(Literally) Building a better frame for mobile journalism

So you’ve got your phone or tablet. You’ve downloaded the $38 in apps that you need to be an effective mobile journalist.  You’ve ordered your iRig Pre, your 37mm lenses, your shotgun mic, your lav mic, your wireless receivers. But you have a problem.

Your phone doesn’t hold any of these. Unless you use gaffer’s tape. The phone — and it doesn’t matter if you’re an iPerson or an Android — is designed to be sleek and to move in and out of your pocket with ease. It lacks the things the we need to make production better — a mount for a tripod and shoe to hold accessories.

The cases designed to be phone cases aren’t designed for mobile media work. So an industry of phone and tablet frames has sprung up. There are a lot of options out there. None of them are perfect. Some of them aren’t even good. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fit square pegs into round holes, and here’s what I’ve found:

1) The thinner the case, the less space you have to add stuff on.

2) The more stuff you need, the bulkier the case needs to be (running the risk of making something mobile un-mobile).

There are purpose-sized frames. These are designed for specific phone or tablet forms. I’m fond of the iOgrapher, which allows me to mount 37mm-sized telephoto and wide-angle lenses and has three cold shoe mounts on it so I can attach lights and audio equipment.  It also has a mount so I can screw it on a tripod or a monopod. My colleague, Steve Rice, really likes the iPro lens case, which fits around your phone and uses a bayonet mount to put on Zeiss-glassed lenses.  The downside to the iOgrapher is that it doesn’t let me use the better quality iPro lenses. The downside to the iPro is that it doesn’t let you mount accessories on it — and it doesn’t mount to a tripod on its own. The downside to both is that they’re designed to fit a specific device. When I upgraded from an iPhone 5s to an iPhone6, I had to get a new frame (iOgrapher did not produce iPhone 6 cases quickly). When Steve jumped from his 5s to a 6+, he had to order a new case. Same thing with the mCamlite metal cases, which are practically indestructible. Get a new phone and it’s another $120 for a frame.

Then there are the universal frames. These are designed to fit (most) any frame. I use a Beastgrip frame for my iPhone6 and for the LG2 and the Nokia Lumia 920 I sometimes shoot with. It has mounting holes for a tripod and to attach other pieces of equipment and one cold shoe mount.   You’d probably like the Beastgrip, except they stopped making them. They were available on Kickstarter, then Etsy for a little bit. The guy who created it on a 3D printer did a new Kickstarter for a Beastgrip Pro (it will have a better build quality and be able to handle a depth-of-field adapter to mount DSLR lenses). Those are supposed to deliver in August and he’s taking non-Kickstarter pre-orders. There’s the UniGrip Pro, made of aluminum and able to fit pretty much any phone and attach to a tripod. But it has no shoe mount on it (though you can buy some attachments that will do that) and I’m not entirely convinced that it will hold my phone if it takes a shot. There’s the ShoulderPod S1, beloved by Glen Mulcahy at Ireland’s RTE’. They have a handle you can use to do pans, are adjustable and can attach to a tripod. But you can’t put gear on them.

There’s the MXL VE-001, which is an L-bracket that a tripod mount on the bottom and a universal clamp for phones along with two cold shoe mounts. It’s sold with a crummy shotgun mic, but you could replace that easily and it comes pretty close to being good. And it works OK if you’re needing to be mobile. But there’s only two mounts (a light and a wireless receiver), and no place to hang a pre-amp.

So many imperfect options. What do you?

You hack it. You order a bunch of stuff from different places online and you build something that works for you, generally at a fraction of the price.

Here’s what works for me:

1) A Vello L-bracket with two cold shoe mounts. It has a nice handgrip and the knob on the bottom can be mounted on a tripod. But there’s no place to mount my phone (unlike the MXL version, this doesn’t come with a universal clamp).

2) A UniGrip Pro universal phone mount. I like the fact that it’s aluminum and it has a tightening knob on it. But I’ve also seen this done with the top part of a ShoulderPod S1.

3) A Vello three-shoe Y-bracket.  It secures into the L-bracket’s top shoe and holds my wireless receiver, a light and the iRig Pre (note I had to epoxy a shoe onto the back of the iRig; in a later iteration, I’ll file the screw in there down a bit more to make it more flush). You could also accomplish this by using a triple-strobe mount (mine is from CowboyStudio); it’s really personal preference. Using the Y-bracket or the triple-strobe mount keeps the side shoe on the L-bracket open for a shotgun mic. Attach that puppy to a TRRS splitter and run it straight into the phone when you’re not using the wireless receiver and you have a pretty decent piece of machinery.

The Vello L-bracket holds an iPhone 6 and has the Vello Y-bracket and an iRig Pre attached. The Y-bracket is holding a Sennheiser wireless receiver and a really bright light.

The Vello L-bracket with a UniGrip Pro mount holding an iPhone 6. Attached is a  Vello Y-bracket and an iRig Pre attached. The Y-bracket is holding a Sennheiser wireless receiver and a really bright light.

 

I’d use this set up if I were doing an interview using the phone (the huge light makes it kind of top heavy). Total cost for the frame as pictured: $31.88. The price goes up when you start adding lights and mics. But less than $32 for a phone frame when a BeastGrip costs $70, an iOgrapher $60 and the ShoulderPod alone costs $35 isn’t a bad deal.

A few other configurations:

This one is slightly more subtle in terms of the light. It’s able to be easily handcarried but still has the virtues of terrific audio with the iRig Pre and the Sennheiser on there. It’s a good street rig and the tripod mount on the bottom makes it a good interview rig, too.

The Vello L-bracket with a UniGrip Pro holding an iPhone 6 and a CowboyStudio triple-strobe mount. The mount has an iRig Pre, Sennheiser wireless receiver and a much more subtle light that's suitable for fill lighting.

The Vello L-bracket with a UniGrip Pro holding an iPhone 6 and a CowboyStudio triple-strobe mount. The mount has an iRig Pre, Sennheiser wireless receiver and a much more subtle light that’s suitable for fill lighting.

I’d call this next one the “street hunter,” and I think that it illustrates a lot of mobile journalism’s potential. It’s fairly compact, brings light and improved sound to the table and can be used with a tripod or as a standalone piece of equipment.

The Vello L-bracket and UniGrip Pro mount holding an iPhone 6. The Vello Y-bracket is holding a RØDE shotgun mic and a small light.

The Vello L-bracket and UniGrip Pro mount holding an iPhone 6. The Vello Y-bracket is holding a RØDE shotgun mic and a small light.

 

This last one shows the original Beastgrip with a Y-bracket on there. There are people who swear by the Beastgrip because it allows you to mount case-mounted lenses such as the iPro on there. I don’t like moving around shooting with it. I think it’s great in a fixed position, as pictured below, and it works better than any of the other mounts if you want to turn the phone into something that approximates a GoPro. The Beastgrip/superclamp/ballhead combo below has been mounted on a truck’s siderail, a boat’s bowrail , a bike’s handlebars and on the actuator arm of a commercial mixer.

An iPhone6 mounted in the original Beastgrip. The Beastgrip has the Vello Y-bracket attached, holding a light and the RØDE shotgun mic.  It's mounted on a Manfrotto super-clamp/ballhead combination.

An iPhone6 mounted in the original Beastgrip. The Beastgrip has the Vello Y-bracket attached, holding a light and the RØDE shotgun mic. It’s mounted on a Manfrotto super-clamp/ballhead combination.