10 Tips For Getting GOOD Audio When Using a DSLR

If you’re like most of the professional still photographers I know, you have either expanded your business and offer videomicrophones (in addition to your still photography) to your clients, or have plans to.  If you do have future plans to offer video to your clients, then you are either learning the particulars of that skill set, or you are collaborating with others who are in the know, or both.

Perhaps, one of the most daunting components of video, for still photographers is audio. Capturing audio is totally foreign to a still photographer, yet it is the most important component of all, in video production.

Here are a few tips for getting good audio:

  • You’ll never get good audio using the camera’s built in microphone, – at least not for interviews. Don’t turn the camera’s audio off however.  You can use it later for reference audio when syncing sound later in post-production.
  • Use external microphones for capturing audio interviews.  Ideally, you should record your interview audio using a digital recorder like the Samson Zoom H6 or the Tascam DR-60D with XLR connections.  I usually place a “lav” microphone on my subjects. I will also use a shotgun microphone, mounted (with shock mount) on a boom pole that’s on a fixed stand.  I rely on the microphone on the fixed stand, as opposed to hiring a boom operator, especially if I don’t have the budget for a big crew. If you should decide to use an amateur or assistant as a “boom operator”, rather than hire an experienced operator who knows how to capture “consistent” audio, you’ll most likely end up with poor audio captured at inconsistent levels. The shotgun microphone should be about 12-18 inches away from your subject. You can sync the sound with the video, later in post- production, using the software Plural Eyes.
  • Don’t cross your audio cords with your electrical cords. This causes a hum that you will detect if you are wearing headphones.
  • For run and gun” situations, you can probably get away with using a microphone mounted on the camera, as long as you are close to your audio source. You can either run a microphone (with a mini plug) directly to the camera OR you can run a microphone with an XLR adaptor through a pre-amp like a JuicedLink or a Beachtek, which will yield a cleaner audio capture. This works well for capturing ambient sound for b-roll or live action, and your audio will be recorded to the same card as your video. If you do want to capture your interview audio using a microphone mounted on the camera, make sure that you get your camera in close to your subject (not more than 18 inches away), and that you us a mixer or a pre-amp.
  • Microphones – Use an omni-directional or cardiod microphone when you are in a more controlled situation and you want your sound coming from more directions – like on a sound stage.  “Lav” microphones can be used for interviews, either hard wired or with a wireless kit. Be careful when you attach it to your subject and position it to avoid any unnecessary noise coming from hair or jewelry rubbing up against it. A good camera mounted microphone is the Sennheiser MKE 400 (compact shotgun). For interviews I use my cardiod Sennheiser ME66 with K6 powering module.
  • Use a wireless system only when you NEED to. In cities like New York you can get a lot of interference on various frequencies. Always go wired when you can. A great and affordable hard-wired “lav”, is the SonyECM44B And if you find yourself needing a wireless system, spend the money to get a system that has a good range.
  • Use a good windscreen or “dead cat” when outside. Even if you’re inside, on a windy day, with windows open, you can pick up wind noise.
  • Use headphones. Don’t just look at your meters.  Your meter may indicate that you are recording sound, but it may not be good sound – it could be you are picking up interference or getting distorted and clipped audio. Wear headphones and make sure that you are getting quality sound.
  • Always consider that you will be using the audio – even for your b-roll.  You will need clean usable audio for b-roll, even if it’s only intended as ambient, background sound.
  • Pay attention to audio. Start by letting your ears do more of the work. Every room and situation has its own sound. Listen up. Be quiet and tell your crew to be quiet as well. You never know when you’ll want to use the audio – even if you think you won’t need it.

You can read more about what I brought with me in the way of gear, when I literally circled the globe, creating my first feature length film.  The film is now available on DVD.

If you’d like to know more about “moving into motion”, check out my book, The Craft and Commerce of Motion and Video.

ASMP and Motion

I’m on the National Board of Directors of the ASMP, The American Society of Media Photographers.  About four years ago, I was asked if I had ever thought about running for the board.  The person who had asked me this question, knew that I had been shooting video in addition to still photography and thought that it might be a good idea to have someone on the board who had an understanding of this medium.  That was four years ago, and even though I had been shooting video for over 10 years – the “explosion” of this medium (in terms of the demand) had really just started.

I did run, served three years, ran again and got elected. I’ve shared my knowledge of this medium through meetings, seminars, blogs, emails and during Q&A’s when I screen my film.

Gail Mooney, Tom Kelly and Chris Hollo at ASMP booth, DV East

This past Wednesday, I spent my day manning the ASMP booth at DV East Expo. Former national board member (and now President of the ASMP Tennessee Chapter) Chris Hollo and my partner Tom Kelly joined me.  We were well prepared with a large flat screen monitor displaying a loop of our members work. I was intimate with the reel as I had just finished editing it and I was very impressed with the quality of the work.  It certainly was an attention grabber.

So, what was ASMP, a trade organization of still photographers, doing at a video expo? Essentially, we were there to provide a community and reach out to other professionals who are shooting both mediums and provide information about sound business practices.  If this demographic does not understand the value of copyright or value the concept of licensing, then it will ultimately affect the way business is done in the still photography industry.

Some people may think that ASMP is becoming too inclusive or is creating more of a problem by suggesting that video may be the answer for its members, only for them to find out, that industry is glutted as well.  The old business models of bloated production companies with fat budgets are hanging on for dear life, along with the old business models of the film industry.  But if you think outside the box, especially in terms of how you structure your photography business – the opportunities are out there.

ASMP doesn’t cease to be an advocate for its still photographers who have no interest in motion – it’s actually making the entire industry healthier by educating the hybrid competition.  A lot of the people I talked to yesterday, shot both still photography and video, but even the ones who just shot video – called themselves “photographers” and they all had questions about “the business”.

I’m so closely associated with  “video” by members of this society; they tend to forget that I am a photographer.  I don’t call myself a photographer simply because I spend 50% of my time shooting still images, or call myself a videographer because I spend the other 50% of my time producing video. I don’t want to define myself by my tools, at all. I “see” as a photographer, with the vision of a filmmaker and the heart of a storyteller.  I also have a strong desire to stay in business doing what I love to do.  By being an advocate for sound business practices across these mediums, I get a lot more back than I give.  All photographers’ benefit, regardless of what type of cameras they shoot with.

Friend and fellow board member Ed McDonald, tells his own story about how he had become too rigid at one point in his career, as far as how he perceived himself and what kind of photographer he was. He found that when he became more flexible in how he “defined” himself, his business got better. As I think about Ed’s story, I know we have a lot in common.  For me, when I stopped restricting myself to just shooting still images – not only my business got better – so did my still photography. Shooting motion has made me a better still photographer because it has made me a better storyteller.

I got an email late last night from someone I ran into at the expo.  They wrote:

“Thanks for your vision and inspiration and all you’ve done for ASMP.”  So simple and so poignant and I thought – “isn’t that what I was supposed to do?”

How a Passion Begins

There are a million things I should be doing right now. My husband and I just returned from a 6 day road trip to Chicago to see our daughter, Erin and all the “stuff” of life piled up while we were away. I should be out in the yard picking up dozens of littered branches that had come down in a storm that happened while we were gone – and yet I’m compelled to write.

Writing became a habit a few years ago, when I would wake up early in the mornings with my mind fully active and spinning with ideas.  Instead of tossing and turning in bed, I would get up, go to the computer and write – like this morning. I was encouraged by a friend to share some of those writings through blogging, so I did. I know that I break every blogging rule, because I write what happens to be on my mind, instead of being consistent to a theme and I generally don’t provide a lot of links, but somehow readers like these ramblings. Regardless, writing is something that is part of me now.

This past weekend we happened to be in Chicago while the Chicago Blues Festival was going on, so of course we had to devote a day to it.  It was a bittersweet experience as so many blues legends had passed away this year and it wasn’t the same without them – Pinetop Perkins, Willy “Big Eyes” Smith and Hubert Sumlin to name a few. But being at this festival brought me back to the first time I attended the Chicago Blues Festival

Junior Wells

in 1993 when I was in Chicago shooting a story on the city for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. My plan was to cover the festival for one day as part of the story – I ended up going all three days and that’s when my passion for the blues began.

I hadn’t even thought of shooting video back then, but 2 years later my partner Tom and I began shooting 35mm motion footage for stock – and that’s when my passion for motion began.  Funny, within a two year period, two passions surfaced in my life and collided into the making my first short documentary The Delta Bluesmen, six years later.

As I listened to the music last Saturday in Grant Park, my mind wandered in a million directions, but once again I thought about how the universe works – that is if you don’t fight it.  The times in my life when I have just followed my instincts, have been the most gratifying times of all.  Most of the time, I was simply listening to a higher voice inside, instead of following the dogma of the day. It hasn’t always worked out and I’ve had my share of rejections, but that all goes into the messy mix of life.

I try to not linger on the negativity that comes with “rejection” and focus on the “rewards”.  There may not have been as many as I would have liked – but they would not have happened at all, without the lead up.  It all comes with the many years that go into the “overnight successes”.  Life’s too short to put road blocks in my own way or talk myself out of doing something with a hundred “great” reasons to rationalize it. And so – I’ll take the bitter with the sweet any day.

Teaching Video Journalism in China

Chinese flag, Beijing, China.
Chinese flag, Beijing, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sitting in the Continental (United) airport lounge at EWR, waiting to board a flight for Beijing.  I’m headed to China for 4 weeks to teach Chinese journalists, video journalism.  My mind is spinning with ideas, questions and the usual array of “what ifs” as I take on another adventure.

About two years ago, I started saying “yes” to opportunities that presented themselves to me – or at the very least, I began to consider opportunities, rather than to talk myself out of things, right off the bat.  Because, of that mind set, I’ve been going where life seems to take me and it has presented quite a few interesting adventures.  It’s not that I’m foolhardy and doing things on a whim – it’s that I have been listening to myself – my inner voice – and it has been my guiding force.

I’m told that the Chinese are hungry for “western” knowledge.  But what I have to teach them is something universal, and that is – how to tell a story – using the medium of video.  Seems so basic and simple – how to tell a story – and I suppose it is, but like anything else, it’s simple if you understand it.  The key to understanding something is to have the desire to learn.  Some people say they want to learn – but that’s different than really having the desire to learn.

Some folks feel threatened by this seemingly insatiable desire of the Chinese to learn all things western.  I’m also finding that when people feel threatened by something – they try to “stop” whatever it is they are feeling threatened by.  It’s one of those stupid human tricks that folks have played since the beginning of mankind.  I process this behavior pattern as unproductive and unsustainable. It rarely works as far as eliminating a perceived threat.  You simply can’t totally eliminate desire.

Rather than stop others from growth – a better way is to better yourself.  I’d rather put my energies into where I want to go in my life – than in trying to squash other people’s hopes and dreams.  I’ve also found that what goes around – comes around.  When you “give” and “help” others – you ultimately create a better world – or “space” for everyone.

So, as my mind races this morning with my hopes, my expectations and enthusiasm – I try to keep the nagging doubts and fear at bay.  I tell myself that it’s natural to have concerns.  But I also tell myself that I can either let my concerns consume me and turn into fear or I can welcome the “unknown” and embrace the opportunity at hand.  I’ll let my inner voice guide me because it seems to be doing a good job.

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Monetization of Photography in Spite of a Lousy Economy

I talk to a lot of photographers. I don’t define the word “photographer” by the type of camera he or she shoots with. Whether someone is shooting with a still camera, a traditional video camera, a motion picture film camera or a hybrid camera that shoots both stills and motion – a “photographer” these days is apt to embrace more than one of these tools.

Regardless of the tools you may use, I’ve come up with a few tips on how photographers can stay afloat and make money in this continued stagnant economy.

  • Think outside the box – don’t think of yourself as one who just shoots still images. Even your “still” clients will have a need for motion imagery these days.  It may not warrant the need for them to hire a big video production crew to make a broadcast spot.  But it could be one of your corporate clients needs a “talking head” for their website. Even if you don’t shoot motion or don’t want to – collaborate with someone who has these skills to fill your client’s needs instead of sending your clients  elsewhere.
  • You don’t need someone else to commission your services in order for you to make a living. When photographers take on personal projects, not only are they creating a buzz and getting noticed by potential clients, they are also creating their own “content” to monetize. It is possible now to get our content to market without the need of a middleman. Portals are open and plentiful to all.
  • Take advantage of what is “free”, rather than be put out of business by it. There are so many ways to build your brand and get noticed without spending a fortune. The costs of building and maintaining a website have dropped significantly because of advances in technology. And utilizing social media to create a buzz and get the word out about your company is virtually free with Facebook, Twitter,LinkedIn and YouTube. But be prepared to do the work and discipline yourself because this territory is ripe with distractions.
  • Re-purpose your content. If you’ve been blogging or have something useful to share – consider packaging your “knowledge” into ePubs, podcasts or “how to” webinars. One thing I’ve learned about making an ePub is that you can either do it yourself or hire a formatter so that it gets to market quickly – via Amazon, Barnes and Noble or the iTunes platform. Price it right – and offer more than one ePub at a time. (I’m working on my 2nd ePub now) In this market, if someone has just spent $3 or $4 to buy your ePub and they see you have another one for sale – it’s not a big stretch for them to buy that other book you offer at the same time.
  • Collaborate with others. Partner with others to put on webinars, podcasts, call in phone seminars etc. Use this opportunity to build your own brand. Don’t always feel that you have to be the only “act” offered. In fact many times, if you join forces with other creatives, it will get you further than if you are the only speaker in a half filled room. Get out there and get noticed and learn from your colleagues at the same time.
  • Be authentic. I cringe when I write that word because it has become a bit trite. I guess in a way I have always been authentic. In fact I just can’t help myself. If you are true to yourself, you will be ready, eager and able to work hard on your dreams. And hard work is exactly what is necessary to make it in this profession.  You’ve got to want it bad enough in order to do the work. If you are a clone of other photographers, you’re career will be short lived. I guarantee the photographers that you are emulating will be “moving on” because their passion is driving them to new things. So, what happens to the cloned versions then?
  • Don’t focus solely on the money. Easy to say and really hard to embrace when you can’t pay your mortgage. But look at any successful person – I don’t care which business you choose to look toward in terms of finding successful people – but you’ll see that most people who have “made it big” were not driven by the money. I’m not saying that money is not important, but if you are solely focused on the money and not on the act of creating – it will show.   Being too focused on the  money part of the equation, can sometimes push it away. People sense it. It’s human nature to want to be around a “winner” – not someone who is begging for a job to keep them afloat financially.
  • Be patient. Everything turns around. While the old days and ways of doing things won’t come back, better opportunities will replace them. Don’t be paralyzed by your own fears. Do what you can that won’t cost you a lot of money and there is plenty you can do. Work social media, learn new skills – audio, editing, writing etc., network with people, create new content for ePubs, webinars, and podcasts. Use your imagination, pursue what you are passionate about and when the economy turns around – you’ll be ready.

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Licensing Video?

There are probably people who would argue with me as far as the practice of licensing video being the norm in the world of video production, other than the licensing of stock motion footage. Perhaps that may be true in some business models and certainly true in older business models, but I can tell you that has not been my experience.

I should clarify that I do not position myself as a “hired gun”– meaning a camera operator who turns over their footage at the end of the day. I choose to assume the role of producer and maintain control over my intellectual property or the finished video product. I cannot do this in the traditional motion picture industry but that business model is changing due to technology and the influx of indie filmmakers who are making their own rules and bringing their films to market themselves. And for the most part – I can’t do this in high-end broadcast spots when working with a middleman – or ad agency where ultimately their end customer maintains all rights.

However, the demand for video has skyrocketed in recent years and with that has created a new client base who are using video in new ways and on new platforms. I am establishing my own set of rules accordingly. One of them is licensing the finished product just as I did my still images. I can only do that with video productions that I have produced and hold the copyright to.

Typically, I will separate the licensing of my still images from the video product as well as the creative fees. I may be shooting both mediums on the same job but I handle the licensing differently. I have found that video has a shorter shelf life so I am not as concerned about the duration of the license (length of time) as I am with still imagery. But I am concerned about it’s “reach” which these days is global – thanks to YouTube.

Another thing I do is I make sure that it is stated in my contract and/or estimate that the license for the entire video production does NOT include permissions and/or licenses to any still images that are made from frame grabs pulled out of the video footage. Putting this up front in the estimate has actually proved beneficial because if a client does anticipate the need for still images – they will hire me to create stills – rather than take them from frame grabs.

We are living at a time where just about everyone’s business models are changing. So, if someone tells you that licensing video isn’t the norm – outside of the stock motion footage business – think again. What is the norm these days? It may be the precedent we are setting now.

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Closing Thoughts and Best of Best

It’s been a very full year for me. I mean that in every sense of the word full – full of new experiences, full of hope, full of achievements – but also full of my share of rejections and disappointments. I’ve shared a lot of these experiences through this blog.

There have been times I haven’t written in a while because I didn’t feel like I’ve had anything worthwhile to say. And there have been times when I did write but I probably shouldn’t have because it wasn’t worth reading. I always told myself that when I didn’t feel like writing in my blog, that I just wouldn’t do it. So if there are long periods of time when I haven’t posted a new entry – it’s because for whatever reason, the desire may not be there. I have always appreciated the comments and feedback.

Here are the top 5 posts as far as number of hits:

My DSLR Kit for a Three-Month Road Trip

Gearing Up With HD DSLR’s

 

Standing on a 10-Foot Frozen Wave

Putting Together a DSLR Video Kit – and Why

Cultural Context and Photography

As you can see, the blogs about DSLR (for video) gear is where the interest was.  But I’d have to say that out of those 5 posts, “Standing on a 10 Foot Frozen Wave” was my favorite.  For me, it’s all about the story. And as Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story”.

Happy New Year everyone.

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