back to Resources
Part 2: A Practical Guide
This document was created in 1993 and has evolved numerous times over the years.
It represents thinking from many people I've met along the way, too
numerous to list them all, but I will provide attribution where
A major contributor to the rest of this document, to the way I've
thought about audio, and to the way many photojournalists think about
audio today is a direct result of the work done by MSNBC.com multimedia
producer Jim Seida.
Jim wrote a huge piece of this document in November of 2002 for a
training session we did together first in Seattle at the Photo Center
Northwest and then in Chicago for the National Press Photographers
Annual Convention. Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
certain he'd love to hear from you.
And, take a
look at the work that Jim and freelancer John Brecher created for the
2002 Olympic Torch Relay. They spent 65 days on the road and produced a
landmark piece of Web journalism. Look for and click the "Play" button to see the
sequences they created at
Why should photojournalists gather audio?
So, what's this all about
really? It does seem to fly in the face of what a still photojournalist does in
their day-to-day routine. As documentary photographers we are
encouraged to be a fly on the wall. We hang in the background and try
to be invisible so that we can capture the subtle events in life. 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 capturing the complete
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.
This isn't easy. It takes time. It takes new equipment and new skills.
It takes the courage to break out of your routine as a photographer and
try something new. Getting a photographer to put the camera down is
like talking a dog off a meat truck, but the benefits of taking this
approach can be incredible to both to your journalism and to your
Gathering audio to compliment your pictures
Without question, gathering
audio interviews and natural sound from an event will make you a much
better journalist. You will learn more about your subject. You will
gather detailed information for your story and your captions, and you
will have a product that is more marketable across many more outlets.
Sound brings pictures to life in a way that captions alone can't
accomplish. 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
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 only by itself. The end result is that the finished story
is stronger than it would be if it was used singularly.
How do captions and audio work together?
Here is an excerpt from an
email written by Meredith Birkett, Special Projects Multimedia Producer
at MSNBC.com, about caption writing and audio and how they work
Text captions are useful for the basic information related to an image.
A reader should be able to see the picture and read the caption and
take away all of the important information about the image and continue
the thread of the story without listening to the audio.
The audio is supplemental, but still important, information. We hope
the audio will not repeat the same caption information. Instead, the
audio should go beyond the caption to convey information that is more
compelling in the spoken word...a subject's voice faltering as she
talks about her dead son, the rage that a photographer feels at the
injustice of the world.
Sometimes the audio can describe the background to the story, or maybe
what happened right after that picture was taken. The audio can also
describe more abstract or philosophical thoughts, or more opinionated
thoughts, than would typically appear in a caption.
Here's a good example: We have an image of a child's drawing of a relief plane in Sudan. The
caption describes what the child drew, where the picture was drawn, and
that this child has been receiving food aid from the World Food
Programme for all of his life.
In the audio, you hear the photographer describing how since ancient
times, people have drawn what is important to their culture...animals
they hunted, wars they fought. A child drawing a relief plane shows how
important that aid is to their life.
Which should I work on first, pictures or sound?
That depends. If
there's sound that I think might be gone in a few minutes, I'll
probably break out my MiniDisc 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 you are recording, you'll miss some great
images and when you are 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, energy and focus 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, now that you
have audio recording as a tool, will often prompt you to lay down an
audio track to support the frame.
Shooting for sequences
One thing to consider as you are shooting is
that you will want to have several still images to cover the audio. In
other words, you will want a sequence of images to combine with the
narrative of your audio. Consider locking in to a composition and
letting the motion move through the scene, still focused on capturing
decisive moments. Consider using a tripod to be absolutely rock solid.
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. Don't stop shooting
until you have a sequence of images, consider a beginning, middle and
end to the visual sequence. Then, you could do interview with the kid
about why he or she likes to play soccer.
If, when recording, you get the sound of the woman's dog barking and
you want to use it, 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.
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!
Choose a quiet location. 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. Just remember to plug it all back in
before you leave.
What you're trying to do is create a sound booth wherever you are for
the interview. This is process is extremely important to the final
product and is similar to shooting an image against a clean background
as opposed to a busy one.
A car with closed windows is a great place to do an interview. Avoid
places with lots of echoes like gymnasiums or hallways. 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
For a dynamic microphone, two inches works great. Dynamic microphones
are non-powered, more durable, cheaper and usually larger than
condenser microphones. For a condenser shotgun microphone, you can get
away with a foot or so. Condenser microphones require power, have
greater dynamic range, and are more sensitive and more fragile than
The farther away the microphone 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 make it from their mouth to the recording
media. Microphone position is akin to composition.
Avoid consistent ambient background sound
You will have a very
difficult time editing if you conduct an interview with consistent
background sound such as music playing on the radio. 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.
A smart tip shared by Brian Kaufmann, a talented student at Brooks Institute, about gathering
audio in a scenario where there is ambient sound in your environment that cannot be quelled: "Most
audio equipment is usually carried in a pelican case that can be used as a sound booth. The inside
of the case is covered in sound absorbent foam, so I will sometimes prop the lid open and set the
microphone up inside the case facing outward. By having your subject speak into the microphone
while this foam surrounds it, much of the ambient noise will be
cancelled out. If I don't have a pelican case around I use a cloth bag or place any kind of soft
material (cushions, clothes, etc.) around the parts of the microphone that aren't directly in front
of my subject."
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 speaker, or that someone might drop a pot just as the Chef is
explaining his or her 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.
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, what to 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. If you truly 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.
Get your subject to qualify their own statements
interviewing the paperboy. You ask, "How long have you been a
paperboy?" He says, "Two years." "Two Years" is what you have on
tape. 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 the
Instead, ask, "How long have you been a paperboy, and what's your
favorite part of the job?" By having to qualify the order of his
answer, "I've been a paperboy for two years and I love throwing the
paper at garage doors." Now you've got something you can use.
How to get what you need in an interview situation
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 did it smell like...."
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.
At the end of every interview always 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
"last" question 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
microphone 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.
Some examples from the Broadcast side
I saw Les Rose give a presentation at
the Northern Short Course in Reston, VA in 2005 and he talked about how
he gets people to be comfortable with him from the very start. First,
he talked about leaving the gear in the car and going to meet people
without your camera if at all possible. Instead of showing up with your
gear and being perceived as a camera person if you meet them first and
then bring your gear in you will be a person with a camera, not a
camera person. It's a big difference.
Doug Legore, former NPPA TV Photographer of the Year, has a surefire
way to pick the right person to put his wireless microphone on when
approaching a group. He says, "Ask who the loudmouth is in the group
and someone will either say it's them or everyone else will point to
Silence Is Golden
When someone finishes answering a question, if you
feel they might have more to say, simply remain quiet. Most people
aren't comfortable with silence in a conversation, and they will say
something to fill it.
NBC News Correspondent Bob Dotston spoke at the NPPA Video Workshop in
Norman, OK and talked about the art of asking questions. He said,
"Silence makes most of us uncomfortable. Use that fact to help you get
a better sound bite more quickly. People nearly always answer questions
in three parts. First they tell you what they think you have asked.
Then, they explain in more detail. If you don't jump right in with
another question, if you let the silence between you build, they figure
you don't yet understand and they make an extra effort to explain their
thoughts more concisely. Often they make their point more passionately
and precisely the third time."
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 microphone. Learn which buttons are which by feel.
You should be able to operate your recording device in total darkness.
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.
Right before you begin the interview, try briefly touching the
microphone to your cheek. This will subtly show your subject that they
don't have to be afraid of it.
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. This
will tell them that the microphone is normal, that it shouldn't bother
them that you are connecting with what they are saying. Listen to what
they have to say. Soon, they will forget about the microphone, and they
will relax enough to give you a good interview. This ability to look
the subject in the eyes is one of the reasons I prefer an audio
interview over a video interview in which I have to ask questions while
pointing a camera at the subject.
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.
Don't ruin your interview with uh-huhs and mmm hmmms
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
most 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 physical interest with
your body language 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, the baby crying, your
fingers on the keyboard, or, pure 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 or more of pure background sound, the tone of the room if
you will. 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.
Wear headphones. Yes, wear headphones.
Not only are you expecting
someone to talk into a microphone, you're doing it while wearing
headphones at the same time. 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. If you accept it as normal, so will those
around you. Not wearing your headphones is akin to shooting an image
without looking through the viewfinder. We've all shot from the hip now
and then, but would you do an environmental portrait that way?
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 lowered 1992 Civic
with a loud exhaust goes by, don't hesitate to ask the speaker to
repeat him or herself.
Purchasing the right gear for you
Currently, MediaStorm uses the Marantz PMD660 digital recorder. The PMD660 runs on four 'AA' batteries and records to a CF card. While the Marantz deck is a bit larger than some of the other hand-held devices on the market, it offers two XLR microphone jacks. This enables you to directly connect professional microphones for the highest quality sound recordings. The Marantz also offers manual record levels, phantom power, level limiter, and lots of other features, including the ability to transfer files to a computer using a USB connection. The machine is rugged and trustworthy and offers very little noise pickup from the mic pre-amps. Its biggest drawback is its slightly larger than hand-held size.
for a complete list of MediaStorm's PMD660 kit.
(Note: when looking at levels of gear, a "professional" or "prosumer" recorder has xlr inputs and provides phantom power. Recorders without these two features are generally considered "consumer" recorders)
Alternative Mini Connection Options
There are several recorders that use a mini microphone input. If you're using an XLR microphone, you will need to purchase a conversion cable, i.e., XLR to mini. Using a mini microphone input can lead to lower audio fidelity, but the benefit is a more compact unit with longer battery life. Another concern with mini connections is that they aren't as secure as XLR and can more easily disconnect.
We do not recommend the use of iPods for audio recording. But if you do not have access to an XLR input recording device, there are several other mini mic recorders you could consider. Visit http://www.transom.org/tools/
for updated reviews and information.
Microphones are to your recording device what lenses are to your camera. There are wide microphones, tight microphones and everything in between.
We use the Beyer M58
. It's a dynamic (non-powered) microphone with a fairly wide pickup pattern and low handling noise. Handling noise is the noise that a microphone picks up when you touch or maneuver the microphone. It's more likely to be heard during silence. The Beyer M58 is extremely durable.
When using this microphone for an interview, try to get it close to the person's mouth, about 2 inches away. This helps bring out the natural bass in their voice and make them sound more present. It's a good all-around microphone. If you carry only one microphone, this is a good choice.
Another alternative is the Sennheiser ME66/K6
. It's a condenser microphone with a very tight and narrow pickup pattern. It's what's known as a "shotgun" microphone. It's powered either by battery or phantom power. The Sennheiser ME66/K6 is more fragile than the Beyer M58, and is more sensitive to handling noise. It's best to keep it about 12" away from an interviewee's mouth.
Whichever microphone you choose, it's best to always carry a microphone windscreen. Windscreens help keep any wind noise, or p-pops, out of your recordings. At a minimum, use a Sennheiser MZW66 Pro Foam Windscreen for ME66 Microphone
We also use what's called a "dead cat"
with our shotgun microphone. This is a very hairy version of a windscreen, and is even more effective at reducing wind noise.
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 microphone on your subject, plug it into a transmitter they wear on their body, out of sight. The receiver plugs into your recording device.
Advantages of wireless microphones:
- The biggest advantage is that a wireless system allows you shoot and record sound at the same time, but you have to be careful when doing this as the click from your camera will be audible.
- It allows your subject to go about their business while talking, which can make some people feel more relaxed than they would in a formal interview setting.
- It also allows your subject to be a great distance from you.
Disadvantages of wireless microphones:
- A good system is very expensive.
- A wireless microphone system involves a transmitter, receiver, and dealing with more cables than you would with a handheld.
- If your subject is moving around, you will often get sound of clothing rubbing against the microphone.
- Lavalieres are more susceptible to wind noise than a handheld microphone with a good windscreen.
- If your subject turns their head away from the microphone and talks, you're often level with sub-standard audio.
We use the Lectrosonics 400
with our HD video camera.
For a complete list of MediaStorm's HDV video kit,
Brian Storm Jim Seida
President, MediaStorm Multimedia Producer, MSNBC.com