Smartphones today deliver great video quality. And it is usually the (native) camera apps supplied by the manufacturers that tickle the best image performance out of the cameras. Unfortunately, the sound recorded with the internal microphones is often rather poor. Especially when ambient noise and noise are added. That’s why you need an external microphone as a smartphone filmmaker. If you don’t own an iPhone or Google pixel right now, you have a problem: The native apps don’t (usually) work together with external microphones. That’s why Android filmmakers are dependent on third-party apps. One of the most comprehensive and yet easy-to-use apps is called Open Camera. In this article I introduce them.
Let’s start with the best: Open Camera is free and Open Source. It runs on almost all Android smartphones with the same range of functions. This alone is a great achievement by the developers. The strong hardware and software fragmentation on the Android market poses one of the biggest challenges in the conception and development of mobile apps. It is basically allowed for every manufacturer to create, modify and publish their own Android system. And that’s what most manufacturers do. As a result, there is not one version that developers can throw themselves at, but hundreds of different versions for which they have to optimize their apps. And the Open Camera developers have done this in an exemplary way.
The main menu items
With Open Camera you get a complete app on your phone, with which you can both film and photograph. Despite the huge range of functions, the user interface is quite clearly designed, so that even beginners can easily find their way around. So you can immediately see how much memory is still available, which is especially important for videographers. The basic structure of Open Camera is similar to the native camera apps. On the start screen you can switch between video and photo mode. The symbols are self-explanatory. At the top there are different icons for the settings. While you can make general settings for the user interface via the gearwheel, you can access the photo or video settings via the icon with the three superimposed dots depending on the selected recording mode. There you can select the focus method, change the video resolution, change the settings for a time-lapse video, set the self-timer and fade in a grid, which is extremely helpful for image design, white balance. If you have set the exposure for your shots, you can correct it using the [+/-] symbol in the upper bar.
For a complete list of unit settings, please refer to the Open camera settings page. Click on the gear symbol to go to the main settings. Also this menu is very clearly arranged, although it offers almost infinite setting possibilities. The app developers have grouped them in different menu items.
More camera settings
The More Camera Settings menu item allows you to specify the storage location for your pictures and photos as well as the storage name (photo or video prefix).
You should take a close look at this menu item User Interface especially after the first start of the app. There you can customize the screen displays. So you can fade in and fade out the zoom buttons (I don’t use the camera zoom at all, that’s why I faded out the buttons). The display of the position angle is quite practical. It informs you if the camera is aligned. Quite new is the display of the volume for video recordings. So you can see if the sound is being recorded and if it is too loud or too quiet. You can also display the charge status of the battery.
You can set the resolution here. It goes without saying that you should select the largest possible resolution here. The image quality determines how much the image should be compressed. The higher the compression rate, the smaller the file size. But of course the quality also suffers. A compression rate of 90 percent is good. You can leave the image format on .jpg. If your phone supports this, you could select RAW to optimize the images later with another program. Other options are WebP and PNG, but in my opinion they don’t offer much improvement for photos. With the next point you can determine whether you want to save only the finished picture from a HDR shot or additionally still all single shots. This is useful if you want to convert them into an HDR by hand later with another program. Great is the possibility to add your name directly to the Exif file. This allows you to write the indication of origin directly into the photo files.
I am really enthusiastic about the possibilities that Open Camera offers in the field of video. So let’s get to the most important point for me, the video settings. Of course, you can adjust the resolution there. In contrast to photos, I don’t necessarily think that videos should always be recorded in the highest possible resolution. I’m always looking for a compromise between file size and quality. Since I mainly film for the web, I usually end up with Full-HD (1920×1080 pixels). You can also set the page format here. But 16:9 is usually the best choice. In the following menu item you can set the video format. If compatibility is important to you, use MP4 with the codec H.264. You can leave the video bitrate as it is. If you are filming for Youtube and want to adjust everything exactly, you will find the recommended settings of the platform on this page. The other settings are not very important. Only the point Audio Source is really inspiring. There you can enter the external microphone as audio source. In the video sector, Open Camera is the only free solution known to me, where you can choose which device should be used for the sound recording. .
Shooting with Open Camera
The Video Mode
Of all the video apps I know Open Camera is by far the best. In video mode you can switch between front and rear camera. The three dots next to the gearwheel above give you an overview of the most important settings, which you can change directly here. Since I have already adjusted my camera via the main menu, the most important point for me here is the choice of the focus method. You can choose between autofocus, a focus with continuous sharpness, a macro focus for close-ups as well as a lock with which you can lock the focus. This is usually my focus method in the video as well as in the photo area. Because the permanent readjustment of the focus in the automatic modes disturbs me. What is simply annoying in the photo area is a catastrophe in the video area: Even with slight camera movements or movement in the background, the app tries to “pump” the autofocus. As a result, the sharpness in the video wanders back and forth. A really unattractive effect when it’s unwanted. The solution: Focus on the lock symbol. From now on you have to decide which area of your video you want to focus on. Simply tap the person or object you want to focus on with your finger on the screen. Once set, the focus remains fixed even if you move the camera. You can then unlock or reset the focus by tapping on another area. Of course you can also lock the exposure. You can do this using the lock icon in the main menu bar. Once the exposure is locked, you can correct it using the [+/-] icon on the right.
The Photo Mode
As with your standard photo apps, you can of course also use Open Camera to set the focus and correct the exposure. So far, so good. But already the photo mode provides much more than the standard apps. HDR photos help in difficult lighting situations. Open Camera shoots three pictures: One correctly exposed, one overexposed and one underexposed image. From these, the app then calculates a balanced image in which details can still be seen in both the dark and bright areas. An alternative are Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) images, which Open Camera also delivers. In contrast to HDR, only one image is shot, whose darkest and brightest areas are adjusted by the app. Exposure series are also possible. In addition, the white balance and ISO number can be defined and various scene modes from sports shooting to night photo can be set. Open Camera automatically detects faces and sharpens them (an option that can of course be deactivated in the Camera Settings menu).
Open Camera is an app that has it all. If used correctly, you can achieve much better results in both the photo and video areas than with most integrated camera apps. Especially the possibility to select external microphones and display the recording volume distinguishes Open Camera from other (free) apps. The setting options are very large and should inspire even professionals. Nevertheless, the app is very clearly structured, so that even amateurs find their way around well and find Open Camera a worthy first for their standard app. You can download Open Camera for free in the Google Playstore.