This doc was last updated by Jim Seida on 1/12/2009.

Why should photographers gather audio?

Gathering audio to compliment your pictures

Recording techniques

Interview techniques

Natural sound gathering

Purchasing the right gear for you (and how to use mics)

Links to see and hear multimedia stories

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Why should photographers gather audio?

Photographers have long been encouraged to be a “fly on the wall”.  We hang in the background.  We adopt a “don’t look at me, don’t talk to me” attitude.  In doing so, we make some great pictures, but are we really getting the whole story?  Are we being great journalists?

Take the time to sit down with someone you’ve photographed and speak with them.  This can be scary.  It’s even scarier when you’re recording the conversation, but the end result will be the person in your pictures telling their own story, in their own voice.  It will add depth and realism to your images that captions alone can’t convey.  

Recording and producing great audio isn’t easy.  It takes time and dedication to learn to do it well.  It takes new equipment and new skills.  It takes the courage to break out of your routine as a photographer and try something new.  On the flip side, a little knowledge goes a long way (in other words, don't be afraid of not being an expert).  You will learn more about your subject.  You will gather loads of information for your story and your captions, and you will have a product that is more marketable and can reach a wider audience.

Learning to gather audio and actually doing it is a great way to fight burnout in our profession - it’s a lot of fun.  It’s a new creative endeavor, and you can do it when the light's really bad and there are no pictures to be had but you're still antsy and want to do something.

Sound brings pictures to life in a way that captions alone cannot. Pictures allow you to see what you’d otherwise just be listening to in an audio-only piece. The marriage of pictures and sound offers the viewer a truly enveloping experience. It adds realism, texture and depth to your stories and it lets the people in your pictures speak for themselves. Audio also increases your chances of being published, as your story will be ready-made for a variety of mediums. For example, the audio portion may be used for a radio show, the stills can be moved to a Newspaper or a picture agency, and the two combined can be published on the Web or on television.

Audio you gather in an interview with your subject can lead you to make pictures you never would have made because you wouldn’t have had the information.  In short, gathering sound makes you a better journalists. As photographers, we’re encouraged to be a “fly on the wall”.  We hang in the background.  We adopt a “don’t look at me, don’t talk to me” attitude.  In doing so, we can make some great pictures, but are we really getting the whole story?  Are we being great journalists?

Photographers have long been encouraged to be a “fly on the wall”.  We hang in the background.  We adopt a “don’t look at me, don’t talk to me” attitude.  In doing so, we make some great pictures, but are we really getting the whole story?  Are we being great journalists?

Take the time to sit down with someone you’ve photographed and speak with them.  This can be scary.  It’s even scarier when you’re recording the conversation, but the end result will be the person in your pictures telling their own story, in their own voice.  It will add depth and realism to your images that captions alone can’t convey.  

Recording and producing great audio isn’t easy.  It takes time and dedication to learn to do it well.  It takes new equipment and new skills.  It takes the courage to break out of your routine as a photographer and try something new.  On the flip side, a little knowledge goes a long way (in other words, don't be afraid of not being an expert).  You will learn more about your subject.  You will gather loads of information for your story and your captions, and you will have a product that is more marketable and can reach a wider audience.

Learning to gather audio and actually doing it is a great way to fight burnout in our profession - it’s a lot of fun.  It’s a new creative endeavor, and you can do it when the light's really bad and there are no pictures to be had but you're still antsy and want to do something.

Sound brings pictures to life in a way that captions alone cannot. Pictures allow you to see what you’d otherwise just be listening to in an audio-only piece. The marriage of pictures and sound offers the viewer a truly enveloping experience. It adds realism, texture and depth to your stories and it lets the people in your pictures speak for themselves. Audio also increases your chances of being published, as your story will be ready-made for a variety of mediums. For example, the audio portion may be used for a radio show, the stills can be moved to a Newspaper or a picture agency, and the two combined can be published on the Web or on television.

Audio you gather in an interview with your subject can lead you to make pictures you never would have made because you wouldn’t have had the information.  In short, gathering sound makes you a better journalists. As photographers, we’re encouraged to be a “fly on the wall”.  We hang in the background.  We adopt a “don’t look at me, don’t talk to me” attitude.  In doing so, we can make some great pictures, but are we really getting the whole story?  Are we being great journalists?

Gathering audio to compliment your pictures

Think about how your sound and pictures are going to work together. You want your sound to compliment and carry your pictures, and you want your pictures to do the same for your sound.  The beauty of using the two together is that one can fill in the holes that the other would have if used by itself.  The end result is that the finished story is stronger than it would be if it was either of the two mediums used singularly. It’s the third affect of multimedia.

Which should I work on first, pictures or sound?
If there’s sound that I think might be gone in a few minutes, I’ll probably break out my recorder and start recording.  If the light is perfect but fading, I’ll most likely make pictures first. There’s no “right way” to do it, and there’s always a tradeoff. You have to accept the fact that when recording, you’ll miss some great shots and when shooting you’ll miss some wonderful sound.  I’ve tried doing both at once…it doesn’t work very well. Getting good sound takes just as much skill and energy as getting good pictures; it’s tough to do both things at the same time. With that said, a good sound bite can open your eyes to a new picture you need to capture to complete the story. A good picture will often prompt you to lay down an audio track to support the frame.

Keep track of what you shoot and what you record
If you make a nice frame of a kid kicking a soccer ball, don’t leave the situation until you get the sound of a kid kicking a soccer ball.  If, when recording, you get the sound of the woman’s dog barking at the door and you might want to use that sound, work on making storytelling pictures of the dog barking.  By really listening and really looking, you will find that your pictures will lead you to sounds, and your sound will lead you to pictures.  When you find this happening, it all starts to come together.

Recording Techniques

An audio interview is a controlled situation, much like an environmental portrait. When you do an interview, it’s your responsibility to make the person talking as easy to understand and sound as true-to-life as possible.

Location, location, location!
Find the quietest possible place, otherwise you'll obsess over the intrusive noises during the interview and won't concentrate on the interaction. Find a spot with soft surfaces that absorb sound.  Sit on a couch rather than a kitchen chair.  Cover a table with a blanket.  Close the curtains.  Turn off the computer. Unplug the fridge.  What you're trying to do is create a sound booth wherever you are.  A car with closed windows is a great place to do an interview. The middle of a forest is good too if there aren’t any airplane flying overhead.  Avoid places with lots of echoes…gymnasiums, hallways, etc… If you have to interview someone in a space with bad acoustics, you can compensate somewhat by placing the microphone very close to the person's mouth. This will reduce the ambient audio and use their tone as the primary level.  This is process is extremely important to the final product and is analogous to shooting an image against a clean background as opposed to a busy one.

Reduce ambient sound during recording
Place the mic very close to the speaker’s mouth. For a dynamic mic, two inches works great. (dynamic mics are non-powered, more durable, cheaper and usually larger than condenser mics)  For a condenser shotgun mic, you can get away with a foot or so. (condenser mics require power, have greater dynamic range, are more sensitive and more fragile than dynamic mics)   The farther away the mic is from the speaker’s mouth, the more presence the ambient sound will have in the recording, and the less bass and richness will be present in the speaker’s voice. Microphone position is akin to composition.

Location, location, location! Part2
Equally important, ambient noise can make an okay interview really sing.  If, for example, you were interviewing an Italian chef, think how cool it would be to hear the ambient noises of a kitchen in a busy Italian restaurant in the background. (Bear in mind, though, that the background can overpower your subject, or that someone might drop a pot just as the Chef is explaining his inspiration to you.) You can always do the interview in a quiet place, record the kitchen sounds separately, and then mix the two together, thereby giving you much more control over the relationship between the two sounds. Always think about (listen to) your surroundings and how you can best tell the story.   If you have to choose between background noises, choose the noises that maybe have something to do with the subject matter.  At a protest, choose shouting over traffic.      

Avoid consistent ambient background sound
You will have a very difficult time editing your audio if you conduct an interview with consistent background sound such as music playing on the radio. Imagine needing to cut 10 seconds of the interview, when the speaker lost his/her direction. You also lose 10 seconds of that background music, or jet flying overhead, or car passing, which may be noticeable to the listener. It's almost always better to find a quiet space with good acoustics and gather the ambient you will need before or after the interview. Again, you’re in charge in an interview situation…ask people to turn off the computer, even unplug the refrigerator.  These sounds always come out much louder in the recording than they seemed while you were making the recording.   If a jet flies over, stop the interview until you can’t hear it anymore.

Interview techniques

How to engage your subject during an interview
You know how physically and mentally exhausted you feel at the end of a good shoot when you’ve really made some good, meaningful pictures?  You should feel the same way at the end of a good interview.  Getting a good interview takes energy.  You have to be thinking all the time, thinking about where the interview is going, how the mic is positioned, what the sound quality is like, what to say or ask next, but not at the expense of listening to what the person is really saying.  Really look at a person when they talk to you.  Lean forward and engage them with your eyes; it will help them ignore their surroundings and the microphone, and get into the space they need to be in to speak honestly with you.

Let your subject qualify their own statements

Suppose you’re interviewing the paperboy.  You ask, “How long have you been a paperboy?”  He says, “Two years.”  “Two Years” is what you have recorded.  What are you going to do with that statement?  It can’t stand alone because there’s no context to the response unless you include audio of the question you asked.  Instead, ask, “How long have you been a paperboy, and what’s your favorite part of the job?”  By asking questions in pairs, the speaker has to qualify his answer, “I’ve been a paperboy for two years and I love trying to land the paper on the front porch.” Now you’ve got something you can use. A classic start to any interview is asking, “What is your name and where are you from?”

How to get what you need in an interview situation
Ask open-ended questions.  A good way to start any interview is to say, “Tell me about…”  I like to ask questions that encourage people to remember things in a sensory way, “What did it sound like when…”, “How did it feel when…”, “What were you thinking when…”.

Some people tend to go off in a direction you didn’t think your interview would go.  If you have the time, let them go.  You will often get your best material from these situations.  If you don’t have the time, don’t be afraid to politely step in and steer them back to the subject at hand. Sometimes you just have to ask the question again or make it clear that you only have ten minutes left to speak with them.

Silence is a great question.  Most people can’t deal with silence in a conversation, so they’ll fill it with something.  Try this a couple times in every interview.

At the end of every interview, ask, “Is there anything I should have asked but didn’t?”  Sometimes, people won’t volunteer things, even if they feel strongly about them.  When they realize that this is their last chance, they will often divulge something that they’ve been thinking about throughout the interview, waiting for you to ask.  This also allows them to end the interview, rather than you.  Often, people won’t really open up to you until what they think of as the “formal interview” is over.  It’s only then that they open up the floodgates of information.  If you can, that’s the time to get the mic back out and keep rolling.

Some people don’t want to open up, don’t want to let you in.  You need to gain people’s trust…again, give a little of yourself if you expect them to give back.  Be honest with people.  Empathize with people.

Don’t let your equipment get in the way of getting a good interview
If you’re not comfortable with your equipment, those you interview won’t be either. Practice operating the equipment.  Practice connecting and disconnecting the mic.  Learn which buttons are which by feel.  You should be able to operate your recording device in total darkness, or while maintaining eye contact with the speaker.  You also need to trust your equipment.  Nothing is more distracting and unsettling to someone than a journalist who constantly checks his or her gear to make sure it’s working properly.  By doing so, you simply remind people that they’re being recorded, and you move farther away from getting something truly personal and honest.

Don’t pay any attention to the microphone that you’re holding two inches from someone’s lips. Look them in the eyes, not the mouth. Never look at the microphone. Listen to what they have to say.  Soon, they will forget about the mic, and they will relax enough to give you a good interview. Don’t set the recording gear on a table between you and the interviewee.  This only seems to put a distance between you.  Set it off to the side.

You want to hold the mic very close (four inches to about a foot, depending upon the microphone) to your subject’s mouth, but slightly off to one side.  You want it pointed at their mouth, but from an angle, not from directly in front of them.  This keeps the mic out from between the two of you and it reduces the chances of getting “p-pops”.  You’ll be amazed how fast your arm will get tired.  Find a way to support your arm if you’re sitting and it’s going to be a long interview.  Don’t mount your mic on a tripod or other stand, because when your subject moves their head, you can’t follow them with the mic.       

Don’t ruin your own interview with uh-huhs
When someone speaks to us, we often let them know we’re listening by saying, “Uh huh”, or “mmm hmmm.” Don’t do it. Let them talk. You will be very disappointed when you go to edit the audio and you hear yourself in the middle of some of their words.  Simple nods and smiles are enough to let people know you’re listening. Remember that body language is said to be the primary form of communication in an interview. Lean forward to show interest. Engage them eye-to-eye. Show interest and get wrapped up in what they are saying to you.

What is “natural sound” and what can it do for me?
Natural sound is any sound other than a formal interview. Stop and listen to what you hear right now. What you hear is natural sound.  It might be a computer hum, a radio or television, people talking in the other room, the wind blowing, cars going by, someone making dinner, a baby crying, your fingers on the keyboard. Silence. These are all examples of natural sound and it provides the details that give an interview a sense a place and helps to paint the picture.

Natural sound can be incorporated in a variety of ways in audio storytelling, so gather all you can when you’re in the field. If, just for a moment, the user felt like they were on that farm where you did that story, you have succeeded. What put them there? The interview with the farmer or the natural sounds of chickens, cows or the tractor sprinkled throughout the story?  

Wherever you record sound, even if it’s an interview, be sure and get 30 seconds of nothing.  Every place has its own “silence”, and they all sound different.  You may need some of that silence to cover some of your edits later in the editing process.

Silence is golden, and necessary
Wherever you record sound, even if it’s an interview, be sure to record 30 seconds of “silence”.  Every room, every café, every street and every playground has its own “silence”, and they all sound different.  So when nobody is talking directly to you, and no ambient noises are up front and center, record some of that ambient nothingness.  You’ll be glad you did when you need it to cover some of your edits later in the editing process.

Wear headphones

Headphones are the only way to truly monitor what the microphone is picking up.  If you don’t wear headphones you really don’t know what sound you’re getting, or if your equipment is even working.  At first, folks feel awkward with headphones on, but If you accept wearing headphones as totally normal, so with those around you.  Recording without headphones is akin to shooting without looking through the viewfinder.  OK once in a while, but would you shoot an entire assignment (or a portrait) that way?  You’ve absolutely got to wear them.  It usually only takes one blown interview and you’ll never interview without them again. 

I recommend wearing “closed”, or “over the ear” headphones.  These largish headphones do a great job at blocking out the ambient sound around you allowing you to focus on the sound coming out of your recording device, which is exactly what you need to be monitoring.  One of my colleagues, John Brecher, has been using high-quality ear buds when he records audio and has been pleased with the results.  He says they block ambient noise effectively and are much more compact than traditional headphones.  I haven’t tried noise-canceling headphones for recording yet…they’ve always sounded just a little too weird to me.  If you have, let me know what your experience was.

Headphones are the only way to truly monitor what the microphone is picking up.  If you don’t wear headphones (I recommend wearing a closed-ear design) , you really don’t know what sound you’re getting, or if your equipment is even working.  If you accept wearing headphones as normal, so with those around you.  Recording without headphones is akin to shooting without looking through the viewfinder.  OK once in a while, but would you shoot an entire assignment (or a portrait) that way?  You’ve absolutely got to wear them.  It usually only takes one blown interview to get folks to wear them.

Would you please say that again?
If the phone rings in the middle of an interview, or someone coughs or a dog barks or a jet flies over, ask the speaker to repeat him or herself. Also, if the subject doesn’t nail an answer the first time, ask the question again. It’s not bad to allow subjects more than one take.  Don't be afraid to ask a question a second time if extraneous noise interrupts. You may feel like a jerk for having to ask it again, but at least you'll have an answer that is clean. What seems like the faintest noise in the background will sound like a freight train when you're editing everything together.

Purchasing the right gear for you (and how to use mics)

Recording devices
The gear that’s available for recording audio is changing as quickly as digital camera gear is.  Don’t wait for the newest technology that’s just around the corner…you’ll always be waiting.  Find something that will serve your needs, buy it and start recording. 

Solid-state recorders (including Should I use an ipod?)

Solid-state recorders record onto the same Compact Flash cards you use in your digital SLRs.  The advantages to this are that you’re not buying discs or tapes, and that you can simply drag and drop your audio files from the card to your computer. 

The standard in the industry now is the Marantz PMD660. The 660 has two XLR jacks, which are where the microphone cable plugs into the recorder.  These professional jacks are much stronger and more robust than those you’ll find on smaller, cheaper recorders like MiniDiscs.  They give you a much more reliable connection.  The PMD660 also has a big, fat dial with which to adjust your recording level on the fly, as you record.  This feature is a must for producing a high-quality sound file.  It's reliable.  The downside is that it's big...it's a pain to carry around.  Deal with it.  It runs on four AA batteries and has a street price of $500.

Solid-state recorders record onto the same Compact Flash cards you use in your digital SLRs.  The advantages to this are that you’re not buying discs or tapes, and that you can simply drag and drop your audio files from the card to your computer. 

The standard in the industry now is the Marantz PMD660. The 660 has two XLR jacks, which are where the microphone cable plugs into the recorder.  These professional jacks are much stronger and more robust than those you’ll find on smaller, cheaper recorders like MiniDiscs.  They give you a much more reliable connection.  The Marantz also has a big, fat dial with which to adjust your levels on the fly, as you record.  This feature is a must for producing a high-quality sound file.  It's reliable.  The downside is that it's big...it's a pain to carry around.  Deal with it.  It runs on four AA batteries and has a street price of $500.

Manual level vs. Auto Level
You’ll notice I repeatedly suggest that you get a recorder that allows you to manually adjust your recording level.  What is auto level and why is it so bad?  Auto level is when the recorder’s “brain” decides what the best recording level should be, much like a camera, when in full auto mode, decides what the best exposure should be.  When the recorder detects silence, like when there’s a pause during an interview, it increases the sensitivity until it detects a sound.  So, when the person who was speaking resumes speaking, the level will be too high and the auto level will quickly adjust, turning the level back down again.  This will happen over and over during an interview and the resulting sound file will be a bit louder at the beginning of every phrase, making it sound unnatural and also making it very difficult to edit later.  Setting a record level manually eliminates this weirdness.

Other options
There are many, many other choices of recording equipment available…many cheaper and smaller than the PMD660. Edirol and Zoom are two companies who are also producing solid state recorders, but they either don’t have the XLR inputs or they don’t have the manual recording flexibility that the Marantz does.  If you decide to go with a MiniDisc recorder, be sure it has the ability to record with manual record levels and that you can adjust them on-the-fly.  The bottom line is to record with something that gives you control over the recording level and something that will give you consistent, predictable results.  If you can’t afford the $500 Marantz PMD-660, there are other options out there, but they’re all a compromise in one way or the other.  Edirol and Zoom are two companies who are also producing solid state recorders, but they either don’t have the XLR inputs or they don’t have the manual recording flexibility that the Marantz does.  If you decide to go with a MiniDisc recorder, be sure it has the ability to record with manual record levels and that you can adjust them on-the-fly.

Microphones

Most available solid-state recorders have built-in microphones.  These microphones are fine for recording a lecture, but the sound quality of these built-in microphones often isn’t nearly as good as what you can get using a separate microphone.  if you want to record something for publication, I suggest using a separate microphone.  Microphones are to your recording device what lenses are to your camera.  There are wide mics, and tight mics, and everything in between. 

My main mic is a Senheisser ME66 short shotgun capsule on a Senheisser K6 power module (about $400 combined). The sound has incredible presence and clarity, and it cuts through the Windowsmedia (and Flash) compression like nothing else. It’s a condenser (powered, either by battery or phantom power) mic with a very tight, or narrow pickup pattern.  It’s larger and more fragile than the 58, and is more sensitive to handling noise.  (handling noise is the noise that a microphone picks up from you actually handling the microphone.  It’s more likely to be heard during silence.) When I use it for interviews, I keep it about 12” away from the person’s mouth. 

The wide mic I carry is a Beyer M58 (about $200).  It’s a dynamic (non-powered) mic with a fairly wide pickup pattern and low handling noise. It’s extremely durable.  When I use this mic for an interview, I like to get it VERY close (about 2” away, but slightly off to one side) to the person’s mouth.  This helps bring out the natural bass in their voice, and make them sound more “there”.   It’s a good all-around microphone.  If you carry only one mic, this is a good choice. (Other good options to consider would be EV635A and the EVRE50).

I’ve recently begun working a stereo microphone, the Shure VP88 ($700).  This condenser (powered) mic has a dial that allows you to vary the width of the stereo pickup pattern.  At it’s narrowest setting it makes a terrific interview mic.  It brings a depth and realism to the human voice that I don’t hear in other microphones.  Although recording in stereo results in a more realistic-sounding final product, it adds to the complexity of the entire process from recording to publication, and the final file size (if you’re publishing on the web) is twice that of a mono file.  I recommend getting comfortable with mono sound before deciding to work with stereo.  ***I lost this mic at an NPPA multimedia workshop in Portland in 2006…totally bummed about that.

I use windscreens with all mics. Windscreens help reduce wind noise and p-pops.  I also use what’s called a “dead cat” with my shotgun mic.  This is a very hairy version of a windscreen, and is even more effective at reducing wind noise. The foam covers don’t work as well on shotguns.

Wireless mics
A wireless lavaliere system can be very useful, but a good one is expensive, and it can be unnecessarily complicated.  When you use a wireless, you pin a small lavaliere mic on your subject, plug it into a transmitter they wear out of sight on their body, and plug the receiver into your recording device.  Hit record, and you’re getting it all, without having to hold a microphone. 

Advantages: The biggest advantage is that it lets you shoot and record sound at the same time.  It allows your subject to go about their business while talking, which can make some people feel more relaxed than they otherwise would in a formal, sit-down interview setting.  It also allows you to still get the sound while your subject is a great distance from you (even hundreds of feet).

Disadvantages: A good wireless system is very expensive (approx. $1500). You have to deal with the transmitter, receiver, and more cables than you would with a handheld mic.  If your subject is moving around, you will often get the sound of clothing rubbing against the mic.  Lavs are more susceptible to wind noise than handheld mics with a good windscreen.  If your subject turns their head away from the mic and talks, you often won’t get good sound.  You can occasionally get radio or cell phone interference on your recording.  I also feel that when using a wireless, you lose a certain intimacy that is important for a successful interview.  As freeing as it is not to hold a mic in someone’s face, done properly, that mic almost becomes a physical/mental connection between you and your subject. You don’t get that with the wireless system.

I use a Lectrosonics UMB190/UCR190 system with Sanken mics. Lectrosonics also makes a transmitter that attaches to the bottom of a handheld mic.  This allows you to use your favorite handheld mic without wires getting in the way, or to remotely mount a mic somewhere where you don’t want to be.

Bottom line with wireless:  they’re kind of like a 600mm lens.  When you need them, they’re great, but you don’t need them often.  Focus on producing great work with handheld mics first.

Cables
To connect your mic to your recording device, you’ll need a mic cable.  I have mine made at Location Sound www.locationsound.com.   They’re six feet long (they’ll make any length you want) with a male XLR jack on one end with a male 1/8” stereo jack (for the MD recorder) on the other.  They’re a heavy-gauge cable that stays flexible in cold weather, and they cost about $35.00.  It’s probably worth having two with you at all times in case one fails.  This goes for everything else, too – MDs, mics, etc….  

If you have any audio-related questions or if you have something to add to this doc or you’ve got some sound you want some critique on, don’t hesitate to contact me at jim.seida@msnbc.com.

Links to see and hear multimedia stories:
www.msnbc.com/picturestories

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