Everything You Wanted to Know About iPhone 3GS Video

the 'eye' of iPhone 3GSThe iPhone 3GS feature that I was most excited about was video. The very first thing I did when I got my phone was shoot Technologic Overkill, so I could put the video camera through it's paces. In the process I discovered quite a few useful bits information about how the video works. Here is random list of that information:

  • The video quality is surprisingly good for a cameraphone. In bright daylight the camera performs excellently. Like most small video cameras, it performs worse in low light. The iPhone will automatically lower the framerate in low light to compensate. The Frame rate will not go lower than 15fps
  • The iPhone shoots 640x480 at 30 frames per second. It records to the h264 codec at about 3700 kilobits per second. This equates to roughly 28 megabytes per minute. That's not too shabby. Audio is recorded in Mono at 44.1 khz using the AAC codec.
  • Compression artifacting is not very prevalent in good lighting. I think this is where a device like iPhone shines over other small video cameras. It has a very good CPU comparably, which allows for higher quality compression.
  • You can select your focus point in video mode by tapping, but only when you are not recording. When you begin recording focus is locked to the point you chose. This means you cannot rack focus while recording. This is a small gripe, but if you consider most tiny video cameras are fixed focus, it is still a big improvment.
  • Close focus is the same as in still mode -- 10cm. This is a great feature. When you are filming at a macro distance you can achieve a pretty decent shallow depth of field look.
  • Where you tap on the screen also 'guides' the exposure of the video. However, as opposed to focus, exposure remains on 'auto'. If your scene changes enough the exposure will automatically compensate.
  • The video works very nicely in iMovie, which is expected. One thing I noticed is that you do not have to convert the video to use the slow and fast motion feature. The codec Apple uses is already suitable for that.
  • The "Jelly" effect that most small video cameras exhibit is prevalent in the 3GS. This is due to a rolling shutter.

Here is a short video illustrating some of these points.

iPhone Friendly Youtube Link.

One thing I keep thinking about is how the iPhone 3GS video compares to my Flip MinoHD. In resolution, the Mino beats iPhone hands down -- the iPhone is not HD. However, the other features of the iPhone 3GS might just compensate for its lack of HD. Let's compare and contrast:

  • The iPhone 3GS has autofocus with a macro mode, the MinoHD is fixed focus at 1m
  • Exposure on the iPhone 3GS can be influenced by touching a point, the MinoHD is 'full auto'
  • The viewing screen on the iPhone 3GS is gargantuan compared to the MinoHD.
  • The iPhone has the ability to upload video directly to the web, the MinoHD does not.
  • The MinoHD has 4GB of storage, the iPhone 3GS has either 16 or 32 GB.
  • You can trim video on the iPhone(I did this on Technologic Overkill while riding the tram to save time making in/out points.)
  • The iPhone's lens is wider than the Flip.

Here is the biggest benefit of the iPhone 3GS over the Flip, and in fact, all video cameras. I always have it with me. There is a saying: "The best camera is the one you have with you." The same is true for video cameras. I enjoy capturing unique moments in daily life (I post these videos in my Pocket Cam series). A video capable iPhone means that I will never miss out on these moments.

After all of my glowing about the iPhone 3GS, here is a wish list of what I would like from it.

  • Full manual exposure. Maybe this is possible for third party developers with the API
  • Manual focus -- being able to input a focus distance.
  • Ability to change focus while recording. Being able to program pull focus would be great.
  • Apps! Something that allows you to cut clips, add titles/effects in the phone!
  • And the obivious one, HD.

It is interesting to not that most of my wants could potentially be fixed by software -- all but the HD thing.

Ok, now the big picture. Why is the iPhone special? There are many small video cameras that can achieve the same quality. In fact, there have been cameraphones that can do the same for ages. Many people are asking, what is the big deal? To me there are a few obvious reasons. First, the iPhone is ubiquitous. It is the most popular smart phone. This puts a lot of attention on its functions, which makes more people aware of their ability to record video. There are probably many people with phones that can shoot video, but don't because they just don't think to. I think that the 400% increase in mobile uploads to Youtube since the 3GS release is proof enough of this. Second, is ease of use. The iPhone is incredibly simple to use, it has an large screen, and the videos are easily transferred and edited on your computer. Most other cameraphones can't say this. Finally, there is the quality. The iPhone 3GS has very good quality for a cameraphone, there are competitive phones -- but not many. The 3GS has good enough quality that a local news station in South Florida shot a report about the iPhone with one (very meta.) I am also not the only one who has shot a music video with it. I know of at least one more. Pro video/film accessory manufacturer Zacuto thinks the quality is good enough, that they even made a special hand grip for it.

Don't get me wrong, the iPhone will not replace any professional cameras. I will not be proposing use of an iPhone on my next job. However, I do foresee a lot of legitimate use of the 3GS beyond shooting videos of your cats -- particularly in the areas of hobby filmmaking, documentary and journalism. In fact imagine that in the not to distant future (with the right apps) I think we will see journalists shoot, edit and file reports from the field with only an iPhone. That will be very fascinating.