Get low-noise audio with a DSLR and a wireless microphone

The more I do video production with my Nikon D4 DSLR, the more I have come to like how it handles in-camera audio with an external mic attached. One of the big issues with the first generation video-enabled cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and the Nikon D3s was they had limited audio capabilities. Many producers felt the need to record separate audio into a recorder like a Zoom H4n and then sync it later in post. What a pain. It’s one of the reasons I put off switching from a traditional video camera to a DSLR.

Sennheiser G2 Wireless MicWith my Nikon D3s, I went the route of trying to use a JuicedLink audio interface to manage my audio. The unit bolted on to the base of my camera, which made it feel bulky. It had great features like dual XLR audio inputs, levels monitoring and a headphone jack, but the truth is, on that piece of equipment, I could never dial in a clean audio signal.

A big part of the problem was the way the D3s handled audio with only three levels settings—high, medium and low. The last time I used the camera with the JuicedLink, I had such a high noise floor (a low background hiss) in my interview audio that I just left it on the shelf after that. Soon after, I upgraded to the Nikon D4 and have found I could generate low-noise audio, especially with a wireless mic, all without all the add-on accessories.

I like using a DSLR to shoot formal interviews. The shallow depth-of-field makes the subject look great. I use my trusted Sennheiser G2 wireless mic for my audio. Be advised,  out of the box the gain on these mics are set really high. The first time used it,  I had such distorted audio that it ruined the video story I produced for the newspaper. I quickly learned how to turn down the levels and make them work with my Sony Z1u video camera.

When I first used a wireless mic with My Nikon D4 (plugged directly into the camera’s mic jack,) I found the same high noise floor that my JuicedLink produced. After fooling around with the settings I came to this conclusion: I had to turn the levels on the mic back up and turn the camera audio levels way down. With the right balance (the mic sending the clean signal, which I assume overpowers the camera’s weak pre-amps), I now  get quality audio without a lot noise-floor hiss.

Is my camera audio as good as recording separately to a Zoom H4n? I’d say depends on what you are doing with the video. If its going to be broadcast on TV, or destined for the big screen, then maybe not. But, if you are producing for the Web like I am, I’d say it’s more than good enough.

You can hear an example of what my wireless Nikon D4 audio sounds like in the interview and voiceover audio in this video I produced for a speech therapy clinic:

Here are my settings:

On my Nikon D4 (the same as on the Nikon D800,) I set the camera on manual and dialed the camera audio down to number 4 level.

On the Sennheiser receiver pack (the one that connects to the camera) hit the “Set” button then toggle the left selection button until you get to “AF Out.” Hit “Set” again and toggle the left arrow until you see -12 Db. Hit “Set” again.

Next on the transmitter pack (the one connected to the lav mic) hit “Set” then toggle to “Sensit” and hit “Set” again. Toggle until you get -06 Db. Hit “Set” again.

Now do a test. Watch your in-camera levels. If they are too low, bump up your audio level to “5,” but no more. If they are still too low go back into the mic pack and set the AF Out level to -6 Db.

Just remember that there is no phantom power with DSLRs. You need battery power from the mic for it to work properly. I sometimes put my big Sennheiser ME-60 shotgun mic on top of camera and it works like a charm with very low noise. Just make sure you have a fresh battery in mic and that it is turned on. If you don’t, you won’t record any audio.

One of the great things about the new generation DSLR’s is that they have headphone jacks to monitor your audio. Use it, or you’ll regret it later (trust me on this one.)

The change: Video storytelling and the rise of the DSLR

It happened so fast. The change. One day, photojournalists were just doing their thing. Shooting daily photos for their newspapers. Maybe even an odd photo story or two. A lucky day was getting a page or a double truck on Sunday to showcase all their hard work.

Video at newspapers was out there on the fringes. A few staffers braved the online world and embraced a new way to tell a visual story. Except this time, it was on the World Wide Web. No space restrictions here. Most traditional still shooters shrugged their shoulders and continued on with the status quo. Video cameras were for “TV types,” they said.

Then the layoffs hit hard. In 2009 and onwards, photo departments at many newspapers were gutted. Hundreds of staff photographers were tossed onto the streets to fend for themselves. To freelance.

In the midst of all this chaos, a new type of still camera was quietly released by Canon. The 5D Mark II had a little secret– it could shoot kick-ass HD video. A few brave photojournalists used the new technology to produce stunning imagery. Images unlike anything ever seen in the video camera world. Shallow depth-of-field shots and cinematic looks that mimicked film dropped many jaws along the way. The smart ones ran with it. Reinvented themselves and in doing so, reinvented the genre of documentary filmmaking. Overnight the doc film industry changed. Shooting with Film stock was done. Former still photojournalists, once resistant to shooting video, now embraced it.

The commercial still photography market tanked as a “billion of photojournalists” raised their iPhones and posted their snaps on Flickr.

Because the DSLR camera was familiar, still photojournalists could buy in without judgment. The taint of video, hidden in a tiny package of a pro DSLR camera gave courage to those that once scoffed at the idea. It did not matter that the DSLR was much harder to shoot with than a traditional video camera. What did they know? They had never shot with a Sony or Panasonic video camera with built-in stabilization and pro audio inputs.

The aftermarket kicked in with a plethora of accessories to make the 5D Mark II easier to focus and improve the bad audio the camera outputted.

Soon the former photojournalists were now calling themselves filmmakers. The old ideas of us (still) vs. them (TV) dissipated. “Us” became “them,” but in a different way.

Video storytelling changed. The entry point into the documentary film world flattened. An army of new filmmakers, not confined by the limitations and cost of film, were unleashed. Stories, some short, some long (most too long,) gave rise to publishing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. No longer did you need a TV to showcase your vision. Shoot and edit your story yourself, then post it to the Web. Maybe even enter a film festival or two.

Former photojournalists, the ones newspapers turned their backs on, were the most creative with the new DSLR video medium. They brought a keen sense of composition, moment and storytelling to the table. But sometimes that was not enough. They needed to understand that great imagery did not a great story make. Each failure was a learning opportunity.

The unfortunate ones were the Nikon shooters. The Nikon D90 was the first DSLR to have video capabilities. But Nikon took a nap after that release. Canon became the de facto standard for DSLR video. The release of the Nikon D800 and D4 played catch up and now a lost generation of Nikon users are joining the fray of filmmaking.

I sit here now stewing, one of the first still photojournalists that embraced digital video storytelling at a newspaper. I was a change agent; embracing the idea that video was an important path to enhancing our online content. In those early days of 2004, our website was mostly text-based with a few postage stamp-sized photos sprinkled about.  I evangelized, I shared, and I taught video sequencing to anyone who wanted to learn. I produced hundreds of video and multimedia stories. I even survived 11 rounds of layoffs at my newspaper. But now I feel like the old man talking about the good old days. Many of my photojournalists friends who left newspapers unwillingly are doing incredible documentary video stories now.

Video storytelling is hard. It takes commitment to keep learning. To keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the tools available.

In the blink of an eye, things change. It comes down to how you respond to that change. Give up and you stagnate. Embrace and you risk failure. Fear is the great equalizer. I keep telling myself  “no fear, no fear.”

I really love video storytelling. Though now I feel the cool kids have taken the torch and somehow passed me by. I tell myself I still have knowledge and experience on my side.

Inside me is a storytelling machine waiting to be unleashed. My Nikon D4 beckons. The world is full of stories. The only one that keeps me from telling them is fear.  No fear. No fear. No fear.

Part 2: DSLR camera accessories-image stabilization

In this part two examination of DSLR accessories, I look ways to outfit your camera to ensure stability of your video (see part one on the Juicedlink audio interface.)

I shoot primarily news video for my newspaper’s website using a Nikon D3s as a video camera. It captures only 720p HD video, not 1080p of the newer models, but it’s resolution perfect for most online delivery.

One of the issues I’ve had as I transitioned from shooting with a Sony EX1 video camera to now using a DSLR, was the stability of my video. When handholding a DSLR during a shoot, I founds it almost impossible to capture stable video. Because I couldn’t put the camera up to my eye when shooting in live view, the shaky-cam effect from holding the camera unsupported out in front of me was really pronounced. It made me realize  how much the optical stabilization on most traditional video cameras work to minimize camera vibration.

In putting my DSLR video camera kit together, I looked for the best lens I could find that would not only give me the zoom focal lengths I needed, but would also have built-in image stabilization. My final choice was the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR lens.

VR (vibration reduction) is Nikon’s version of the Canon’s IS (Image Stabilization.) Vibration Reduction (VR) systems in DSLR camera lenses compensate for image blur caused by small, involuntary movements from unsupported cameras.

I can attest that VR works. I’ve seen and shot a lot of handheld DSLR video that was so shaky it was unwatchable. Switching VR on will not make your footage look like it was shot on a tripod, but it will smooth it out considerably. In my video below, I used the Nikon 24-120mm with VR for the first time. I was pleased with the results. VR  allowed to  move with my subjects without encountering the jarring shake of typical handheld footage. I was most impressed with the clip of me running with the subject. No way would this look this smooth without VR.

The next accessory I use for stabilizing my DSLR video is the wonderful  Zacuto Z-Finder optical viewfinder that I attach to my camera’s rear viewing monitor. This allows me to press the eyepiece against the bridge of my shootin’ eye, which helps stabilize the camera–especially the up and down movement you get when holding the camera out in front of you. This, paired with the lens VR, really makes for some excellent looking handheld footage.

Finally, I can’t stress enough about having a solid tripod handy on EVERY shoot. I always try to use a tripod for long interviews. This allows me to spend time looking my subject in the eye, rather than hiding behind the camera monitor.

The best video tripods are ones that have a fluid head, which allows you to do smooth pan and tilt movements. I have three that I have access to, from small (light) to large (heavy.) The one thing that I have come to love about shooting with a tripod is that I can frame a shot and then shoot a three-shot sequence of wide, medium and tight ten second clips. When I edit, I have three different views to choose from—and best of all, they are all rock steady.

I could go on about camera rigs and such, but in my type of work, they are a bit much for what I do. As a one-man band, I find keeping it simple is the best hedge against missing shots and moments. One of the things that I don’t want to do is create the three-headed monster camera rig that would draw too much attention to myself.

In part three, I will look at the Zacuto Finder up close and a round-up of the other necessary accessories to outfit your DSLR to make it a bad ass video camera.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon link

It has been a relaxing summer and as you can see by my lack of posts, I’ve been taking a break from blogging. When I haven’t been on vacation or furlough, I’ve been shooting both stills and video. My most recent project “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon,” is yet another collaboration with Spokesman-Review reporter Kevin Graman. We spent a couple of days at a retreat for local wounded war veterans. It was (as usual) a rush to get the edit done.

Local TV news (KXLY) showed up just after we did. They grabbed a few interviews, shot some b-roll and were gone in 30 minutes. We stayed 48 hours and shot a dozen interviews. When I watched the TV version of the story, I was actually impressed. see: Local veterans getting much needed retreat.

They defined the story quickly, gave viewers the pertinent information with context from the injured soldiers.  The writing was brisk, and snappy.  But as I sit here seven days later, I have not much recollection of their story. It didn’t really stick with me.

I think the narrative, from both the veterans and the reporter  voiceover in my video, go much deeper. I tried to keep the pace moving by editing in strong sequences of action between the talking heads. In the end, I can’t say my edit is any better—it’s just a different way to tell the same story.

One technical note here.

I used the tiny Canon HF-10 for some of the b- roll footage. I had it on a monopod, which made it easy to do high angle shots. I recorded everything in 1920p x 1080p, so it meshed perfect on the timeline with my Sony XDCAM EX-1 footage. I am hard pressed to tell the difference between  video clips from the $900.00 HF 10 and the $8000.00 XDCAM.

Things I learned on this shoot.

If you’re doing a lot of interviews, mix it up some. I shot mostly tight. Having a wireless mic on the subject frees you up to move the camera to a more interesting angle. Try the side or a wideshot, then move in later in the interview. The opening shot  in my video (a side wide shot,) which was my last interview, was an inspiration that came to late. If you have a second camera, shoot a different angle of the interview, which you can edit in as a cutaway later. Also remember to change up the direction the interviewees are facing. You don’t want everyone right facing into the frame like I did. For some reason, all my left facing interviews I didn’t use.

Finally, remembering to get some b-roll of each subject you interview makes life in the edit suite go so much smoother. The one sequence of the veteran Chris Carver on the high ropes course worked out great because I had him talking about how challenging that moment had been in the interview. I would have kicked myself if I had missed shooting that b-roll!

Two approaches to daily newspaper video

 

Reflections Med Spas of Spokane host Botox parties to entice woman to use their cosmetic services.

Reflections Med Spas of Spokane host Botox parties to entice woman to use their cosmetic services.

The great thing about shooting video for newspapers is that you don’t have to fit the storytelling in a confined format like TV news does. The last two videos I have produced for Spokesman.com were done with totally different  storytelling approaches. The first video I did was on a local day spa that hosted a Botox party for women. Here, I let the subjects at the party tell the story. I shot it in one evening and then futzed around with the edit for couple of days in between daily still photo assignments. The other video was on a snowboarding competition held at a local college.  I tried a totally different approach with this video. A daily story planned for the page one, so I didn’t see the need to do the same print story in video. Time was tight and I really wanted to get home in time for dinner.

rail

Watch the thrills and the spills as snowboarders and skiers from around the region participate in the Cricket Wireless Campus Rail Jam Tour

 

The Botox story was all about people. Getting them to tell me why they felt the need to get Botox injections was key to my story. I did interviews with a doctor and the director of the spa, which gave me the narrative framework for my story. Then I just filled in my timeline with other quick-hit interviews. From a low angle, I did a fun interview with a woman who was face down in a chair getting a massage. With my raw video, I edited a story that was fairly linear. I opened with women socializing with wine and hors d’oeuvres as my beginning. Then moved on to them getting free massages and facials for the middle. Finally, I shot copious amounts of footage of several people getting facial Botox injections to lead me out of the story.

With the snowboarder story, I ditched all my normal storytelling conventions. My Sony EX-1 video camera has the ability to over crank video for ultra smooth slow motion. This was the first time I have experimented with this feature and I am mesmerized by it.  My video is two minutes of snowboarders riding the rails. A music track is my only audio. Many boarders fell on their butts and heads, which the slow motion effect made it fun to watch. I think there is lots of room left to experiment with different storytelling methods. My two daily videos will probably not win any awards, but I hopw the viewers, who took the time to watch, were at least entertained by what they saw.

JVC GY-HM100U and Final Cut Pro–A match made in heaven

JVC GY-HM100

JVC GY-HM100

While most still photojournalists are fawning over the wonderful DSLR/video hybrid Canon 5D Mk. II, JVC quietly unveiled a new tapeless ProHD camcorder that shakes things up a bit in the news-video world. The soon to be released (April 2009) JVC GY-HM100U has some killer features that I have been waiting years for.

First and foremost, JVC built this camera to record in native Final Cut Pro’s QuickTime file format. Its files need no ingesting/transcoding like an AVCHD files do. Nor does it re-wrap the file to an editable format like my Sony XDCAM EX-1. What this means is you can start editing video from the camera  immediately. The GY-HM100U is built to work seamlessly with Final Cut Pro 6. I’m not sure if Final Cut Express 4 is supported with this camera yet.

Second, it records to cheap SDHC media cards. Instead of having to buy Sony $800 dollar 16 gig SxS cards or Panasonic’s P2 media, 40 bucks will get you a 16 gig SDHC card for the GY-HM100. It has two card slots for a combined total 64 gigs of storage space.

Third, the GY-HM100U  has a small form factor. It weighs just three pounds. My wrist sometimes hurts when I shoot with my much heavier Sony XDCAM EX-1, so this full-featured, but light weight camera would be a welcome relief.

The GY-HM100U seems to have all the bells and whistles I’d expect from a pro camera:  A decent HD lens, dual channel balanced audio inputs, full manual controls, for focus, white balance, shutter, iris etc.

Finally cost. JVC says it will be priced below $4000.00. That is right in the price point of the popular tape-based Canon XH A1.

High fives to the JVC engineering team for listening to their customers. This is a shot fired over the bow of Canon who has yet to produce a tapeless pro camcorder. Codec’s like AVCHD are fine for consumers who have the time wait for the files to be converted, but not so in deadline environments newspapers work in. Lets hope this is the beginning of a new generation of video cameras that will make transcoding and file rewrapping a thing of the past.

Here a couple of links for more  info on the JVC GY-HM100U:

GY-HM100U product video

JVC GY-HM100U Info page

Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008

Looking back at this year’s highs and lows in newspaper multimedia, I find much to be excited about. My excitement is tempered by the growing layoffs that have affected many multimedia producers at U.S. newspapers– including my own. A year ago I would have said video storytellers were untouchable. In these challenging economic times, many newspapers have backtracked into full retrench mode as they prepare to make their final stand to save the traditional print product from extinction. This last year, online and photo departments got hit harder than expected. I lost seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot video. Other papers disbanded entire photo departments. For those left to carry on, I would say to hang tough. The need for quality multimedia storytelling is not going away. We will make it through this dark tunnel in time, so keep your video cameras and audio recorder held high. Here’s my look back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008.

  • Video at newspapers began to mature in 2008, as visual journalists became more proficient video storytellers. Though they’re beginning to master the basics of shooting and editing, there’s still much room for improvement. Tightening edits, writing better voiceovers and improving pacing and sequencing, should be on every newspaper video producer’s to-do list for the New Year.
  • Full screen video has finally arrived on many newspaper websites. Better compression algorithms (VP6 and H.264) and improved Internet bandwidth is allowing newspapers to provide decent looking full-screen video. At my newspaper, we built a video player that uses the latest Adobe Flash Player technology. Having hardware acceleration (player uses the computer’s GPU) and the ability to embed video anywhere on our new website adds up to a better user experience for all.
  • Video cameras are improving in both cost and features. Shooting HD video should be the norm now. It compresses better than standard def and looks stellar when played back on a hi-def monitor. But the big technology leap this year is the transition to shooting with tapeless video cameras. While most video producers are still shooting DV tape, a new breed of tapeless cameras is starting to make inroads. Canon’s entry level AVCHD format based HF-10 on the low end and the pro-based Sony XDCAM EX-1 on the high end, will soon make tape seem as dated a LP vinyl albums and Tri-X film.
  • Many newspaper websites have received redesigns that better showcase their multimedia. Unfortunately on many of these sites, multimedia is still considered an ugly stepchild to the word-driven content. Too many websites are not taking advantage of their growing video archives. Search on most newspaper websites is still an exercise in frustration.  Modern content management systems fix this by allowing tagging for all content. After a recent massive snowstorm last week in Spokane, we tagged all related content–stories, videos, photos and audio– with “Winter Storm 2008.” Click that tag on our Django based site and you’ll only get content related to that tag (way cool). On another front, most newspaper websites continue to be mostly shovelware sites for traditional newspaper stories. Their web-only content, like video and audio slideshows and database journalism is buried in a sea of links. Not getting the hits on multimedia? It’s probably because people can’t find it, and when they do, the player is crappy and the video compression sucks.
  • Audio slideshows have matured this year. Most newspaper photojournalists have become adept at gathering and editing audio. But many shows being produced seem lifeless and predicable. Deeper storytelling, better ambient audio, tighter photo and audio edits could help most audio slideshows. The Soundslides program went through a solid upgrade this year with the addition of a full-screen mode, but I am beginning to see people transition to producing audio slideshows in their video editing programs like Final Cut Pro.

Let’s hope 2009 has more highs then lows for you. I have had one hell of a year. I floated into and out of management, trained many in my newsroom to shoot and edit video, lived to see the long delayed Spokesman.com site launch. I said goodbye to two-dozen talented newsroom coworkers lost to layoffs. I found myself back behind a still camera for the first time in three years. Looking ahead, I have a strong set of multimedia goals I want to accomplish in 2009. I’m keeping my chin up–no matter what the future brings.