perspectives and motion but if not, at least you will have given the tourists a good laugh. With a pole-mount, you could also do crane shots, skim right above water or peer further out over cliff edges (at your own risk…I’m taking no responsibility for dropped phones). Sliding your phone along the edge of a table, a tripod leg or a car hood might make for stable tracking shots. Most phones now have modes for slow-mo and time-lapse as well. The possibilities for making slightly less mediocre video are endless.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the static or basic panning shots don’t have their place. They are just as essential as dynamic moves but can become repetitive if that’s all the game you’ve got. Mixing up static and dynamic video has always been important in film making. It’s just been challenging to create usable dynamic footage with a phone in the past.
My hat is off to real filmmakers and videographers, as well as my photography vlogger friends (you know who you are) who somehow take video, shoot still images, act, direct and produce all simultaneously. But, for a simple-minded photographer like me who just wants to grab lazy video here and there, the current generation of phone cameras combined with some careful, creative and certainly absurd looking phone drone flying might provide some welcome variety and make my video stories slightly less hard to watch.
Sean is an outdoor photographer, digital image developing enthusiast and photography educator based in Ashland, Oregon, where he resides with his wife and two sons. His previous career as a science teacher makes photography education a good fit. Sean teams up with fellow Photo Cascadia members leading workshops. He also teaches digital image developing classes, lectures and offers a series of Photoshop video tutorials.