How a really good story was told using just an iPhone

Rob Finighan (@robfinighan), a British freelance TV producer and director, was in Nigeria with the African Story Project, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative to improve journalism in Africa. He was teaching and he sent the students out on an assignment. And he decided to do a little shooting on his own — using only his iPhone. The product below says a lot about the state of the iPhone as a reporting device.

The Q&A I did with him over the weekend says a bit more. Rob, by the way, is anything but an amateur videographer; he’s a former BBC staffer and regularly teaches at Al Jazeera. Here’s the video (it’s only 1:16 and worth every second) and Rob’s gracious answers to my questions are down below.




Q: First, how did you find yourself there?

I was in Nigeria for the second round of a journalism competition called The African Story Challenge.  Funded by the Gates Foundation, it aims to increase the amount, and improve the quality of serious journalism in Africa. This was a week long boot camp for the 22 finalists.  I was there to give them some basic advice on shooting video but they also had lectures in data journalism, safety and interviewing techniques. The trip to the floating slum was a field exercise mainly for the print journalists, so I was really there as a ‘tourist’ at that point.

Q: What app did you use for camera work? Editing?

I have an iphone 5S and I just opened the inbuilt camera,switched from ‘photo’ to ‘video’ and began filming.  I edited it on Final Cut ProX on my Macbook Pro 13″  though I have now downloaded imovie onto the phone to see if I can master that.

Q: Did you notice any limitations shooting with the inbuilt camera and software? Anything that surprised you?

With my big camera, I like to mess around with the depth of field and get some nice textures by manipulating the focus – I’m assuming that’s impossible on the iphone. If I had wanted to interview someone I’d have been in trouble because the microphone would be facing me holding the camera rather than the person I was trying to film. It seemed to deal with the harsh African sunlight and contrasting light situations very well.

Q: You’re a TV director. Did you go in thinking ‘I’m going to shoot and cut for an audience,’ or was it more spontaneous?

I was shooting it for my kids I suppose, and maybe Facebook for my friends.  It was very spontaneous, in fact I had very little battery left on the phone and I knew it before I left the hotel so that shows I had no intention of shooting that afternoon.  As a film maker, I very rarely feel like filming when I don’t have to (we have very few photos of family holidays!) but this place was so striking and atmospheric I decided I needed to do something.

Q: Did you have shots in mind when you started?

The first shots I did were the ‘tracking shots’ in the boat looking sideways.  The movement of the boat was a gift to a cameraman.  Can you imagine the amount of gear and people you would need to get that sort of smooth track on land? It was the success of those shots that spurred me on to do the rest – I got really angry with myself for not recharging my phone before I left because I knew my time was limited.   The ‘piece to camera’ was an experiment.  Like a lot of people in TV, I fancy myself as a bit of a star (my brother is a news anchor for Al Jazeera and I’m very jealous!), but also I noticed on my iphone, which I haven’t had for very long, that you could film yourself by flipping to a camera on the front.  I was messing about really. There is one shot that is not mine by the way – did anyone spot it? (It’s the shot of the boy waving – done on a Sony stills camera by one of the finalists – different ratio, poorer quality but I stole it anyway!

 Q: You said you were limited due to battery issues. Did that mean you just shot shorter clips or were you more selective in what you filmed (essentially doing in-camera editing)?

I always shoot lean. Programme budgets are tight and so time is usually against me rather than battery power.  Also, when you are editing your own stuff, you do tend to mentally edit as you shoot.

Q: Why shoot exclusively on the iPhone?

In this case – it was all I had to hand.  I had no choice!

Q: Would you have preferred your commercial kit?

I have thought about this a lot. Before making this little film I would never have considered filming a sequence without my ‘big’ broadcast camera. I have used a ‘gopro’ to get impossible shots and very occasionally a camcorder (shooting in a car, for example).  But now I am beginning to think that the phone would have been the best option here whatever kit I had to hand. It was a fairly dangerous place and we were told not to draw too much attention to ourselves. Many people tried to demand money to be photographed so you can imagine how demanding they would have been with a professional looking crew.  We also had to move quickly and footwork was also problematic as some of the walkways were very precarious.  I felt free to film, which I don’t think I would have with my big camera.

Q: It didn’t look like there was any picture degradation from zooming. Did you shoot it all at the default length or was there some clean up in post?

No grade at all on the pics.  I am astounded by the quality myself – along with the relative anonymity, it’s the quality that has made me really interested in the phone as a shooting tool.

Q: I saw just a little bit of wobble in one long shot and I was surprised there was so little given that you were on a bobbing boat. Did you either image stabilize in post or use a tripod or monopod?

No tripod or monopod.  I assume there is some sort of stabilizer built into the iphone.  To be honest the boat didn’t bob much at all – the water was thick with sewage! When I was on land I just held it as steady as I could with both hands. 

Q: Did you use elbows against you to brace? Thumb on bottom/forefinger on top? Or some other kind of secret ninja filmmaker technique?

The thumbs and forefingers I assume.  I wasn’t really conscious of the exact grip to be honest.  Pretty sure that my elbows weren’t against me – more like a steadycam, I extended my arms hoping they absorbed any shocks that came through my body!

Q: The shot selection,  pacing and soundbed were all excellent and polished, but that has nothing to do with the camera. You’re a professional. Has the technology in the phone/apps now reached the point where, in the hands of a professional, you can create equal quality to professional equipment?

I surprised myself but I hope it came off so well at least partly because I was able to transfer the skills I have learned as a ‘traditional’ film maker to this new (to me) piece of kit.  I’m really excited about exploring what’s out there to make filming with a phone a rewarding experience. At the very least – the phone in my pocket has just become a new tool in my box of tricks.

Q: How far can an amateur go with a mobile platform towards creating a professional quality finished piece?

I think there are some basic skills that you need as a film maker/cameraman, whatever device you are using to capture pictures. What I did, even with some experience, was to keep it simple. I just tried to keep the camera steady with very few fancy moves.  And that has always been my advice to any budding shooters – keep it simple, keep it steady.

Q: You mention basic skills that any shooter needs to know. Which ones are you thinking of?

Aha! I teach a basic shooting and editing course at Al Jazeera in Doha that lasts 15 days so its very difficult to summarise but, basically, people need to have developed good enough motor skills to make the camera do what they want it to do ( hold it steady), know how to frame a shot, and have a clear understanding of what and how much they need to shoot to tell a story properly.