Production Notes: making an iPhone Video in the Field

The response to my Apple Watch Ultra expedition video has been really encouraging. Video is very far from my area of expertise and something that I feel only a passing confidence with. However, I still think that I’ve learned a few things worth sharing in the creation of this video, in case anyone else wants to make a similar video using their iPhone.

This video was recorded entirely on an iPhone 14 Pro, using a combination of the Camera app and DoubleTake (discussed below). I edited it in Final Cut Pro. The raw source footage was around 21GB, which I AirDrop-ed over to my MacBook Pro.

Audio

By far the hardest part of making a video outside in the elements is getting usable audio. The built-in microphone is only really viable indoors or on very still days.

I’ve tried a number of things over the years while out hiking to try and get good audio. I’ve tried using the old wired EarPods. I’ve tried using a standalone lapel mic with dedicated recorder. I’ve tried using my AirPods Pro. I’ve tried using a second iPhone running Voice Memos. None of these really works very well and each have a variety of drawbacks.

What I have found is that it is essential that the audio be recorded directly into the iPhone. While external recorders can be later synced up in Final Cut, this process is super cumbersome and means that you can’t easily check your footage in the field. It is also essential to have some kind of wind/weather screen on your microphone, otherwise you will constantly be ending up with unusable shots where all you hear is wind noise.

After this trip, I think I’ve finally settled on a workable solution that ended up working very well in practice. I have started to use the Rode Wireless Go 2 connected directly to my iPhone. This microphone system includes two parts, the microphone/transmitter and then a receiver unit. The microphone comes with a wind screen which can be installed on top. This device is clearly intended to be used with a larger, more traditional camera setup, but with a little creative cabling I got it working well with an iPhone.

The output from the Wireless Go can be connected to the iPhone in two ways. Rode makes a USB-C to Lightning cable which can do this digitally, but I found this cable impossible to source. Strangely a standard USB-C to Lightning cable doesn’t work; it seems there is something special about Rode’s necessary to get audio to flow.

What I found to work well instead was to get a cheap TRS-to-TRRS cable and then plug this into the iPhone headphone adapter. This makes the phone think that the audio is coming in from an external headset and worked a treat. iOS then used this audio source whenever it was plugged in without any additional setup or configuration.

I primarily use my iPhone with my right hand. So I clipped the receiver to my right wrist using my Apple Watch’s strap as the clipping point (and tucked the end of the cable under the strap for safe storage while moving). For this trip I was wearing a watch on each wrist, but in the future I’d just wear my watch on my right wrist for this purpose. That way whenever I want to record some video, I’d just pull out my iPhone, plug in the cable and start.

Probably the best example of this setup’s quality is this section in the middle of my video where I’m discussing the audio quality of the Ultra. I was around 20 meters from my iPhone/receiver, across a road, with steading drizzle and a blustery wind. The resulting audio is very clear and usable.

Camera.app and DoubleTake

For the majority of my video I used the main Apple Camera app. I find that you can’t beat the performance and ease-of-use of it. I shot the video in 4K/30fps.

I tried doing a few scenes in Cinematic mode but ultimately regretted it because the resulting video is much more cumbersome to use. I also did this video with HDR enabled, but ended up regretting that too. While I’m sure there are ways to make HDR work for a video destined for YouTube, I found in practice HDR made the workflow and upload process much more complicated. In the end I disabled HDR for my export because no matter what I tried I couldn’t get it to look right on YouTube. For a recreational video creator it just isn’t worth the marginal benefit.

The other app I used to record video was FiLMiC’s DoubleTake. This lets you record concurrently from the front and back cameras. I found this really helpful in doing my “Walk and Talk” segments. Previously, I’ve done these with just the selfie camera, but this leads to a kinda boring visual. Also, it makes it hard for me to ‘show’ things, which in the case of this video was useful to be able to cut between my face and video of my wrist.

Since both resulting clips use the same plugged-in microphone, later syncing up the two videos was very straightforward in Final Cut.

The only thing I wish both of these apps included was the ability to overlay an audio peak meter while recording. FiLMiC’s main video app can do this, but neither DoubleTake or Camera.app does. I’d have liked the confidence that I hadn’t misconnected something. Instead, I did lots of quick test shots which I played back to confirm my audio/video was solid.

Timelapses

In a couple of spots I included scenic timelapses in my video. What I have found to work really well for these is to not use the timelapse mode in Camera.app, and instead just record a very long regular video. The challenge with the timelapse mode is that it limits your later control over timing and quality. If you just speed up a long, fixed position video in Final Cut you end up with the same effect but can adjust the timing easily later on depending on what you want.

For these fixed shots I attached my iPhone to a lightweight, tripod using a Studio Neat Glif. This worked well and was very lightweight, which I value on my hikes.

Stabilization

If I wanted the most stable, clean video possible I would have taken along a handheld gimbal for this trip. But the reality is I really didn’t want to lug around the weight of something like that with me and have to stop to set it up any time I wanted to record a clip. So instead I just shot all my non-static shots handheld and relied on the iPhone’s stabilization to be good enough.

There were a few clips where I think the result is a bit more wobbly than I’d prefer, but overall this approach worked well. Something I’d recommend doing here is while recording your walking shots make sure you don’t lock your elbow. You want to keep a flexible arm while recording, this lends a bit of natural shock absorption to the video and actually is a pretty good ‘virtual gimbal’.

Apple Watch Camera Remote

For a few of my ‘talk to the camera’ shots I setup my iPhone on a tripod and then moved away from it. For these I didn’t want to use the selfie camera so that I could get the full, high quality video of the back cameras. In order to check my framing and start/stop the video I then used the Apple Watch’s Camera Remote app. This gives a little preview of what the iPhone can see, so I could check I was in frame. Then I could remotely start and stop capture. I wasn’t sure if this would have any issues working out away from WiFi and civilization, but it worked great for me well out in the wilderness. You can catch a glimpse of this in action right at the end of my video.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, I have to say the creation of this video was much simpler than I would have guessed. The recording process (once I’d sorted out the audio situation) was natural and not that dissimilar to what I’d be doing anyway while capturing photos and video clips for myself.

I’m sure there are better ways to edit and compose the video in Final Cut. I could have added music or transitions or all manner of other touches. But the reality is that I find that if I over complicate something like this I just won’t do it. I’d rather keep it simple and have it exist, rather than strive for sophistication and leave it a dream. Each time I make something like this I’ll learn and improve.

I highly recommend giving something like this a try (and you can start off just using your AirPods) on your next adventure. It is both a good skill to nurture as well as something that will preserve a valued memory later on. Photographs and video clips are lovely, but recording you actual thoughts and experiences is so much more rich and valuable.

David Smith




Two Suggestions for the Apple Watch Ultra

During the course of my testing expedition of the Apple Watch Ultra, I ran into two issues that I would really like to see improved upon in a future software update.

Overall, watchOS 9 is very solid and holds up well against use in the field, but as the Ultra pushes out the viable use cases of this device I hit a couple situations where there is some room for improvement.

Action Button

The Action button should always perform the secondary action when pressed during an active workout, and never end an active workout.

On the third day of the testing trip I set out to push myself and the Ultra from an endurance perspective. I hiked 26.2 miles along the West Highland Way.1 For this test I was recording my route using the built-in Apple Workouts app. Around 17 or so miles into my hike I looked down and saw a surprising sight on my wrist, my walk was no longer being tracked by the Workouts app. Instead it was being tracked by the hiking app I’ve been working on, and stated I’d been walking for less than a mile. It took me a minute to discover what had happened but once I did, I was very frustrated and if I’m being honest a kinda mad.

The Action button of the Ultra can be configured in Settings to a variety of options, including starting a workout in an app of your choice. There is then a secondary action which can be triggered within an app once the first has been performed (in the Workouts app it typically marks a segment/split). For my previous day’s test I had configured my watch to start a workout within my hiking app so that I could test this integration and using the secondary action within the app. What I was surprised to discover, however, was that this meant that pushing the Action button would now instantly end whatever workout I was already doing and immediately start a workout within my app. This swap over occurs without any user confirmation. I believe the hem of my glove pushed into the action button while I was hiking and that triggered the early end of my workout and the start of the workout in the other app.

For me this meant that rather than having the super fun, and personally meaningful 26.2 mile workout in my history…I instead have a split workout, broken into a number of shorter segments.

Personally, I think that the Action button should always perform its secondary action while the user has a workout active, regardless of how you have it configured. This would avoid my situation and also make the user experience much more consistent. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for the user to know what is going to happen. Or at the very least while you have a workout active, pressing it shouldn’t end that workout and start another without some form of confirmation.

In my case the consequence is relatively minor, I’m annoyed I don’t have a cool workout entry in my Health database, but I could imagine scenarios where they result would be much more high consequence. For example, if you were using the Ultra as a scuba diving aid, prematurely ending your workout with a single button press could be potentially quite alarming.

Backtrack

Backtrack should be integrated in the Workouts app and activated for every outdoor workout session.

One of the features added to watchOS 9 is the new Backtrack feature in the Compass app. This lets you lay down a series of virtual breadcrumbs as you move around, which you can then follow to return back to where you began your adventure. The traces can be started manually or (in theory) will automatically start tracking if your watch thinks you are heading out into the backcountry.

I never was able to observe the automatic tracking in action, even though I was far away from civilization for very long stretches of time during my trip. I’d check in the Compass app periodically and it was never laying down a track. Either I don’t understand this feature or the automatic trigger doesn’t work reliably, which is a bit concerning for a feature that potentially has a safety use.

Regardless of the automatic mode’s utility, I don’t think the right place for this feature is within the Compass app. It feels very disjointed from the typical use of the Apple Watch there. It almost feels like it is being hidden away by putting it there. This initial implementation feels very much to me like it is Apple’s first pass at outdoor navigation and mapping, with a lot more to come in the future. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of the features in iOS 17/watchOS 10 is the expansion of Apple Maps into outdoor uses, with topographic maps and trail markings. It seems a logical area for expansion and would fit perfectly with the Backtrack use case.

This feature, though, really makes a lot more sense to me integrated within the Workouts app, as the fourth tab in the UI. I’d expect it to be available and active whenever you have an outdoor workout started and have workout route tracking enabled. This would avoid the need to manually begin the tracking and put the resulting data front and center within the UI where you can easily access it. Right now if you were out for a hike, tracking it with the Workouts app, and then wanted to reference the Backtrack you’d have to keep jumping back and forth with the Compass app which doesn’t make for a particularly ergonomic situation.

In Closing

I am very confident that both of these features were created with a tremendous amount of thoughtful consideration and planning. The issues I’m highlighting were likely brought up, discussed and ultimately decided against. Nevertheless, I’d love to see them changed.

I really like using the Ultra and think it can be a tremendous companion for outdoor exploration, but in that context I want it to be highly reliable and not at all surprising. These changes are, in the scheme of the utility this device provides, relatively minor, but I think would meaningfully improve it.

  1. Well actually I walked 25.8 miles along my planned route, and reached the path at the banks of Loch Linnhe. Seeing I was so close to walking a full marathon I walked around in a circle for the remaining 0.4 miles, to feel like I had done the job properly. 

David Smith




Testing an Apple Watch Ultra in the Scottish Highlands

I was very excited when Apple announced the Apple Watch Ultra this fall. I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch on my wrist nearly every day since they were first released seven years ago. What was so exciting about the Ultra is that it seemed to be targeted directly at me. I’m an avid hiker/backpacker and love being outdoors, and I’ve used a regular Apple Watch to track these activities but would love for a device that even better fits this use.

I don’t think you can properly test a device like this without taking it out into the field. So the day my Ultra arrived, I booked myself onto a sleeper train up to the Scottish Highlands for a three day hiking trip to really see how it performed. I ended up hiking just over 61 miles.

I put together a video journaling my experience over this trip. This is the best way to really capture the experience of using the Ultra:


The standard Apple Watches are incredibly capable devices, that I’ve used to great utility on countless hiking trips, but using them in that context always felt a bit like I was pushing the boundary of what it was intended for or capable of. Whereas the Ultra is very much designed for the backcountry context. It is more rugged, more long lasting and much easier to read…all while still being 100% an Apple Watch and not compromising any of the features that make a standard Apple Watch so useful. (I also think it is absolutely gorgeous aesthetically, but realize that is much more of a fashion opinion)

I love this watch and can say confidently that is the best Apple Watch yet made for hiking. The standard Apple Watches are very good, and probably good enough for most day hiking, but if you’ve ever felt limited by their screen, battery or durability you’ll be very happy with this upgrade. I also think it is probably the best choice amongst all sports watches for hiking for all but the most specialist needs (assuming you have an iPhone).

If you are thru-hiking the Pacific Crest trail, or going out on a multi-week wilderness expedition there is probably a better suited device for you, but I suspect that the actual proportion of users where that would be the case is vanishingly small. The fact of the matter is that most of life doesn’t involve scaling mountains or fording streams, it involves paying for things, making calls, texting our loved ones, and regular exercise. In these situations an Apple Watch is fabulously useful.

While I was putting together this review I kept coming back to the analogy that the Ultra is like a pick-up truck. Useful in regular, daily life but capable of heading offroad or carrying gravel from the garden store. It still drives like a regular car, but can do more. The Ultra has retained its “Apply Watch-ey-ness” while expanding its range of uses, which is exactly what I want. If they had instead made a dump truck (which in this analogy are the highly specialized, sport specific watches) it certainly would have been able to carry more gravel than a pick-up, but also been way less useful overall.

This approach could frustrate people who do the specialist activities that demand a specialist device, but is a delight for the rest of us. I’m thrilled to have the Ultra on my wrist and look forward to many more adventures using it.


If you want to see some photographs I took during this trip, I put together a collection of full-res images here.

David Smith




iPhone 14 Pro Photographs in Scotland

As part of my Apple Watch Ultra Testing Trip I took a number of photographs with my new iPhone 14 Pro. I was really pleased with how these turned out and thought it might be helpful to share them to give a sense of the kind of photos possible with the new camera system.

Tap on any of these photos to see them at full resolution.

Stitched Panoramas

With a 48 megapixel sensor I was really curious to see how the detail in a stitched panorama might look, so I took a series of overlapping pictures while turning my body between each image. I then combined these together using Lightroom’s Photo Merge features.

From Dun Deardail Fort. 15 photograph panorama. 25,326 × 6,609 (167 Megapixels!!). [Seriously, click on this photo and zoom in, it is wild how much detail the 48MP sensor could record]


Blackwater Reservoir. 7 photograph panorama. 14,452 × 6,653 pixels (96 Megapixels).

Regular Photographs

These were all captured in ProRAW and edited in the Apple Photos app.

Lairig Gartain Valley. 1x Main lens.


Pond near Bà Bridge. 3x Telephoto Lens.


Lagangarbh. 1x Main lens.


A82 from Altnafeadh. 3x Telephoto Lens.


Stob Dearg. 3x Telephoto Lens.


Fence Post near Lairigmor. 1x Main lens.


The Mamores. 3x Telephoto Lens.

Interestingly for a situation where I was constantly surrounded by large, sweeping landscapes I found that the ultra wide angle lens wasn’t actually all that useful. Typically the regular 1x lens was wide enough. What I really would have appreciated more often was a slightly longer zoom.

David Smith




WWDC 2022, A Tangible Demonstration of Care

I’m writing this from my hotel room in San Jose on the last day of WWDC 2022. What a week it has been. This was my 14th(!) WWDC and it will be one of the most memorable.

As I wrap up my week I was trying to think of a concise theme for this year:

This year, more than any I can remember, WWDC was the tangible manifestation of Apple’s genuine care for developers, and their desire to facilitate us to do our best work.

The last two years have been extremely challenging in so many ways, but relevant to this week, it has been difficult to really feel part of the developer community I cherish being a member of. Watching WWDC in my office at home was nice (and in some ways better) but it lacked a magic that can only be captured in-person. This year that magic was back.

I’m leaving Cupertino feeling recharged, enthusiastic and excited for a busy summer ahead.

I’m going to walk through the week and relay my thoughts regarding it below, but before I do I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone at Apple who made this week possible. Clearly a tremendous amount of thoughtful effort went into this week and it showed in countless tangible ways. Thank you!

My Experience

When Apple announced they were going to do a hybrid, one day event for WWDC I must confess I was slightly skeptical. Having attended so many in-person WWDC’s in years past I wondered if it would be possible for such a short event to feel worth it at the end of the day, or whether watching a pre-recorded keynote would feel awkward in person.

I can happily report that any skepticism I felt was completely unfounded and this year’s event was an overwhelming success.

The Developer Center

On Sunday afternoon, we had the opportunity to tour the newly opened Developer Center at Apple Park. This building was created with the explicit purpose of providing an optimal space for Apple to help developers. It includes a variety of workshop, education and conference spaces. All of which have been carefully constructed to provide for highly effective, in-person interaction.

What is most striking to me, however, is how this space was crafted to make developers feel at home when visiting Apple. My understanding is that while working on-site at the Developer Center, developers will be given credentials that allow them to come and go as they want and have free roam of their workspaces. This is a space were developers are guests, and welcomed guests at that.

It is perhaps a bit corny to say, but I got a bit emotional touring the Developer Center. It felt like the physical manifestation of something I’ve felt, but never been able to tangibly experience. It is easy for Apple to say that they care about developers…but it is another thing entirely to demonstrate that care with action.

This building must have cost Apple a fortune to build. Every detail of its construction was crafted to optimize the experience of developers working here. Even to the degree of the subtle acoustics of the rooms, or the way they bring in natural light but in a way that still provides for confidential discussion.

This building represents the very best of Apple’s relationship with its developers. They genuinely want us to succeed and know that our success is symbiotic with theirs. If we both do our best work, we both benefit.

It is easy to take the cynical view of Apple’s developer relations. That we are just interchangeable cogs in a machine to them. I have to say, I wholly reject that view. I have had too many great interactions with folks at Apple who want nothing more than for me to make wonderful products. These people truly care about developers, and will go to great lengths to demonstrate that. The Developer Center is a tangible, physical manifestation of that. I can’t wait to see how it is used going forward.

Keynote Day

This keynote was special and (hopefully) unique. It was the very first time the broader Apple developer community was able to get together in-person after two years of needing to make do with virtual connection.

The event itself was held on-site at Apple Park. A space that if I’m being honest I never thought would have been opened up to non-employees. They opened up the colossal airplane hanger-like doors of Caffè Macs, and then spread out chairs on one of Apple Parks spacious lawns.

After a light refreshment breakfast, the real show began. Tim and Craig came out on stage to welcome us all to Apple Park. That first moment when I saw them in person was really special. It felt like the precise moment of a new beginning, the start of a new chapter. We are back, and a connected community again.

We then watched the keynote presentation, which was pre-recorded and being streamed out live to all the world. This felt fine to me. Honestly I can say that having sat in the room for ‘live’ keynotes before and watching something pre-recorded, this was better. Unless you happened to be in the first few rows, either way you are watching it on a screen. The pre-recorded format lends itself to tight, concise and clear communication which an on-stage presentation can sometimes struggle to achieve.

This year was jam packed with announcements. I have a busy summer ahead, that’s for sure.

Hands-on

My particular attendance of WWDC this year was as a member of the media, so after the keynote I was invited to the hands-on area. I had no idea this was coming.

After the video wrapped I was asked to follow along with a group of media folks. I know the layout of Apple Park well enough to have a sense that the direction we were heading could only lead to one place…and after a short walk my suspicions were confirmed. We were going to the Steve Jobs Theater.

As soon as it came into sight I am not exaggerating to say that I felt emotionally overwhelmed. This is a special place for me. Both because of its namesake, but also because of the impact the announcements made from here have had on my life. This is a singular space, and to be invited to visit it was a moment I will cherish.

There we got to be hands-on with the new MacBook hardware, which was nice, but if I’m honest I mostly just stood back and relished being in the space. Trying to really take it in and appreciate the opportunity.

Interview for Under the Radar

On Tuesday, Marco and I were invited to interview Serenity Caldwell and Andreas Wendker for Under the Radar.

On a personal level this opportunity was a very meaningful recognition of years of work. Marco and I have been talking about the life and experiences of being an indie iOS developer for nearly seven years now. Being asked to participate in one of only a handful of public appearances by Apple employees means a lot to me.

The interview itself went great. Our usual format is just Marco and I talking back and forth so I wasn’t sure how pivoting into an interview would work. But Serenity and Andreas put us at ease and I think our discussion ended up covering some really important topics that came out of this year’s WWDC.

You can listen to the show here.

The Format

I really hope this format continues next year for WWDC. The hybrid model seems to capture all the very best attributes of WWDC and package them together.

Session Videos

The session videos and release approach is demonstrably better than the old in-person presentations. These are tight, concise descriptions of the new APIs that are just as long as they need to be. They are able to be published with searchable transcripts from the start, which is great for accessibility but also just for productivity, as I can easily jump to relevant sections of the videos.

Digital Lounges

The digital lounge experience involves a custom Slack workspace that is setup into separate categories for different platforms or technologies. Then throughout the week there are events like Q&As, watch alongs or challenges. This format reminds me in the best way of one of my favorite parts of the old in-person Labs experience. Where I’d go along to a Lab to ask a specific question, but end up being part of a broader discussion with other developers who were asking questions I hadn’t even thought to ask.

This format is great too because it lowers the perceived barrier to entry compared to a 1-on-1 lab. Thinking back to my earlier self, I found going to a Lab really intimidating (even though the Apple Engineers were always incredibly kind and gracious). This more casual, group format, however, provides a way to get much of the same information and access without feeling at all on the spot. Plus, I got to benefit from the collective thinking of the whole community.

1-on-1 Labs

The Labs back in the old in-person format were my favorite part of WWDC. Once I got over my initial anxiety about attending them I found them to be the most impactful part of my week. Both in terms of being able to get my questions answered but also in getting to have a personal interaction with the engineers who have built the tools and APIs I rely on.

It is great to be able to thank them in-person for their work and to feel the palpable enthusiasm radiating from them as they talk about their work. For so much of the year they are toiling away in secrecy, this is their chance to discuss what they care about and their excitement is contagious. I always leave a lab feeling excited and equipped for the work ahead.

This is the third year of the online format for labs and on balance I’d say that I prefer this format to the in-person style. The old labs format involved a lot of waiting around in line, trying to find the right person to help you. This format, where I have to ask my questions/topics ahead of time, has meant that all my appointments are with the exact right engineer who can help me directly. I can also more easily prepare for the lab and have all my questions/demos/prototypes ready to screen share and maximize my time during the lab.

Closing Thoughts

As I look forward to a busy summer full of Lock Screen widgets, I feel really motivated and encouraged by this week’s experience. It captured the very best of what WWDC can be, moving the format forward in lots of meaningful ways.

In-person is different, and allows for interactions and serendipity that just isn’t possible fully online…but that said, providing a full, rich virtual experience that is accessible to the whole community is also important. Apple had a difficult task of threading the needle between those two poles. They did a tremendous job combining them both and ended up in a place that I think provides the best of each, without compromising on either.

David Smith