BBC Academy Digital Skills Day – making the most of your smartphone

I’ve attended quite a few BBC digital training sessions down the years – at Marylebone High Street, Broadcasting House and the Mailbox (Birmingham). They’re one of the world’s best providers of online content so it makes sense to look to them for digital training, particularly with a view to web-based video.

A recent BBC Academy Digital Skills Day in Birmingham was free, but the training was world-class. You could have paid a lot more money to receive a lot poorer training elsewhere.

Two sessions from the day stood out to me, I’ve included my notes from them below. Both sessions looked at different aspects creating video with your smartphone. Back in 2010, I was really enthusiastic about using my iPhone4 for video. Here’s my video of a late summer holiday in a borrowed campervan, probably the last project I shot on a phone:

I quite quickly gave up on my phone for professional use, considering it an inferior option to more specialised camera equipment. Just last week, I wrote about using a Canon 5D for live tweeting events at work. So, it was exciting to hear from two inspiring speakers showing just what a smartphone is capable of and demonstrating how they are being used by broadcasters and journalists today. (I’ve also just upgraded to an iPhone 7+, so maybe that partly explains my renewed enthusiasm – there’s nothing like spending a small fortune on a phone to make you convince yourself it’s a worktool…)

Filming on your smartphone

Deirdre Mulcahy leading a session
This practical session was led by experienced camera operator and trainer Deirdre Mulcahy.


  • BBC training concentrates on iPhones, but other phones can work just as well, if not better
  • Video uses a lot of storage – get the highest memory capacity you can afford and keep lots of it free

We watched some of the stunning short film Wasfia, shot entirely on an iPhone 6 (with lens attachments!).

The film made a good starting point for discussions of the video capabilities of smartphones and the need to follow established conventions to produce engaging content.

An editor wants a mix of closeups, midshots and wide angles. You need to think and plan hard to achieve this with a phone, which naturally tends towards wide shots.

Enable airplane mode. This will prevent calls from interupting you during filming, but more importantly it will prevent loss of footage, as some phones will just stop filming (without saving progress to date) when interrupted by a call.

Contrast is your enemy – phones particularly struggle with scenes with strongly contrasting light and dark. Put you ‘bum to the sun’ – filming with the strongest light source behind you. Unless, you’re filming in selfie mode, in which case reverse the rule.

Lock focus – tapping anywhere on the screen while in video filming mode should set the focus and exposure. But I didn’t realise that you can also lock this focus and exposure by holding your finger down on a subject for two seconds.

Interview technique:

  • set the camera lens at the height of the interviewer’s face. This way the interviewee will be looking to the camera (whether up or down) when answering questions.
  • use a selfie stick for control and steadiness. It will also help to prevent strain on the arms/wrists.
  • Never film flat – set the interviewee at an angle. Then hold your phone with the hand nearest to the interviewee’s nearest shoulder.
  • Record sound using your earbuds. The interviewee (framed at head and shoulders) can hold the earbuds (including built-in mic) in their arms.

Live streaming from a smartphone

Christian Payne live streaming

The second session of the day came from Christian Payne, @documentally on Twitter. Christian is pushing at the edges of what can be done online every day, so his recommendations carry a lot of weight and experience.

We looked at what you need to stream from your phone – camera, encoder, CDN (Content Delivery Network) and Publisher.

The major platforms were compared:

Periscope – Twitter (stream live from Twitter app). Unlimited time. Use Periscope Producer for desktop uploading.

Facebook Live – Followers get notified. Problem – you can’t see who you’re delivering to. Stream up to four hours.

YouTube – no login needed to view. Mobile app now allows live streaming.

Instagram – stream for up to an hour. Video is online while live (no replays). Can now be downloaded (as the producer).

We looked at some of the big impact streaming events of the last year – BBC Comic Relief’s Danceathon, Deray McKesson being arrested, the Doritos roulette, General Electric on Periscope, and Eddie Izzard’s marathon-running selfie-stick Q&As.


The key livestreaming tips:

Be ready – have spare batteries. Charge whenever possible.

Be steady – feet apart, elbows in. Always be aware of where the lens is. Pan from the hip and slowly.

Sound – more important than visuals. Always have a lav mic on you.

Light – ‘bum to the sun’ again!

Action – be interesting, different or funny.

Getting engagement while live:

  1. Tell people in advance
  2. Go live when you have a strong connection
  3. Write a compelling description before going live
  4. Ask viewers to follow and receive notifications when you go live
  5. Say hello to commenters
  6. Broadcast for longer periods of time (the Golden Window of 7-10 minutes)

Put 10% of your time into the livestream and 90% into the amplification of it – Discoverability is key.



Web Manager for the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham.

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