Photographers Need to Take Audio More Seriously

Zoom H4N
The Zoom H4N. Use it. Please.

In just the past few days I’ve seen some videos created by photographers that, as a filmmaker, caused me to cringe. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest issue photographers-turned-filmmakers have. Crappy audio. This is an issue I’ve addressed a number of times before. So I sorta feel like a broken record. But it bears repeating.

Just because your camera can now shoot audio, does not make you a filmmaker. (Similarly, just because I shoot video with an SLR, don’t make me a photographer). If you want to be a filmmaker, then learn about the aspects of filmmaking. One of the most important is audio.

The most common problem I see (or rather, hear) is photographers using only the on-camera mic. That causes an echo-y sound and it also allows all the ambient noise to mess up the audio. So, what you get often is this beautiful image (most of the time, although I’ve seen some issues there too) with bad sounding audio. It’s actually worse if you do take the time to compose, light, and get beautiful shots (e.g. using a camera slider, a steadicam device, a jib, etc.) If the image is pristine and stunning, but the audio is terrible, it’s like a vanilla wedding cake with bird poop all over it. It may still look good, but makes you sick if you eat it.

The other problem I’ve noticed is audio clipping. Clipping is to audio what “blown out” is to exposure. In short: parts are so loud it sounds like your ear is going to explode.

Another audio problem I’ve seen (and this goes for fellow videographers and filmmakers too) is poor audio mixing. That is when the levels of your music and voice and any other sound effects are all off. First it’s high, then low. If you’re watching a video and you find yourself adjusting the volume up and down constantly, it’s a bad mix.

So, here are some tips and suggestions for you photographers out there playing with DSLR filmmaking and video production. Actually, these are actually more than just “suggestions.” I implore you. Take heed.

  • Use a mic: if the audio is important (i.e. an interview, vows, toasts, a speech, etc) use a professional mic and audio recorder. I use Sennheiser wireless mics and record to the Zoom H4N. Use a slate (aka a clapboard) to sync sound in post. If you’re doing quick run-and-gun work and don’t have time or the need to formally mic people, then at least use a shotgun mic like the Rode for better audio capture to the camera. (Here’s my review of the Zoom H4N for PPA Magazine).
  • Find the quietest spot: you know how as a photographer you’re supposed to “look for the light”. Well, as a filmmaker, you need to listen. Listen to the sounds around you. Take note of your surroundings and find the best place. Are you in a crowded, noisy conference room? Then, go into the hall. Are you at a house party? Go upstairs. Turn off the fridge and any other appliances. If you’re filming outside, be mindful of planes, trains and automobiles. No, you can’t control them, but wait for them to pass. If it’s really bad, you just may have to forfeit shooting outside and conduct the interview someplace else. Even if there are no sounds around you, the environment can affect your audio. Filming an interview in a large living room with hardwood floors and high ceilings will sound very different than that same interview shot in a small carpeted room (i.e. it’ll sound worse in the room with hardwood floors.)
  • Normalize your audio: this is the act of adjusting the levels of audio in your editing so that they are relatively even throughout. I use Final Cut Pro and adjust my audio levels to about -12db when editing. If music is playing underneath talking, I’ll typically adjust the music to -18 to -23db under the dialog, then up to -4 to -8db when you just hear the music. (Adjust according to the recorded volume of the song). AUDIO TRANSITION TIP: When transitioning from music only to dialog and music, to adjust the music, instead of using the Pen tool and setting keyframes, I’ll split the music track at the spot where the dialog stops/starts, adjust the music after the split, then add a cross fade transition (in FCP, CTRL-click on the split). That’ll create a nice, clean transition without the hassle of keyframes. I learned that trick from Chris Fenwick 9 years ago and I love it.


A couple of software programs you may want to look into are Singular Software’s Plural Eyes and Conversation Network’s Levelator. Plural Eyes ($149 US) is used to sync camera audio to audio recorded from a device like the Zoom. It supposedly works like magic. Levelator is a great tool if you have a recorded track of dialog that has a lot of peaks and valleys. Levelator (FREE) will do as the name suggests, level it all. This is a fantastic tool for you podcasters out there. I’ve just started using it for Crossing the 180.

Another program worth adding to your arsenal is Bias Software’s SoundSoap for reducing hissing and other unwanted background noises.

Monday I’ll address another problem I see in a lot of photographers’ videos: how to effectively use photos in videos.

9 thoughts on “Photographers Need to Take Audio More Seriously

  1. Thanks for posting this, Ron. Nothing kills a good video like amateurish audio, and we all know that photographers don’t like being called that.

    Another great software package for cleaning up audio tracks (up to a L/R pair) is Sony’s Sound Forge. Less than a hundred bucks and includes everything most people will ever need, and a really nice dynamics processor – just like you’re sitting there with a compressor/limiter and noise gate. This is what I’ve been using for years to clean up mine.

    1. That is a great suggestion Ryan. Thanks. There are a lot of products out there actually. Maybe some other people will chime in with more.

  2. Quick question….what mode do you shoot your h4n in? Stereo or MTR? I like the idea of being able to use the “effects” with the MTR mode, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, ya know?

    1. I use the Stereo mode if I’m only recording through one main input (the built in mic or a connected mic). I’ll use the 4CH mode if I’m using both. Never have had a need for the MTR mode.

  3. I love my H4n! The movies I made with my DSLR before I got it and a shotgun mic have so many audio issues.

    Also one of the best things about using a good mic with a “dead cat” windscreen is explaining what it is doing on top of your DSLR. “It’s a handle, my hands are really sensitive so I need the extra padding.”

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