This is a surprisingly common question that people ask on online forums or search for on Google, and its surprising because the question is so obviously yes, in fact you could make a documentary on an iPhone 4 and there are examples of Sundance winning documentaries that were filmed on that device. Its an easy question to answer because you just need to understand what is currently considered ‘broadcast quality’ and compare it with the specifications of your smartphones camera.
What Is Broadcast Quality?
Any footage recorded in Ultra HD (4k) can be considered broadcast quality, and if you are only recording for the internet then HD (720p) or Full HD (1080p) will suffice. So if you want to produce a documentary which could potentially be screened at film festivals then we’ll take Ultra HD to be the current standard.
Which iPhone Models Shoot In Ultra HD?
The iPhone 6 was the first iPhone to have an Ultra HD camera, and that was continued with the iPhone 7. The iPhone SE also shoots in Ultra HD. The cameras on any of these iPhones are capable of capturing broadcast quality footage when 4k is selected in the phones camera settings (if not already default). The 6 Plus would be better than the 6s because of the automatic image stabilization, the iPhone 7 also offers this. Ultimately the iPhone is a perfectly legitimate camera and the same basic film-making principles apply.
Examples of Documentaries Made With iPhone
The first high profile documentary to be filmed with an iPhone was Tangerine, a film about transgender prostitutes in Hollywood. The film was a huge success at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival despite much of the footage being shot on an iPhone 5S! In fact we can better that, in 2013 the documentary Searching for Sugar Man won the Academy Award for Best Documentary despite being partially filmed on an iPhone 3! The list is almost endless, an acclaimed documentary called The Collectors was filmed entirely on an iPhone 6 Plus and was subsequently screened on Ireland’s biggest television station.
What Else Do You Need?
Clearly if you are going to film on your iPhone 6 or 7 and expect to capture enough quality footage to put together a documentary you are going to need a few accessories, most people creating films on their iPhone will purchase and download the FilMiC app to get the best out of their phones camera, the makers of Tangerine used that app to enhance the quality of their footage. You will also want to buy a few accessories such as the following:
Its extremely difficult to hold a smartphone steady with your bare hands, so you are going to need some sort of stabilizer or rig to ensure that you can grasp the phone firmly and avoid ruining your footage with shaky hands. One of the best rated is the Zhiyun Smooth-Q stabilizer which is compatible with both iPhone 6 an iPhone 7 (and pretty much every other smart phone on the market). There are numerous alternatives if it is beyond your budget.
The type of microphone(s) that you need will depend very much on what you will be shooting, if you are conducting interviews for example you may decide that you need lapel mics, but for general directional audio you will probably want to get yourself a shotgun mic such as the Rode VMGO Video Mic which comes with a good quality windshield and requires no battery.
Recording on an iPhone drains the battery so you are going to want to carry around a couple of additional charged external battery packs to ensure that you’ve got battery life when you need it most. Particular popular are Anker PowerCore 10000 external batteries which provide powerful high speed charging on the go without hogging space in your backpack.