Lentis/Phone Cinematography


Phone cinematography is a derivative of digital cinematography, primarily characterized by the use of mobile phones as a platform to capture motion-pictures. The technical limitations of cell phone cameras, in comparison to conventional film equipment, has resulted in novel and distinctive techniques unique to mobile film-making. These limitations have also given rise to a loose, characteristic style that has come to define phone cinematography. As the popularity of cell phones increase, the intersection between media technology and cell phone technology is becoming redefined. A lowering of the barriers to entry in film-making has spurred the growth of the mobile-phone accessories industry especially in areas that pertain to cinematography. Across the world, mobile-film festivals have sprung up to showcase and promote the development of the art while at the same time films shot entirely on phones have won critical acclaim and awards at many conventional film festivals.


Phone cinematography is a form of digital cinematography that descends from digital photography. Utilizing arrays of electronic photodetectors to capture images coming through a the camera lens, phones record and transform images into computer files that are stored within their internal hard drive.

Precursors to Modern Camera PhonesEdit

Prior to 1993, digital images were taken using charged-coupled device (CCD) technology. Manufactured by etching circuits into silicon and other semiconductors, a CCD's main function is to move electrical charge to areas where the charge can be manipulated. When integrated with image sensors, it produces high quality digital images and is commonly used in medical and research fields and even the early digital photography industry. However, the manufacturing process is expensive and the CCD has a high power consumption, which is not optimal for installation on a cellphone.

In 1993, the Active Pixel Sensor (APS), a key component for affordable digital photography on small scale devices, was invented by Dr. Eric Fossum at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Commonly called the CMOS image sensor for using the CMOS integrated circuit technology, an APS is an integrated circuit that uses an array of pixel sensors to capture images to be stored in a digital medium.[1] Designed to be a cheaper and easier to manufacture digital image sensor for spacecraft, the APS was soon pushed into the public sector in accordance with NASA's 90s directive of pushing space technology into the public market when applicable.[2] Thanks to its cheaper manufacturing process, faster image taking abilities, and low-power consumption, 90% of camera phones sold, as of 2010, use CMOS image sensor chips.

Taken on June 11, 1997, a picture of a newly born baby girl was taken and shared across the globe to 2,000+ people by phone

However, the first camera phones used CMOS chips . In Japan, the first camera phones were made by Sharp using CCDs, and were meant to instantly share photos rather than store them on the phone. Even the first camera phone to hit American markets, Sharp's J-SH04 in 2000, was using CCDs for its camera. [3]

Outside of Japan, there were digital cameras designed to look like cell phones as well as camera attachments that could be connected to cell phones. In 1997, the first image to be taken and shared by phone was of a new born baby girl in Santa Monica, CA. The girl's father, Philippe Kahn, had to connect his cellphone, his laptop, and a digital camera to take and share this picture. [4]

Evolution of the Camera PhoneEdit

In 2002, cellphones with built in cameras finally began to hit public markets around the world rather than a select few countries and proved to be immensely popular with the public. Telecommunication companies such as Nokia and Sanyo began creating their own camera phones models. As the decade progressed, Nokia would become one of the world's leading camera phone brands, with phone models like the 2003 N6600 and the 2005 N70. These and similar models had integrated cameras for picture taking and video calling rather than video capturing. Camera phones still did not have the storage space for video files.

2007 was the beginning of a shift away from traditional camera phones as Apple introduced the iPhone. Instead of camera capabilities, companies now focused on features such as phone thinness, computational power, touchscreen technologies, and software applications. This was the final component needed for video creation and storage on phones.

Many high end phones, like the iPhone 12 Pro, contain multiple cameras for different situations.

Usage in FilmEdit

Identifying Characteristics/StyleEdit

Film taken by mobile devices often employ characteristics that would have been considered error in conventional film-making. The inclusion of these "mistakes" is a major feature of the mobile film aesthetic. The rejection of the values in conventional production leads to spontaneity, intimacy, and immediacy becoming important motifs in phone cinematography[5]. Apparently unintentional events can give films an aesthetic defined by authenticity, emphasizing how cinematography must use real world world as subject matter. This visual style evolved from the origins of mobile film making as an amateur practice pursued by enthusiasts. It can be viewed as a reaction to the polished, professional aesthetic that has come to define the film industry. The mobility of phone cameras make adaptable scheduling, flexible production, a smaller crew, and an ability to adapt to environmental factors possible and further promote the conditions that stylistically characterize mobile film-making.

Alternative ProductionEdit

Phone recognition as a cinematic tool has opened doors for hobbyists and filmmakers. Upon searching "phone cinematography" in Google, various articles appear highlighting its rise and techniques for users to consider. They describe methods one can emulate to practice film techniques using their phone. YouTube videos like "How to Get Cinematic on a Cell Phone" describe how film aesthetics are created, where phones lack in those regards, and how to work around it.[6] The video received around 9,500+ likes with comments like "do more if these tutorial vids...they're awesome" and "this helped a ton. Thanks guys!" Using phones to create higher-quality films shows how devices aren't limited by their original function. Incorporating old and new technology allows for more accessibility among its users.

Filmmakers are able to find alternative functionality as well. The difference in quality changes the interaction with the device. In filming Olive, the director comments that the phone was placed in several locations: a slider dolly, a suction cup placed on a motorcycle, a helicopter, to name a few.[7] Its smaller size allowed for them to take shots in locations that wouldn't be possible using a larger device. Not only does its size provide physical benefits, it also has social benefits as well. Tangerine director, Sean Baker, mentions that using a phone allowed for first-time actors to relax better. The camera makes them intimidated, but he noticed that it was less so with a phone. Similarly, filming in public was easier too because less people paid attention. In an interview with TheLipTV, he mentions, "nobody takes it seriously. It's not a camera, it's a phone." Technology isn't limited to its intended purpose, and that's what lets new media rise from it.

Phone LimitationsEdit

An External Anamorphic Lens

The processing power of phones do not match the market quality of professional devices. In a video [8] taken by CNN, news reporters compare the quality of the CNN camera versus an iPhone 6. The narrator contrasts them saying "... the broadcast camera, the pictures are sharp, there's more depth and there much more vibrant. The iPhone on the other hand, they're more anemic, there's more grain, and the pictures are flat. It is comparing a Mini to a Maserati." Mobile-Phone cameras and microphones do not posses the same quality as film cameras, so filmmakers compensate by using auxiliary devices to improve certain functions. External microphones, camera lenses, and stabilizers are all tools used to compensate for mobile shortcomings.

For example, director Sean Baker used such tools to create Tangerine. He used a 1.33x anamorphic adapter to allow his shots to be taken in true scope. It allows for the phone to change its resolution so that it better matches the aspect ratio used in cinema. [9] Another tool he used was sound devices to improve its quality. Tangerine Actor, James Ransone, mentions "we made it the way you would make a normal movie... you applied all of the methodology that you learned, it's just the interface in which you're using is just readily available." [10]


Public recognition of a phone's potential created a sub-genre of film culture. The rise of mobile-film festivals worldwide aim to support and promote the development of mobile film-making, which hints at the increasing success and popularity of the art. These festivals allow cell phone film makers and spectators to engage in the rapidly developing culture surrounding this method of film-making. Some major ones are listed below:

There has been widespread critical acclaim for some feature length films made using mobile phones such as, but not limited to, Tangerine and I Play with the Phrase Each Other. For example, Tangerine received a 97% critic rating on RottenTomatoes, with a 76% audience approval and received awards for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female, Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female in 2016. [11] [12]

Social ImpactEdit

Films made with mobile-phones stimulate the development of new avenues of distribution. Websites such as YouTube and Vimeo promote the Internet-sharing of films. As the cost of entry to film making and it's distribution has decreased, more individuals are able to engage in the film-making process. There is a ill-defined boundary between using mobile phone cameras to film for popular social media applications such as Snapchat and Vine as opposed to filming cinematic feature films as many of the same techniques can be employed. The social aspects of cell phone cameras are apparent in the cultural phenomenon known as the "Selfie". The social effects of a low cost of entry to film-making has resulted in the development of a new style and sub-culture centered around mobile-film making that is best exhibited by the rise of mobile film festivals.

Often advertising for newly released smart-phones focuses on the specifications and features of the phones camera. This is a response to a demand among consumers for capable and high quality cameras their phones. Though this demand is largely driven by social media applications, it has had a significant effect in developing the perception of phones as film-making devices.


Phone technology has opened doors within the film industry- redefining what film can be. Phones allow film to become more accessible and experimental, and changes the social perception of what these devices are. They are no longer a tool for communication, but also a means to create narrative works through visual storytelling.

While this examination focused on cinematography as a fine art, further work can examine phone cinematography as a form of social activism.


  1. B. Stern, Inventors at Work, Apress 2012.
  2. NASA, (2010), The 90s > Overview, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/jplhistory/the90/
  3. Sleepy Urbanite, (2008), Camera Phones, http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/camera_phone.htm
  4. Michael Zhang, (2011), The First "Camera Phone" Photograph Was Sent in 1997, http://petapixel.com/2011/09/27/the-first-camera-phone-photograph-was-taken-in-1997/
  5. Wilson, Gavin (2014) Cell/ular cinema: individuated production, public sharing and mobile phone film exhibition. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.
  6. Sam and Niko. (2015, May 4). How to Get Cinematic on a Cell Phone. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-_HhGjNrKU
  7. Lenin, Dev. (2011, Dec 2) "Olive" - The first full length feature film shot completely on a N8. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6fQThsFSCo
  8. CNN. (2014, Oct. 31). iPhone 6 camera vs. CNN camera. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-tL7GYh0Bw&t=80s
  9. Minsk International Film Festival Listapad. (2015, Oct. 21). "Sean Baker." YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TW1QfVgoChE
  10. Build Series. (2015, June 30). "Sean Baker, James Ransone and Mya Taylor on "Tangerine"". YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZGIKlN220M
  11. Rotten Tomatoes - https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/tangerine_2015/
  12. Google - https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=tangerine+awards&stick=H4sIAAAAAAAAAOPgE-LWz9U3MDQqMo3PqVJC5mjJZidb6SeWJxalQMj48sy8vNQiKzCnGAA-HMkfOwAAAA