The series on getting started in video is almost complete. Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture. Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Ear vs. the Microphone
You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.
- Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you. But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front. A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere. But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic. Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below). By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears. His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible. The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
- It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them. Your brain is involved too. Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them. And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one. These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream. Of course mics don’t do any of this. An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias. The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
- Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images? The key difference maker is the brain. Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently. The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
- Let’s take an example. It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing. If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine. But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else. Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.
Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc. But at the same time you need to factor in the above: your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias. Here are a few tips:
- Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine. The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
- But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close! Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water. Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
- Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance. Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference. You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
- If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above. For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
- For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording. Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones. These systems are often used along with headphones. They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
- You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder. You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
- Remember: all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.
That’s all for now. I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer. Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!
Last week because of Christmas I skipped Foto Talk. I hope the holiday was fun and festive for all. The series on video is not done yet, so let’s jump back in with perhaps the most important (and challenging) aspects of video. I’m assuming that you wish to catch native audio; that is, the sounds that you hear during your video clips. Adding audio later, whether it’s music or something else, is certainly possible and in many way easier. But my initial goal is always to capture interesting audio at the same time as the video.
Check out the previous posts in this series for tips on the visual half of video. In order to view the videos in this post, click the title at top-left, or on the link. You’ll shoot to my Vimeo page where you can click on the play button.
There are several pitfalls to watch out for when recording audio. The main ones follow, along with solutions. As you do with photography, tailor your solutions for sound-recording problems to the specific subject and situation.
- Built-in Microphone. Your camera’s microphone, while usable, is essentially a starter mic. Depending on its quality, the sound can be tinny and harsh. It also can’t easily be used with a windscreen. But don’t forgo your internal mic entirely. It can be a better recorder of ambient sound than the shotgun mic that you’ll likely purchase (see below).
Solution: An internal microphone is okay for starting out. But sooner or later you’ll want to purchase a separate external mic (or two) that mounts on your hotshoe. There are two basic types of microphone, and what you most like to record will determine whether you get one or the other (or both). If you want to record discrete sound sources (bird calls, a person talking or singing, etc.) get a shotgun mic. If you most often record diffuse soundscapes with the sources scattered around you (the video at top is an example), get an omnidirectional mic. The shotgun mic (which comes in different types which vary in their degree of directionality) can cost a lot more than the omni mic. But it’s useful in a far wider set of circumstances. So I recommend buying a shotgun mic first.
- Wind. The wind often adds atmosphere to a setting (see link to video below). So why not record it? Not so fast! Your ears are designed in a wonderfully organic way. But when wind hits a microphone it doesn’t sound atmospheric. It just sounds like somebody trying to annoy you by blowing into a mic.
Solution: There is a deceptively easy solution to wind noise. If and when you buy an external mic, buy a windscreen for it and don’t take it off. They come in foam or hairy (“deadcat”) versions, or you can make one yourself. Depending on how strong the wind is they can be very effective in blocking out wind noise. But they aren’t 100%, so you should take steps to shelter the mic further from strong winds. Point down-wind and block with your body if at all possible.
Wind and Quaking Aspens: Colorado Rockies
- Image Stabilizer & other Space-outs. I hate to admit how many great soundscapes I’ve recorded that are immediate candidates for deletion. Why? Because I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon). That little motor you barely notice while shooting stills will sound like a generator, even if you use an external mic. Another easy thing to forget is the sound setting itself. If you turn off sound recording in the menu (say you plan to add sound later), you’ll feel as dumb as a post when you play back to dead silence. You may think it’s hard to be this forgetful, but when you’re grabbing a quick video in the midst of shooting stills, believe me it’s easy to space out. Finally, if you have an external mic it can be easy to forget to turn that on.
Solution: Get in the habit, every time you switch to video mode, of checking to make sure that IS or VR is turned off. Also helpful is getting in the habit of reviewing and listening to at least portions of your clips. And before you do any video make sure that the sound setting is turned on. Then if you turn it off for a video or two, go in right after and turn it back on. Make it your default setting. Most external microphones have a little light that says it’s on. But get used to turning your mic on (and off when you’re done) every time you record.
- Planes. Aircraft (planes, helicopters, and now drones) are a type of unwanted noise that deserves its own category. Whether you’re recording the human voice or the sounds of nature, planes just seem to show up at the worst times. Soon after you press the record button, you’ll hear one buzzing overhead. It’s almost guaranteed. I never fully appreciated the amount of air traffic in our world until I started shooting video and recording natural sounds.
Solution: Mostly patience is all that is required. Planes don’t take too long to pass over, though while you’re waiting it can seem an eternity. If you’re under a flight path it may take awhile to get a silent window. If a helicopter is working in the area you’re stuck with it and should probably return another day. If somebody has a drone and insists on flying it near you, well that’s what a slingshot or pellet gun is for (just kidding..I think).
There is more to sound than the above, and next time we’ll dive in a little deeper. But if you can overcome these simple stumbling blocks, you’re well on your way to recording quality sound with your videos. Thanks for reading, and have a happy and photographic New Year!