Why I love editing video on iPad — and how it could still be a lot better

These days, I edit more video on my iPhone or iPad than I ever did in my years as a film student. Between making reviews on iOS, testing the iPhone's cameras, and numerous roller derby how-tos, it sometimes feels like I live in my videography apps.

After making my iPad review, I had a number of questions (and more than a few sarcastic remarks) about the video editing process: How easy was it to put together, really? Why torture yourself with iOS's limited feature-scope when you have a Mac at your disposal? How many hours did this take you?

I had a nice chat with my pal Stephen Hackett on our podcast Query about some of the finer details if you're curious about those specific questions, but I wanted to talk in this article about video editing on the iPhone and iPad in general: I'll explain why I prefer it to working in Final Cut (gasp!) for my needs, but also why it still has a long way to go to be a great tool for everyone.

The pros of editing video on iPhone or iPad

When I edit on my iPhone or iPad, I use a few core programs to get the job done.

  • iMovie: Apple's video editing software has been my go-to for snipping together video long before Clips or Instagram came to light, and while it has (many, many) flaws and limitations, it's still a solid app for cutting video and audio together quickly.
  • LumaFusion: I can't say enough good things about this third-party video editing app's feature-set. Though its UI leaves a lot to be desired and it occasionally runs into app-stopping bugs, you can create incredibly advanced projects with its tools (which include color and image correction, keyframes, custom title cards, linked clips, and a whole lot more).
  • VideoGrade: Though I wish it could interlink with LumaFusion and iMovie, VideoGrade is still invaluable for more advanced color correction of clips (or portions of them).
  • Typorama: I mostly just use this to create Youtube video thumbnails, but it's also useful for still interstitials.
  • Videoshop: I use this solely for making Portrait-mode Instagram stories, as it's one of the only apps that will easily let you combine portrait video without partially cropping it.

Apps I've tried but haven't found a place for in my workflow include Clips and Adobe Spark (fun, but far too simplistic and hard to control), Pinnacle Pro (its UI is similar to LumaFusion, but without as many tools), and ten million other quick-hit video apps that are largely designed for making Instagram snippets.

But by and large, when I turn to make a quick-hit video, I'm going for iMovie or LumaFusion. Why?

The 4K in-camera benefit

This is the biggest reason I edit natively on my iPhone or iPad — I shoot on it, too. Unlike iMore's editor-at-large Rene Ritchie, I don't have a bunch of fancy DSLRs at my disposal: When I shoot, I do so primarily with my iPhone.

I do have a nice Canon DSLR, but more often than not I've put it aside for my iPhone — its small size, lengthy battery life, 128GB hard drive, 4K camera, and online connection make it the ideal shooting device for most of my events.

And here's the thing: If you're shooting 4K on your iPhone or iPad, it's dead-simple to start editing that video after you've taken it. There's no rendering time or uploading necessary — I've taken roller derby clips and thrown them into iMovie or a gif-making app like GifToaster on the spot to showcase highlights on Twitter. With a Mac and a DSLR, that's simply not possible without a much larger rig and dedicated internet connection.

On the flipside, filming with an iPhone and transferring that footage to your Mac is slow-going — especially if you're filming in HEVC and haven't updated your Mac to support working with the new H.265 codec. Final Cut doesn't recognize your iPhone as an external drive (you can't connect to your smartphone and use its clips without first downloading them to your computer), which means that if you want to edit a fair amount of 4K video, expect to download it all to your Mac first.

But do you even want that footage on your Mac? My iPad Pro (a bit sadly) smokes my MacBook Pro when it comes to dealing with 4K footage. Granted, I can't do as much with it in iMovie or LumaFusion as I could with Final Cut Pro, but that comes with the trade-off of never having to wait. My apps don't stall, drop frames, or stutter — they churn through 4K 60FPS footage with ease. And once I'm ready to export, that process is traditionally faster than Final Cut on my Mac, too.

Multitouch is how video was meant to be spliced

Non-linear editing programs took cutting and splicing footage out of the editor's hands and put them in control of a mouse and keyboard, with keys to swap between different kinds of tools. The iPad, in a way, is giving tactile fine-grained control back to the editor — though it still has a ways to go.

Even with the controls slightly frustrating (I'd love to be able to hold onto a clip for a moment to jump into a frame-by-frame view, for example), it's still an exhilarating feeling to be able to use my hands to scan through footage and slice with a finger swipe. Even if it's not actually the case, iMovie makes me feel like I have far more control over my projects on the iPhone and iPad.

Control simplification

While this is ironically also a problem I have with iMovie, I appreciate at how simple the app makes some of its more basic editing tools — specifically where picture is concerned. While it'd be nice to have keyframe-specific editing windows that allow for precise zoom positioning, I appreciate that all I need to do when resizing a video clip is to tap on the zoom button and pinch (or use my fingers to rotate a sideways clip).

Final Cut, while incredibly powerful, makes simple cropping and flipping of images far more tedious than required. This is in comparison, mind you: It might only save me 1-2 seconds per clip, but that adds up when you're trying to quickly cut together something to push to Twitter or Instagram.

A purely mobile rig

I took my iPhone X, stabilizer rig, iPad, and a few battery packs to the Roller Derby World Cup in Manchester this winter, deliberately leaving my laptop at home. I filmed and edited clips and gifs with only my iPhone and iPad as computer company, along with some venue Wi-Fi and the occasional GigSky mobile plan.

And it was fantastic. Never again do I want to attend a multi-day tournament with a heavy bag — shooting with just the iPhone and editing with iPad was such a comfortable experience that I've sworn off trying to haul my laptop to something like this in the future.

Better still, the iPhone and iPad have the benefit of being able to share video or gifs to your platform of choice as soon as you've exported them. You don't have to wait to AirDrop your video from your Mac to your iPhone to upload it to Instagram; just open your app of choice and go.

Purely mobile video rigs aren't best in every situation, but for the jobs and hobbies where I spend my time — conferences, derby events, and the occasional work trip — they make the most sense for my needs.

The cons of editing video on iPhone or iPad

As with any platform, when you use it enough you'll run up against bugs and limitations. Video editing on iPhone and iPad is no different, and in the last few years I've come across a number of issues that make this experience less than perfect.

The software is primitive and buggy

Let's put this right out there: iMovie is good at the basics, but terrible at sticking more advanced landings.

There are a fair number of more advanced tricks you can pull in Apple's mobile editing app, including detaching audio from video, adding picture-in-picture video, layering background music, and slowing/speeding/freezing clips. But for every clip you augment, you run the risk of crashing the app or otherwise finding yourself in a situation the developers may not have anticipated.

Here's one of the more egregious examples: If you're working on a timeline that has all audio detached from their video clips and you attempt to add in a clip anywhere but the end of the timeline, there's a good chance that your entire project will de-sync and those audio clips will lose their original anchor points. Yeah. I've only run up against this bug intermittently (2-3 times in the last three years), but every time I do, I've had to ditch the entire project and start from scratch. I wish it were repeatable so that I could properly file it to Apple's Radar system — I just need to remember to take lots of screenshots when it happens again.

There are lots of little weird issues like that. Freeze-frames losing their position by a frame or two in a slowed-down clip. Not being able to create a new project if your Photos library is over 5000 files or connected to iCloud Photo Library. (My 75,000-file library uses the Video tab as a work-around, but it's not great.) You can only add picture-in-picture video from the browser, rather than drop existing clips in the timeline atop the primary image. There's only one video channel and three audio channels.

All of these things can and likely will be fixed. But they've been and will continue to be pain-points until the pro apps team at Apple steps up and makes iMovie as great as it could be on the iPad platform.

Many editors (myself included) turn to LumaFusion when iMovie's bugs become too frustrating to handle or when its features are too limited, but even this app has its frustrations. It offers a ton of customization for your videos and multiple editing streams, but basic cuts and interactions are far less pleasant than they are in iMovie. It reminded me a lot of working with Premiere on the Mac —  functional enough, but the workflow occasionally makes you want to defenestrate your computer.

Importing third-party video is a pain

Stephen Hackett brought up this pain point during our conversation on Query, and I'm surprised I didn't think of it sooner. While Apple's file management system has gotten bette over the years, working with third-party video is still a giant mess, and requires you to import it locally to iCloud Drive or the Photos app if you want to use the footage.

I'm waiting (and likely will continue waiting) for a system that allows iOS to take advantage of external USB-connected drives and run projects off them, but time tells me that the company is likely less interested in physically connecting than coming up with a system to edit remote files. Honestly, I'd take that, too. Either way, having to import files one-by-one into Photos or iCloud Drive adds a pain point to the workflow, especially when it's not as clean as the import process for Final Cut on the Mac.

Speed ramping and effects are limited and out of date

Here's the part of this article where I just overtly call for Final Cut on the iPad. Apple's tablet is incredibly powerful. It handles 4K video better than most of Apple's mid-range laptops and desktops. But the software provided is pedestrian at best; it's limited in a way that felt constrained in 2010, and looks like a joke in 2018 — especially when you compare it to Apple's other mainstream creative juggernaut, Garageband.

I hadn't touched the music creation app in a few years until my iPad review, and I was shocked by how much it had evolved and changed on iPad. It's a genuinely useful piece of software, and I found myself engrossed within minutes of tinkering around with it.

In contrast, iMovie has barely changed: It still has many of the same core features, and its last major feature update (4K video support in version 2.2) was over two years ago, in September 2015. There have been minor tweaks since then, but we've seen none of the more advanced features from its desktop counterpart make their way over to iOS — let alone any of Final Cut's features. Heck, you can still only speed up video at 2x. We've got phones that can shoot at 240FPS now; we deserve better speed ramping controls.

And that's a shame, because iMovie seems like the kind of app that could be a banner showcase for Apple alongside iWork and GarageBand. (Especially if it integrates some of the drawing and Pencil features in Keynote — drawing over video would make this an incredible educational tool, and it might open the app up to becoming a great option for animation, as well.)

We've seen some of Apple's more interesting video experimentation show up in the Clips app, but it's not designed as a successor to either iMovie or Final Cut — more of an experiment in social video.

At the end of the day, for iMovie to truly be a must-have app on iOS, it needs a major feature-set update, and badly. Its basics and LumaFusion's advanced tools are a band-aid in the meantime, but even the convenience that comes with editing on iPhone and iPad won't keep me here forever if the software slowly falls into obsolescence.

Bottom line

For all my complaints, video editing on iOS works for me and my needs. I love being able to shoot, edit, and share on the same device, and I've gotten good enough at the work-arounds that they (mostly) no longer bother me. But iMovie and the third-party landscape could be so much better. Apple has the A10X Fusion chip. Metal. The Pencil. iOS 11's multitasking interface and keyboard support.

The company has every piece it needs to build an incredible piece of software. Maybe Apple's rumored Marzipan framework is the solution; maybe there's a new app waiting in the wings.

Whatever the case, I hope we'll see a solid video editor come to the platform soon. There are a lot of features and workflows to love about editing on iPhone or iPad — and if we get the right app for the job, it might pull a lot more editors over to a mobile workflow.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.