Use Your Cellphone as a Viewfinder

Scouting locations is essential, and an often exercised part of the production process. Planning your shots ahead of time and knowing site limitations can be invaluable and, in many cases, critical to the success of your project. One of the challenges, however, lies in the process, often being speculative at best. Unless you lug the complete camera package and set up shots exactly how you plan to shoot them, the technical choices become a matter of educated guess.

Some filmmakers will bring out a “director’s viewfinder,” which simulates the field of view the camera will see. While helpful, it doesn’t give the full technical scope of the shot requirements, and any notes are taken manually.

In modern production, however, each of us has a device in our pockets that can do the same job. Taking advantage of the right app makes this process cheaper, quicker, easier, and more technically accurate.

Using a Cell Phone as a Shot Finder

Cell phones can be economical and convenient tools, especially in the broadcast and filmmaking industry. Mobile phone cameras are capable of high-quality photo and video recording, enabling you to frame and store images and record shot walkthroughs without dropping a fortune on other gear.

However, this convenience comes with a significant caveat. Mobile phones aren’t broadcast or film cameras, and if you’re just using a cell phone in its native mode, there are a lot of limitations and inaccuracies you are going to encounter.

The first is the field of view. The lenses used on mobile devices don’t come near the professional hardware used in a serious production. They don’t have length, range, or aperture controls that a high-end lens will feature. Just because the phone camera can see everything in the shot doesn’t mean the production camera will, and vice versa.

Depth of field will also be affected. If you’re trying to simulate a particular focal depth, it isn’t likely that the native cell phone camera will be able to recreate it. Newer phones have DOF filters that can be applied to images, but these are processed passes that artificially mimic shallow focus and are not technically accurate.

With other details considered, such as exposure settings, LUTs, and camera specifications, the images taken would just serve as a loose reference.

But, as they say in the 21st century…” there’s an app for that!”

Magic Cinema ViewFinder App

There are many different apps that help your phone mimic a logistically accurate production setting for better results. This article will look primarily at Magic Cinema ViewFinder (by Roman Medvid) as an example of one of those apps since it’s free, available for both Apple and Android, and features a lot of valuable toolsets.

The most important of these features is the apps have been configured to mimic settings found in real production cameras. Many of them allow you to select the camera make and model, the chip sensor size, and the aspect ratio. This will limit the cellphone’s camera to staying within the parameters of the camera setup chosen. Some apps let you select from a list, while others, such as Magic Cinema Viewfinder, offer individual apps for RED, ARRI, Canon, Blackmagic, and other cameras.

In addition to mimicking specific cameras, these apps can closely simulate lens settings. In Magic Cinema Viewfinder, once you have determined your make, model, and frame/chip size, you can use the slider on the ride side of the app to adjust a virtual telephoto lens. You can change the focal length by pushing the slider up and down. If you configure the app to a Blackmagic Design Pocket 6K camera with an aspect ratio of 16:9 and set the virtual lens to 65mm, you will simulate a shot that should be very close to how the actual composition will look.

Magic Cinema Viewfinder also allows you to select a LUT to see what your shot will look like with different color grading. The free version has a few basic LUTs, but the paid version offers an expanded list. You can also import custom LUTs to use within the app.

Additionally, the app will display and track the degrees of front-to-back and the side-to-side camera tilts, use white balance presets, toggle auto-focus settings, and place grid lines on the screen to separate the shot into thirds.

Using the App to Plan Your Shoot

Once you have configured the desired settings, adjusted your focal length, and found your shot, simply snap the photo icon, and the app will capture the image and store it on your phone. When you snap a photo, Magic Cinema Viewfinder embeds the camera settings on the image itself. The camera type, focal length, aspect ratio, date and time of the picture, and camera orientation are all logged on the frame of the image, so you won’t have to take separate notes on the settings used.

You can then conceptually take all of these photo snaps shots and arrange them in a storyboard, complete with technical information.

Some apps will also allow video recording (a feature previously in Magic Cinema Viewfinder but appears to have been removed as of this article), enabling you to capture a rough camera motion play-through of the scene.

Using a viewfinder app with a mobile phone for productions on a budget can be a fast and efficient way to find the right shot when scouting a location.

Broadcast Beat - Production Industry Resource