Smartphone cinema. Audiovisual creation at your fingertips
By Carlos Medina, Audiovisual Technology Expert and Advisor
The purpose of this article is to get an insight into a piece of equipment that brings together many technologies and one that has pervaded many facets of our social context: the smart mobile phone or smartphone. Because of this device, our lives have become very dependent on its use and operation, from communication between people via telephone calls, to sending multimedia messages, not to forget the possibility of carrying out banking, commercial and admin operations, by connecting to a 3G/4G/5G network, or download any type of app.
Only fairly recently, research on mobile addiction has begun to be carried out. This phenomenon is known as nomophobia and consists of an irrational fear of leaving home without the mobile phone or not carrying it with us. It is not our aim to delve into this addiction, but it is clear that the presence of mobile phones has changed the future of society as a whole and of people, in particular.
Our approach to smartphones is from the audiovisual creation point of view. This increasingly sophisticated equipment is making it possible to obtain images and videos of high technical quality. It is a very interesting tool for achieving an audiovisual production that can be used in different environment, from the most personal sphere to content for social networks or YouTube, and also for the professional audiovisual industry (short films, feature films or advertising).
In 2015, Samsung’s marketing division published information on the most important aspects that consumers had pointed out when purchasing a smartphone, highlighting that the quality of the camera was the third factor to consider only after factors such as 4G connection capabilities and device durability.
The first thing that comes to our mind before knowing a little more about the elements or technologies of a smartphone that will enable recording images or videos is the time-related aspect for the implementation of this technology on a mobile phone. We mean the fact that in a truly short time we have been able to take photographs (still images) and even to record videos (moving images).
The historical origin of cameras in mobile phones is as uncertain as what happens with other technologies such as cinema, television or radio. Establishing who the first one was or the first patents, the first tests, experiments and inventions is not an easy task.
We could set about it with the first commercial appearance of a cell phone featuring a built-in camera from manufacturer Kyocera, the VP-210 VisualPhone model (1999), which was sold only in Japan for the PHS network and equipped with a single front camera of 110,000 pixels.
Samsung initially launched the SCH-V200 in Korea in June 2000. A model with a very peculiar solution. The phone’s camera and components were separate devices that shared a common body. To access photos on the SCH-V200, the phone had to be connected to a computer. In addition, it was only capable of taking 20 photos with a resolution of 0.35 megapixels.
In November of that same year 2000, Japanese company Sharp and J-Phone released the J-SH04 phone model. This camera-phone was capable of taking pictures with a resolution of 0.1 megapixels for a 256-color display.
In 2002, Sanyo, together with carrier Sprint, brought the first camera phone exclusively to the US: the Sanyo SCP-5300 model (phone in the form of a “clamshell”). This device had some upgrades as compared to the J-SH04 such as the option to use a flash, white balance, digital zoom and the possibility of displaying photos for phone book contacts and filters in sepia, in negative colors and in black and white.
Three major mobile phone manufacturers such as Motorola, Sony Ericsson and Nokia, committed then to capturing and recording images through their new models.
Sony Ericsson launched the T68i model (2002). A phone with the peculiarity that it did not have a camera built into its body but required instead an external accessory (the camera) that had to be connected to the terminal on the charger area. The T68i featured a 640 x 480-pixel VGA resolution, whose greatest novelty was that it could take color photos. The accessory itself had enough memory to store 14 photos at full resolution, although it could be decreased to 80 x 60 pixels to hold up to 200 files.
Nokia marketed the 7650 model (2002), the company’s first phone ever to come with a VGA camera. And Motorola released the E365 (2003), also with a VGA camera.
Back in 2003, we found the first video recordings on a smartphone, which would come from manufacturer NOKIA with the 6600 and 7600 models, naturally equipped with a camera and the necessary processing power to achieve this goal.
In this same year, in 2003, the first front cameras made it into the market from Sony Ericsson (Z1010 mobile phone) and Siemens (U15 mobile phone).
Years 2004 and 2005 marked the beginning of an ‘endless’ battle to improve the quality of images under the almighty megapixel figure. Nokia took camera phones to a new level by launching the N90 model, which was capable of achieving 2 megapixels.
A determined commitment from Apple and Samsung towards smartphone features, made them absolute leaders in the marketing of smartphones equipped with high-performance cameras.
Simply by way of historical data, in year 2007, Apple introduced the original iPhone, with a 2MP camera, with neither had LED Flash, nor autofocus, nor video recording capabilities. But it was the iPhone 4S in 2011 the one that stood out for its new 8-megapixel camera.
For its part, Samsung introduced the i8510 (2008), known as INNOV8 (for innovate), the first terminal to feature an 8MP camera.
But Nokia was the one setting the bar very high in terms of megapixels with its Lumia 1020 (2013) model, featuring 41MP as well as Carl Zeiss optics, optical image stabilization, auto/manual focus and a xenon and LED flash.
The most sophisticated features in the cameras built in smartphones opened up plenty of opportunities for new manufacturers: LG, HTC, Acer, Google, Huawei, One Plus, among others.
In 2011, both LG and HTC launched smartphones equipped with 3D cameras, the HTC EVO 3D and the LG Optimus 3D. It was a system that made use of two 5MP cameras in order to create stereoscopic images, enjoyable on their screens with 3D technology without the need of 3D goggles.
Not very successful in the smartphone market, Acer, the renowned laptop manufacturer, presented its Liquid S2 model (2013), being the first mobile with 4K video recording.
Google, in collaboration with LG, implemented with its Nexus 5 (2014) model, the era of HDR in smartphones.
Also Huawei, with its P20 Pro model in early 2018, stood out from the rest with a new triple camera system. This novelty would be later implemented by many of its competitors, such as OPPO’s Find X3 Pro model, which features up to five cameras (four rear and one front).
In January 2022, One Plus has just presented its OnePlus 10 Pro model, equipped with a 48MP main rear camera.
Manufacturer Xiaomi markets the MI 11T model, which comes with four cameras, one of them, the main rear camera (wide angle) reaching 108 MP.
Nowadays, we are seeing every year news of a new model or version or even the appearance of some other manufacturer that surprises us. But one conclusion is clear, with regards to the analysis of the possibility of capturing and recording images/videos, having a quality camera has become one of the main arguments in smartphone sales, promotion and marketing campaigns.
It is now time to share those aspects, parameters or technical specifications that we must consider for a smartphone to qualify as a Cinema Smartphone:
Camera or cameras: We refer to the number of cameras that the mobile device has, even reaching up to five in some models.
Placement on the device’s body: front (for lovers of selfies, video conferencing or online meetings) or rear. Normally, the main camera -and the one offering greater performance- is located on the back.
Knowing the possibilities of each camera, as well as regarding to the relevant viewing angles, allows for greater shot versatility. Currently, there are smartphone models that already feature wide-angle optics, telephoto and even macro-optics.
Image sensor: It is important to know the sensor’s size and technology used when capturing the image. Regarding sensor sizes in the mobile sector, they are small compared to other types of cameras that we find in professional audiovisual production. The most common sizes are 1/1.7″ sensor, 1/2″ sensor, 1/2.3″ sensor, 1/2.4″ sensor, 1/2.55″ sensor, 1/3.4″ sensor, among others.
As for sensor types, CMOS is the prevailing choice
Number of megapixels: This piece of data is essential for images capture as it allows higher quality and an improvement in the possibility of enlarging them. At present, we are seeing a minimum of 12MP and up to 108MP in some models.
Video resolution: We refer to UHD (2160p) and 4K qualities. But we can already find some smartphone models with 8K UHD (7680 x 4320).
Frames per second: The most common values in images per second that we can find are 24fps, 30fps and 60fps.
HDR: An abbreviation for High Dynamic Range. This technology allows us to improve image capture for a better result among the various exposure levels that we can record in our photographs/videos. The most common standards used are HLG, HDR10 and HDR10+, although some smartphone manufacturers are already including Dolby Vision.
In February 2017, the Ultra HD Alliance announced a new standard for mobile devices, the so-called Mobile HDR Premium. The Ultra HD Alliance is made up of movie producers and technology companies seeking to set a standard for next-generation entertainment.
Video codecs: The possibility of supporting ProRes video recording, HEVC and/or H.264 formats.
Diaphragm or F no.: We can find out what the camera optics’ maximum opening rate, which will allow more light to pass through to the image sensor. Some examples: f/1.7, f/1.79, on the main rear camera; and other F nos. on front camera or secondary rear cameras: f/2.24, f/2.2, f/2.4, …
In this regard, the lenses yield the maximum performance in the opening and correction of chromatic aberrations due to the collaboration of companies specialized in photographic and cinematographic optics such as: Sony launched its CyberShot technology; Nokia along with Carl Zeiss; Leica optics in Huawei or iPhone mobiles; and Hasselblad’s collaboration with OnePlus.
Camera modes: Each manufacturer gradually includes configurations for capture and recording operations that make handling easier for users. Some of the most important ones are: night mode, beauty mode, slow motion mode, time-lapse mode, cinema mode, and even the ability to apply effects and filters to the resulting image.
Other features: white balance adjustments; color temperature changes; ability to adjust ISO levels, shutter speed, opening and EV; optical zoom (x6 for example) and digital zoom (x30); continuous autofocus…
Other key aspects in smartphones for achieving quality recordings have to do with the mobile phone’s screen type, internal processor and capture/listening of sound.
Regarding the mobile phone’s screen, we find Super Retina XDR technologies with ProMotion OLED, P-OLED and/or Dynamic AMOLED 2X screens in various sizes (from 6.1 inches or 6.55 inches up to 6.7 inches). A typical 5,000,000:1 contrast ratio, sRGB color gamut up to DCI-P3 compliant (inclusive), and a brightness response of around 500-1,000 nits.
The device’s processor is essential for many of the operations and features, but also for the recording of still and moving images. We must take into account the number of CPU cores and their speed: a minimum of 6 cores and 2.2 GHz, up to 8 cores and 2.9 GHz speed.
Finally, when it comes to audio, it is interesting that we have included the following features in our smartphone: built-in microphone, stereo speakers and in/out minijack. Although not the best of the technologies that mobile phones have, we must include external microphones (minijack and/or USB-C connection) in order to achieve better sound recording. Solutions like Rode SmartLav+, Zoom Am7, Zoom iQ7, Rode VideoMic Me, Comica CVM-VS08, Saramonic SmartMixer. Some models currently support Dolby Atmos.
Last but not least, the device’s battery life, data storage (either in internal memory or on a dedicated external card) and endurance to splashing, water and dust (IP68 rating according to the IEC 60529 standard).
Also, the use of ancillary equipment such as tripods, gimbals, stabilizers, among others. And even external optics attached, like PhotoJoJo, Selvim Lenses or Apexel kit lenses.
We should not forget the use of apps that improve our recording process and image results, such as: Cinema 4K, Filmic Pro, iMovie, UltraKam Pro, Camera Plus Pro, Cinema FV5, iSuper8, or the Adobe Clip pack, among the most relevant.
All the technical parameters mentioned above for a smartphone cinema open up for us a world full of possibilities to make excellent video or film recordings. Some well-known directors have already done so, for example Steven Soderbergh, first with his film Unsane (2018) using three Apple iPhone 7 Plus or later with the work for Netflix entitled High Flying Bird (2019) with an Apple iPhone 8, an anamorphic lens and Filmic Pro as a recording app.
Another example: Park Chan-Wook won the Best Short Film award at the 2011 Berlinale for Night Fishing, shot on an Apple iPhone 4.
Apple iPhone XS, iPhone 13 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max, S20 Ultra 5G, Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Galaxy S10, Oppo Find X3 Pro and Reno 6 Pro , Google Pixel 4XL, Huawei P20 Pro and P40 Pro, One Plus 7T Pro and 6, Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Pro and Mi 11T, Vivo X60 Pro, Sony Xperia 1 III, LG V30 are many of the models that we can find on the smartphone market (2021) to make movies.
A fact that reveals the success of some brands compared to others is the result of smartphone sales worldwide that was released in 2021: number one is Samsung, followed by Apple, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and Huawei.
All the above-mentioned are renowned and recognized manufactures that deserve attention every season due to new-product offerings that will continue to showcase improvements in the field of image capture. Not to forget the arrival of other manufacturers such as Realme, Umi Digi (UMI), Doogee, ZTE, Wiko, among others.
Apple’s TV commercial for the iPhone 13 Pro model in September 2021 made it very clear: Hollywood in your pocket. A spectacular 30-second spot showing the fascinating possibilities of being able to shoot your story with a mobile phone.
Many of us have become audiovisual professionals whenever given the opportunity to work in films or television. But we have always had the need to tell a story that sometimes did not come true due to the difficulty in accessing technical means.
Today, this technology is remarkably close to us. For this reason, training in audiovisual language and narrative, a little enthusiasm, desire to tell stories and a cinema smartphone are the necessary ingredients to achieve an audiovisual creation. Never before has it been so close at hand, literally speaking, thanks to cinema smartphones.