Can you shoot a documentary with an iPhone?

Yes you can! Let me tell you about my filmmaking journey in Northern Peru. My upcoming documentary about organic coffee farmers was shot in 4K on an iPhone 10 XsMax with about 750 Euro of extra accessories. However the documentary is still in the making, I have decided to share individual portraits. In this article I will be sharing films and insights about filmmaking with an iPhone. I hope you will be learning something from my insights. Enjoy reading and watching.

I’m a camera geek, a pixel peeper and listen to video productions in my car just to make sure it sounds good anywhere. 

Since 2004 I’m filmmaker working with all kinds of camera’s. Along the road I discovered that less truly is more. The idea of filming a documentary with an iPhone came from two factors: fear and going out of my comfort zone.


Getting out of my comfort zone sparked creativity  

At the time of preproduction, beginning of 2019, I had three camera options. An awesome 4K cinema camera that was insured for around €10.000, my first Canon cinema camera which had a market value of around €3.000 with one lens and microphones or the most expensive iPhone at that time available in the Apple store.  

The first two options were the most comfortable to shoot with and delivers high quality video and audio. Many documentaries, commercials and feature films were shot on those type of sensors.  The iPhone on the other side was something else. How do you hold such a tiny thing steady? Is the 4K film mode a gimmick? How are the microphones for ambient recordings? I had no experience with professional use of an iPhone. Yet the idea of such a small footprint made me stoked! Just one small camera-bag and no fuss with extra luggage and most importantly my fear for getting robbed was replaced with excitement.  

I always love to challenge myself and filming with an iPhone was something out of my comfort zone. It sparked my creativity and as a gear freak and I started researching for the world’s best filming app and necessary accessories.

Getting the most out of the iPhone 

 Soon I was playing around with the FilmicPro app with all the extra paid features. It offered me complete control over the iPhone with much better video compression options thus more detail and flexibility for color grading in post-production. MoviePro, the other option, did not impress me.  

The iPhone 10 XsMax comes with two lenses. I tested filming with both lenses, a wide and a tele lens. The footage with the wide lens and internal image stabilisation was still shaky and not pleasant to watch. The telelens was even worse, as expected.  

So I bought a tripod with an adapter so I could attach the iPhone in both portrait and landscape mode. Why portrait? Because I also wanted to tryout vertical filmmaking, for something like Instagram stories. The results were awesome and the tripod allowed for some cool time-lapses.

Even so filming all shots stationary with a tripod felt uninspiring. So I dived into the world of phone gimbals (a gimbal is a nifty stabilizer with motors that keep the camera/phone stable). I already owned a large gimbal for my cinema camera’s but they are bulky, heavy and not great for long filming hours without additional gear. After some long hours researching on my iPhone I decided to give the company DJI a chance. But unfortunately their model Osmo Mobile 2 was not strong enough to hold my heavy iPhone. So I returned it quickly.

Stabilising the iPhone with quirks

 Next up was the Zhiyun Smooth 4, I loved the integration with the Filmmic Pro app. It even has a focus wheel that worked quite well. Even though the specs said it would hold my iPhone it wasn’t stable especially noticeable with the tele lens activated. Using both gimbal and internal stabilization was smooth at first glance but when I viewed the 4K footage on my large display I saw the jitters. The alternative was upgrading the gimbal with another gimbal that costs roughly 3 times more than the DJI or Zhiyun. That was a dealbreaker for me so I decided to stick with the Zhiyun and fix the problems in post-production.

Starting out with test projects

 My adventure in Peru started in Lima and I didn’t feel the need to shoot some test footage there. However when I moved to the mountains in the Ancash region I did some test projects. The first two projects were edited on my iPhone to see how the editing process is on a phone. It worked for me but only when it’s a short edit. 

My third project was a hike to a beautiful lake and this time I used my MacBook Pro for editing. Due to it’s old age I couldn’t edit the 4K footage so I had to make smaller HD files with a more CPU friendly compression. This process is called working with proxies. It worked really well on my laptop and I decided this was the way to go with the upcoming documentary shoot.


Meeting the coffee farmers in Northern Peru  

My Spanish is good enough to make friends and arranging basic stuff but that’s about it. But that didn’t stop me from contacting Eber Tocto from Finca Churupampa. He is the main guy behind a coffee farming cooperation.  


My cousin Bas Smeenk from and Jeroen Brugman from got me in contact with dutch importer thissideup They asked Eber Tocto if he is cool with the fact that I’m coming to Peru with the wish to make a documentary about organic coffee farming.  

It was a strange timing because it’s not the season to pick the red coffee cherries. From my perspective I didn’t bother that it was the rainy season and I wasn’t looking for the standard footage about coffee farming anyway. By the way did you see I bought the pink iPhone model.

Eber is such a nice guy and I look like a giant next to him

Eber and his family were really very friendly. They arranged everything for me. Which is typically Peruvian, they treat you like a family member (me casa es su casa).  

After all those hours of traveling and testing my gear I was still unclear about the storyline for the documentary. Normally I work with talented copywriters that come up with great perspectives and directors who make sure that the story is captured in a way that the editor can make a compelling story.  

As I discovered the coffee farming is a family driven business it seemed a great idea to follow four generations.

Filming for 12 days and 5 hours of footage  

Due to some health problems I decided to shoot as efficient as possible with the best lighting conditions. With my beloved Cinema camera and good health I would have shot at least 20 hours of footage.  

Eber Tocto first introduced my to Señor Silva a 66 year old farmer with a beautiful plantation. Soon I discovered that the rainy season makes the paths very slippery and those coffee plantations are cultivated on really steep hills. I fell down several times. It was easy to quickly hold the gimbal with iPhone in the air because of the weight and size. My cinema camera would most likely have hit the ground.  

I also discovered that with such a light configuration it helps shooting a lot of dynamic shots in a very short period of time without getting exhausted. I did miss the the focal view of my traditional film lenses. The wide angle on the iPhone is great but lacks depth of field. And using the telelens on the iPhone was risky due to the jittery gimbal. On the other hand, not having to change lenses in the field sped things up. 

 While filming I was very conservative with the iPhone memory, even though I had 512GB internal memory. At the end I had shot 234GB of footage with 220 minutes of b-roll and 100 minutes of interview footage which I shot in a lower compression to save memory space.  

Around day six I reviewed the footage and made a first edit

During the production process it’s very important for me to review the footage in an as early stage, preferably during the shoot. It gives me energy if it looks great. If I see a weakness I’m determined to invent a strategy to improve or solve the issue. 

The gimbal problem became apparent but could be solved with my editing software. I used Davinci Resolve for color grading and making the proxies and Adobe Premiere Pro for the editing. The edit worked fine with the proxies and the video above is just a low resolution export out of the 17 inchMacBook Pro.

The Corona lockdown fired me up

Back home I played with the footage. Had a translator work on the transcript but I had no inspiration to work on the documentary. This is something common for my emotional driven productions. In the past I did cinematic wedding films and the bride and groom had to wait 6-12 months before I delivered their film. Sometimes I had to spend more than 100 hours in such a production.

 Then the corona lockdown came enforced. Immediately I was without paid work with the exception of one simple photography assignment. I finally sat down and looked at the transcript, it was really badly translated, one of the reasons why I didn’t want to start the edit. 

I had no budget for a better translator so I decided to just make the best out of it. Instead of directly working on a long documentary I found out that it works better for me to first make individual portraits. 


Working with Davinci Resolve & Adobe Premiere Pro 

The first color pass treatment that I developed in Peru looked great on my studio display so I just exported all the usable and trimmed footage into a 4K Prores codec. 

On my late 2013 MacPro it edits really well. My first interviewed coffee farmer was Señor Silva. I truly loved his story. He was the first person to be on my timeline. 

While selecting the quotes I really missed the fact that I didn’t understand the answers in Spanish during the interview on location. Unfortunately my journalist wasn’t speaking English very well so it felt like I was directing blindly. Next time I make sure that I meet with the journalist beforehand and then decide if there is a match. 

After finishing the first portrait I had feedback from a couple of people. Most valuable were the comments from Jan Boesten from Introducing Gallery. His insights and perspective helped me to improve the second portrait. 

Instead of using one soundtrack for the whole piece he advised me to use more soundtracks, but also add segments that just consist of ambient sounds only. And to be honest the microphones on the iPhone are awesome for ambient recordings! For the interview I used a lavalier microphone connected to a portable recorder from Tascam. 

Sneak preview “Eswin Tocto, Organic coffee farmer”

I’m very happy with the second story! I’m looking forward to your opinions on the second portrait in my series about organic coffee farmers.  

Will I shoot my next documentary on the iPhone11? 

 Warning this part contains high amount of nerd talk.

It depends on the budget. This project was mostly privately funded. If I go without any crew I would definitely buy the latest iPhone use wind protection for the internal microphones and invest in a suitable gimbal. Pack just one small camera bag, go out and shoot compelling stories.  

However I desire something else. I thrive when I’m with my creative friends. With a crew of 2 people it’s easier to step up the game with higher quality storytelling, richer audio coverage, inspiring camera angles and most importantly for me, creative sparks. A larger crew (director, camera operator and sound recordist) would be too overwhelming for the subjects in my opinion.

Because I love the smooth look of gimbal shots I would like to have a dedicated setup for just those shots. I would trade image quality for low weight and small footprint. For this reason an iPhone 11 with the best gimbal would be my choice. It would be the director holding this configuration most of the time. 

My temptation of rigging the gimbal with a better stereo external microphone will be neglected. It will only make things more complicated. There will be a need for extra batteries and it will probably off-balance the gimbal. Keeping it simple helps concentrating on the creative aspect of filmmaking. 

The Canon C200 cinema camera would be my choice as main camera. As far as audio goes: a shotgun microphone on channel 1/2 (channel 2 lower gain), a lavalier mic on channel 2 and a binaural microphone at channel 3/4. For a two shot with dialogue I would use a small Tascam recorder with another lavalier microphone. This will give me a lot of options in post-production.

My main lens would be the Canon 17-55mm 2.8IS with a polarisation filter during the bright daylight.  For extreme close-ups the Canon 100mm 2.8 IS is ideal. Both lenses have image stabilisation and for me that’s important because I dislike micro jitters in the footage.  

To shoot handheld and hold it steady for long hours I take my EasyRig Minimax with me. It looks like a backpack with a pole, out of the pole comes a rope where you attach the camera.  For monitoring in bright daylight I would bring my 7 inch Feelworld monitor that is perfect outdoors and helps me nailing the focus. Because this camera acts as the main audio recorder I need to record at the same time as the iPhone is filming. All footage will be shot in the 4K Xvac codec with most shots in 25P.  

Hope you enjoyed my article and I look forward to share more insights with you.

Maarten Smeenk

Maarten Smeenk

Filmmaker with a passion for fair-trade storytelling.