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.

Audio Recorder/Preamp Shootout

Robert Rozak, President of JuicedLink, compares and demonstrates the different preamps and digital recording devices for their low noise capabilities . The key information he stresses is that a preamps connected to a DSLR camera are just as good if not better that recording audio separately with say an Zoom H4n. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

What I learned shooting my first two DSLR video stories

A PETA protest video story shot with a Nikon D3s

In the past 24 hours I have produced two news videos that I shot for the first time with my Nikon D3s. The transition for me shooting DSLR video has been slow. I have been quite comfortable with my Sony XDCAM EX1. But as more photographers embrace shooting video with a DSLR, I figured it was time to jump in. Here are some issues I encountered while shooting my stories.

When I first started shooting with a traditional video camera, I was challenged by the workflow. Having to monitor audio, think in sequences and deal with a dozen other simultaneous details was overwhelming at times. I feel like that now shooting video with my DSLR camera. The workflow is a house of cards. Mess up one thing and your story is hosed. Forget to turn on the mic? Without being able to monitor your audio like a video camera, you’ll end up with a bunch of clips with no audio. I live in fear of this.

I’m shooting with a Sennheiser MKE 400 mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. I’m used to shooting with a full-sized Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun. This mini mic is definitely not in the same class as its big ME66 brother. It is important to get the mic close to the subject, and watch out for wind noise. Get a dead cat windscreen for this mic. The little one that came with mine fell off into the abyss within 15 minutes of ownership.

Using a DSLR makes me fully understand how much the optical stabilization on a video camera really works. Without some type of support, DSLRs are damn hard to hold steady. I’ve downsized to a smaller and lighter tripod that works pretty well. I can shorten it up and use it as a brace in a pinch. Monopods, I’ve found, stop the up and down camera movements, but not the side-to-side.

Focus really sucks with the DSLR. I am manually focusing every shot. I have remapped the back of my D3s to zoom the monitor 50% using the rear toggle button. To record, I use the front function button next to the grip on the front of the camera. This allows me to quickly zoom in on my subject, focus and zoom out. Without the feature my clips would be a blurry mess. I have a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro on order, which should really help my aging eyes.

A candlelight vigil video story shot at 4000 ISO on a Nikon D3s

I’m used to having a wide to telephoto lens with my video camera. On my DSLR, I constantly have to change lenses. The only cool thing about this is the ability to use specialty glass like my 60 mm macro lens and my 85mm f/1.4. Shallow DOF rocks with a DSLR, but it makes focus all the more critical.

ND filter
I need a neutral density filter. Last night, shooting a candlelight vigil was not a problem, but today during a PETA protest in bright sunlight, I had a hard time keeping my f-stops low enough. With DSLRs you want keep your shutter speed between a 30th to no more that 125th of a second. Go higher than that, and your video will start to look funky. An ND filter blocks the light, but not the image quality. They are pricey. I have one on order for a hundred bucks and that’s a cheap one.

I have been a Final Cut Pro fan boy for seven years, but when Apple reinvented the wheel with Final Cut X, I decided to explore other options. I purchased a copy of Adobe Production Premium for my home computer. This suite of programs is topnotch and includes Premiere Pro CS5.5. My two videos were both edited in Premiere. This modern program edits my DSLR video without transcoding. It didn’t take much effort to jump right in and start editing. It’s not as intuitive as Final Cut. Some things like track heights and how the timeline functions are driving me crazy, but all in all, I settled in just fine.

I feel I’m over the hump. Shooting and editing two quick stories showed me I could do this without losing the quality of my storytelling.