SmartPhone Videography for Activists

We've been helping SURJ put videos on Facebook very quickly. This one, for example, was posted the morning after SURJ members disrupted a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, NC. It's been seen more than 21,000 times and has helped SURJ recruit thousands of new people and inspire people around the country to take bold action.


For times (like Trump rallies) when bringing a real video camera is not an option, an iPhone is a very good substitute. But, with a bit of gear and some practice, an iPhone can also be used to great good results for all kinds of videos.

What follows are some suggestions on gear, apps, and planning your shoot. Other posts will go into shooting technique, and I'll be offering more detailed training down the line, so be sure to join my email list in the footer below if you'd like to be alerted when that happens.

Your iPhone

There are several things you should do with your phone before you leave the house:

  • Make sure it's in a sturdy case so it can survive being dropped or knocked out of your hand.
  • Turn on Find iPhone (it's an app on the phone) and test it by seeing if you can locate your phone via your account on your computer.
  • Create as much storage space as possible by deleting data and apps that you don't need.
  • Make sure your phone is fully charged and switched to low power mode
  • Go into Settings > Photos & Camera > Record Video and select 1080p at 30fps. 


I'm not going to go into detail on video apps here, but there are loads of them that can be very useful. I've used Filmic Pro, an inexpensive app that does amazing things like letting you adjust white balance, focus, zoom, exposure, and much more. Movie Pro is another good one. You can find lots of great tutorials for both on youtube. Start with these guys.


Charger — In addition to car and wall chargers, you're going to want to bring some portable power with you as well, because shooting video will drain your battery. This one by Aukey provides a lot of power for about $25, but you can find smaller, cheaper chargers, too. Just make sure you charge your charger the night before.

The Shoulderpod is great for when you want to hold your iPhone. It's much easier to get good, steady shots this way than when you're gripping the edges of the phone.

The Shoulderpod is great for when you want to hold your iPhone. It's much easier to get good, steady shots this way than when you're gripping the edges of the phone.

Support — Shaky video is hard to watch, and very difficult to edit into a nice finished piece. So you need a way to steady the camera. Here are your options.

A tripod provides the most stable support. If you're on a tight budget, you can start with a very basic model like the Amazon Basics ($24) or just pick up a used one at a yard sale. It's possible to spend hundreds or thousand dollars on a tripod with a high-quality fluid head, but there are some fine tripods for much less. 

But there are a lot of times when a tripod is just too big and unwieldy. That's when a monopod, like this Amazon Basics model ($15), is a better choice. 

Either way, you will also need an adaptor like this one ($8) that connects to the tripod and holds your phone. 

When even a monopod is not going to work (you probably won't be allowed into a rally with one, for example), you want a way to get stable hand-held shots. I recommend the Shoulderpod S1 ($35). The Shoulderpod kit includes a tripod mount that also serves as a desktop stand for your phone and, most importantly, as a grip that makes it a lot easier to get a steady shot when you're holding the camera. 

Microphone — There's hardly anything worse than trying to watch a video with poor sound quality. Good audio is really essential, and you're not going to get it from the built-in mic on your iPhone. 

There are basically three different kinds of microphones you can choose from:

  1. A small, all purpose mic that plugs right into the phone and captures voices as well as ambient noise. The Olympus ME-52W ($18), for example, plugs into the headphone jack and will provide much better sound quality than you will get with the iPhone's built-in mic. Better yet is the more expensive mini mic ($59) from Rode. 
  2. For interviews, you really want to have a mic on or close to the person being interviewed. A lavalier mic clips on a shirt; it's a good choice when you only want audio from the interview subject, not the interviewer. The smartLav+ ($79), also from Rode, is a nice one, but there are some even cheaper, like the Miracle Sound Deluxe Lavalier ($19), which is rated highly on Amazon.
  3. For conversations, you're better off with a hand-held mic that can be moved around to capture more than one speaker. The Polsen HH-IC ($40) is one of many that will plug right into your phone.

Whichever microphone you use, it makes sense to pick up an adaptor like the Rode SC6 Dual TRRS ($20) so you can plug the mic as well as your headphones or earbuds into the phone. 

Headphones — It's important to monitor what's coming through your microphone. As with everything else, there's a wide range of choices and prices. I use the Sony MDRV6 Studio Monitor Headphones ($110) when shooting video; they're an industry standard because they're a great value for the price and they're built to last. But it's fine, in most conditions, to use your favorite earbuds or whatever headphones you already own. Over-the-ear headphones provide better sound isolation, of course, but earbuds are a lot less conspicuous and a lot more portable.

Lenses — There are some great lenses being made for iPhones, and a good lens can really improve the quality of what you can get on your phone. Olloclip makes nice lenses in the $80-100 range, but you can find cheaper ones, too. 

Lighting — The first thing to know (there’s a lot to know about lighting) is that light has different color temperatures that can be measured on the Kelvin scale. Daylight is around 5,000 or so the scale, while indoor incandescent light might be around 1,500. You will get better results if your lighting matches the ambient lighting of your environment. That means, for example, using daylight balanced lights when you are shooting in a place with daylight coming in. 

Video professionals generally use one of several types of light. Incandescent lights are very bright but are also very hot, which can make the people you are putting on camera start to sweat. Fluorescent lights come in both daylight and warmer colors. LED lights are becoming increasingly popular, and often are able to be adjusted to different color temperatures. You can find a small LED light for not much money.

Here’s a tutorial from Wistia that shows you how to make a nice, inexpensive fluorescent light. 

Miscellaneous — Don't forget to pack a water bottle and snacks. If you're shooting in the cold, bring some hand warmers to keep your phone and portable charger warm. Batteries don't like to be cold. 


Great videos hardly ever happen by accident. Usually they're the result of good planning and execution. Professionals call this the pre-production phase, which is just another term for the planning that comes before the actual shoot (production) and everything that comes after the shoot (post-production).

What needs to be planned? There are two main things: creative/strategic decisions that determine what kind of video you will make, and logistical things that must be taken care of in advance.


Goal: What's the goal of this particular video? How does it fit into your larger communications strategy? What do you want to have happen as a result of it? What do you want people to know, feel, and do after they watch it?

Audience: Your audience should not be "everyone." It should be a specific group of people. So who is your main audience? What do they already know about this issue? What misconceptions do they have? What's keeping them from taking action? 

Message: What is the one key message you want to convey? Put it into a sentence. It might be "Young people in eastern Kentucky are essential to our political process, and this is what we've learned about getting them involved." Or "State-sponsored energy efficiency programs save consumers money, reduce carbon emissions, and create good jobs." Or "Courageous young activists in Charleston stood up against hatred, and you can join them by signing this pledge."

The video above ends with a specific call to action. Make sure your videos do that, too. This might mean making a separate landing page on your website, creating a petition, or being ready to accept donations. Whatever it is, make sure your video editor knows the call to action and the accompanying URL.

Expression: What's the best form for achieving your goal? Is it a 20-minute video to show in your community? Or a 2-minute video for Facebook? Think about where and how the video will be viewed. What's the tone you want to aim for? Serious? Urgent? Hopeful?

Script/Outline: Most of our work is documentary-style pieces featuring one or more interviews. Even though we don't know exactly what the interview subjects will say, we write a detailed script or outline that creates a scene-by-scene guide, so everyone knows in advance what we're aiming for. 

Try using the classic three-act structure to plan your video. It's very common because it is highly adaptable and very effective.


Distribution: How will the video be distributed? What's the plan to make sure it is widely seen? Who can help share it? 


Budget: How much (if anything) do you have to spend? How will it be allocated?

Crew: Who is involved? What are their roles? Who makes the tough decisions? It's best to have one person as the assigned videographer and to have someone else carry the gear and assist as needed. Then, have another person ready to edit the video as soon as the footage is uploaded. The editor can be located anywhere.

Equipment: What's needed? Who will get it there? Batteries should be charged and everything packed up the night before.

Location: Where will you shoot? What time of day will it be? Do you need permission from anyone? How will you get there?

Shot List/Schedule: A shot list is the shot-by-shot breakdown of what is needed to complete the video. What kind of establishing shots are needed to set the context? What b-roll shots are needed? It helps to know ahead of time.  

Post-Production Plan: What happens to the video footage? In what format will it be shared with the editor, and how will it be shared? Who takes the finished piece and what will they do with it?

I haven't been involved in the planning of the SURJ videos I've helped make, but I know the actions at the Trump rallies are carefully planned. The post-production process is relatively simple:

  • As soon as possible after the event, the video is uploaded for me through Dropbox. (In fact, the uploading can begin during the action.)
  • Often, another person is collecting tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts (including video from others) and collecting them for me so they can be used in the final product.
  • I edit the videos in Final Cut Pro, add titles and transitions, sometimes do a little color correction, and export them to Vimeo.
  • Then, someone (sometimes me) creates a new post on SURJ's Facebook page and uploads the video directly to Facebook so it plays automatically when people scroll down their feed.


There's a whole lot to say about shooting that I won't get into here. The important thing is to think like an editor. That means taking shots that can be put together in the editing process to make a strong finished piece.

Here’s an example. This video was shot by someone at an event. It’s the typical wave-the-camera-around technique you see quite often. It’s tough to look at and even tougher to cut together with other clips. Now here’s a piece I made at the same event, shooting on my iPhone. Notice that I shot a bunch of short segments and then cut them together when editing. (I also copied the audio of the drummers and pasted it in several times so it becomes the soundtrack for the whole piece.)

It’s almost always better to frame a succession of nice shots than to keep your camera running and moving back and forth.


I edit in Final Cut Pro. There are a lot of ways to learn, from tutorials on Youtube or, or by taking a class at your local community access tv station.

What else would you like to know? Let me know.