My initial plan for an iPhone 12 Pro Max video test was to shoot handheld using the stock camera app. However, given that I’m a video novice – as I will amply demonstrate below – I decided I could use a bit of help. In this case, from the Zhiyun Smooth X gimbal and the FiLMiC Pro app.

While some might object that such a test is unfair, I don’t think it’s unreasonable. Watch absolutely any YouTube tutorial on shooting video with a smartphone, and they will recommend the same two things: shoot with FiLMiC Pro, and get a gimbal. If you care enough about the video capabilities of the iPhone 12 Pro Max to read a diary entry this long, you probably care enough to follow exactly the same advice I did …

FiLMiC Pro is endorsed by Apple; it’s used by all the professional filmmakers who’ve shot on iPhone; and it was recommended in pretty much every one of the many YouTube videos I watched in an attempt to educate myself. At just $15, it would have seemed silly not to use it.

The Zhiyun Smooth X is as affordable as it is portable. It fits into a jacket pocket, and variously sells for $50-70, depending on the seller and kit (one version includes a mini-tripod). Again, every YouTube introductory video I watched sang the praises of a gimbal as a way to achieve smooth footage. As an aside, I must give a shout out to Steve Wright here – I highly recommend his tutorial videos, even if I’m not yet much of an advertisement for them.

So, let’s start by discussing the app and gimbal in a little more detail …

FiLMiC Pro

FiLMiC Pro can seem a little intimidating at first, even if you’re an experienced stills photographer. But YouTube videos are your friend here, and there are a bunch of them which walk you through the app.

My pro videographer colleague Jeff Benjamin did an extensive walkthrough of the app way back in 2016. The user interface has changed a fair bit since then, but the functionality is remarkably similar, so I won’t attempt to replicate that piece. I’m concentrating here on the seven features which most appealed to me as a video novice.

The first benefit in my view is that you can separately lock focus and exposure. One of the key giveaways for amateur video is the focus or exposure changing randomly during a shot, so you generally want to set these and then lock them for the duration of a clip. The stock Camera app lets you press-and-hold to lock both, but there are quite a few occasions where you want to be able to focus on one element without having that affect the exposure of the entire scene. With FiLMiC Pro, you have a square to lock focus and a circle to lock exposure, and you can either lock them to the same point in the frame, or to different points. More on this when I discuss the phone itself.

Second, you can manually set and lock white balance. I find the stock app is pretty good at measuring white balance, but you again don’t want this changing during a shot, which can easily happen if you pan from artificial lighting in the foreground to a naturally-lit background.

Third, there are built-in aids for focusing and setting exposure. These in principle make it really easy to see exactly where the focus point is, and to identify blown highlights and blocked shadows – though personally, I think they are more practical to use in a studio environment than in outdoor shooting.

Fourth, you can easily set both frame-rate and shutter speed. The stock app defaults to 30fps, and doesn’t offer the more cinematic option of 24fps. This replicates the motion blur you see in movies shot on film, and because we’ve all seen a billion movies, it looks natural to our eyes. For the best match, you also want the shutter speed to be twice the speed of the frame-rate, and FiLMiC Pro lets you lock that to 1/48th.

Fifth, the app makes it easy to do something called ‘pull focus.’ This is where the focus changes during a shot, for example from the background to a person in the foreground. This is a really useful technique, and FiLMiC Pro has a specific feature for this. You tap-to-focus on the first element and store that focus point. You then do the same for a second element. When you’re ready to do the focus pull during the scene, you just tap on the other one and it will smoothly refocus. This is more of a studio tool than an outdoor one, again as discussed later.

Sixth, one tip I got from YouTube tutorials is that slo-mo footage is your friend on a number of fronts. It generally looks good. You have to shoot a lot less footage! Plus it provides smoother footage, even when using a gimbal. As with the stock camera app, shooting slo-mo at either 120fps or 240fps means dropping down to 1080p. But FiLMiC Pro offers one other option: 60fps at 4K. I didn’t use that on this occasion, but I think next time I will try it.

Finally, while it might seem a little cheesy to use ‘cinematic’ aspect ratios – mimicking those generated by movie camera lenses – the truth is that lots of people do it because it works. It does visually elevate footage to the next level. You can of course crop to any aspect ratio desired in Final Cut Pro, but it’s much easier when you have the overlays on screen and can frame accordingly.

There is one drawback to doing it this way, however. Normally, shooting in 4K for 1080p output means you have framing flexibility. You can crop, and also do fake-zoom effects. But with the bars part of the footage, you don’t have that option. You can toggle off ‘Crop to overlay,’ but that makes it very much harder to see what is and isn’t in the frame. For that reason, I tried it this time, but am not sure how often I’ll use it in the future.

There’s plenty more the app can do, but those are the features which sold it to me.

Zhiyun Smooth X gimbal

I’ve tested a DJI gimbal before, but the Smooth X has a few tricks up its sleeve.

First, I’ve already mentioned that it’s very affordable, at around a third of the cost of the DJI Mobile 4. To my mind, that puts it into a different category, as something a much more casual video shooter might consider using. It also makes an attractive gift option.

Second, it’s super-compact. DJI gimbals do fold, but not as small as this one. If you’re wearing a jacket or even cargo pants, the Smooth X is literally pocketable. That means you’re going to be tempted to carry it a lot more often than the DJI, which definitely isn’t something you wander around with casually. So even if a DJI is within budget, that might be a reason to opt for the Smooth X instead. The comparison below is with the older Osmo Mobile 3, but the 4 isn’t much smaller when folded.

Third, it has a built-in selfie stick! That’s way more useful than it sounds, even to someone like me who almost never takes selfies. In watching a bunch of YouTube videos in an attempt to educate myself about video, I found that some cool shots need an extension pole of some kind. Having one built into a gimbal is extremely handy.

There are some downsides to the Smooth X, however. It’s a 2-axis gimbal rather than a 3-axis one, meaning no vertical stabilization. You also can’t use the joystick to tilt up or down – though the selfie stick does tilt, which provides a workable approach. It also feels a bit plasticky compared to the DJI, especially the joystick, but it seems sturdy enough in use.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max just fits into the gimbal cradle inside Apple’s MagSafe leather case. It’s a tight fit, but it does feel secure.

I used the gimbal for the vast majority of shots. Even the tripod-mounted static shots, since I had the gimbal with me, I used that as an oversized iPhone holder.

Any gimbal is a stabilization aid, not a magic bullet. I still need to work on my ‘ninja walk’ and bent elbows to provide as much natural stability as possible. Even so, my impression is that the Smooth X isn’t as smooth as the DJI, so the big question here is how you balance portability and capability. I love the idea of slipping the Smooth X in my pocket when I’m just out wandering while traveling, but I’ll take the DJI instead if I know in advance that I’ll be shooting.

I have a lot to learn about video …

The most important component in any camera is the person behind the lens, and that is all the more true of video. My background in photography was of some help, but mostly this experience taught me just how much I have to learn about what is a very different medium. Watching a bunch of YouTube tutorials also helped, but it’s clear to me that there’s going to a huge amount of trial-and-error involved if I want to get anywhere close to the results I can achieve from still photography. Whether I want to put in the work that would take is an open question at present. For now, I’ll play around a little more and then see how I feel about it.

I learned a ton of things from looking at the results of this shoot. One important one about the camera – even with the larger sensor, it doesn’t offer any meaningful depth of field other than in the studio where you can position the foreground very close to the camera. There was no way to use focus to separate my model from the background in any of these shots. Really the only way to shoot a serious version of this would be to go out at first light before the crowds are out.

Another big learning is just how time-consuming it is, shooting video compared to stills. Most of the clips took multiple takes before I got one I was halfway happy with. Eliminating people in the background is a huge challenge in central London on a Saturday even in still photography, but shallow depth of field and choosing the exact moment carefully helps a lot. With iPhone video, you can’t use shallow DOF, and because you are shooting for several seconds at least, you have less control than a moment lasting 1/250th of a second. Eliminating people in a crowded environment is utterly impossible with most shots.

Adding to that is that you ideally need a lot of footage. I had to stretch each individual clip far longer than I would have wanted to, else my video would have been about 45 seconds long rather than three minutes! The shoot took a couple of hours, and I think I’d be looking at doubling that to get as much footage as I’d want. Obviously, I’d get faster as I gained more experience, but I think things would be slow for a long time.

Oh, and checking the entire frame for unwanted elements is way harder than with stills. First, because the framing will change during the shot, and also because there is much more to think about – at least with a directed shoot. I was so busy trying to get consistency during the close, medium, and long shots on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral that I made the schoolboy error of having our bags in view in one of them.

Plus, there’s even more to learn about editing than there is shooting. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter here as you want to see the footage as captured by the camera, not what a skilled editor could do with it. There’s no color grading, effects, or retiming (the slo-mo is as captured by the camera). I’ve simply taken the clips as shot and cut them together.

The video

Ok, now I’ve given the disclaimers, and acknowledged that I won’t be shooting any music videos anytime soon, let’s take a look.

My take on the phone’s performance

Honestly, in all but two respects, I thought the video quality matched my Sony a6300. I really wouldn’t have been able to tell some of the shots apart. The slo-mo footage was particularly impressive, given it’s just 1080p.

To be able to get that kind of performance from an iPhone – the camera you always have with you – is kind of insane. Even for travel video, I think I’d be happy using the phone most of the time.

Auto exposure was spot-on. All I did was select the exposure point and lock it there, but I didn’t ever have to increase or decrease it. Auto white balance was also great.

There were, however, two significant drawbacks. They might not matter much for some type of shooting – like cityscapes or landscapes – but they both matter a lot when shooting people.

First, as mentioned, you have virtually zero control over depth of field. Yes, shoot inside, put something small within a few inches of the camera, and have the background some feet away, and you’ll get some decent bokeh. But shooting people, forget it.

Second, where focus does matter – like in the opening shot – a phone screen simply isn’t big enough to see whether focus is off. Not even the larger screen of the Pro Max. It’s nothing like looking through a camera viewfinder. I just had to live with it, given it opened the sequence, and the somewhat dreamy feel meant it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

I did discover one benefit of using a phone over a chunkier camera, however: on the cathedral steps, I saw security guards telling someone with a DSLR they couldn’t shoot there. They left me alone, despite the gimbal, until I got my tripod out – at that point they said no, adding that they hadn’t stopped me before because I was ‘just using a phone.’ So the stealth aspect of using an iPhone can come in handy.

Conclusions

How useful the iPhone 12 Pro Max is for video depends on what you’re shooting.

For daytime cityscapes and landscapes, it’s absolutely up there with a bridge camera like the Sony a6300, which is itself as good as most DSLRs. I will perfectly happily use the iPhone for all of my casual videos, and indeed for almost all of my travel footage.

Night-time video performance for cityscapes will, however, be crucial for travel – so that will be the subject of my next test.

For people, though, it’s just not up to the task, as control over depth of field is vital. For stills, Portrait mode has for me now reached the ‘good enough’ stage, both day and night, but not even Apple-designed chips can yet manage that trick with video. In a few years, perhaps.

But that exception aside, I’m incredibly impressed. The phone itself is extremely capable, FiLMiC Pro helps get the most from it, and even a budget gimbal like the Smooth X is a way to give you a lot of stability in something that is literally pocketable. That said, while I expect to use FiLMiC Pro for all my future videos, it’s the DJI rather than the Smooth X which I’ll be using most of the time.

Those, then, are my impressions – what about yours? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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