If there’s one thing that separates amateur videographers from pros, it’s audio quality. Most people don’t give it much thought, but good sound is every bit as important as beautiful images when you’re recording video.
Sound is all part of the sensory experience of travelling. When we use it in our videos, we inject flavor and texture to the pictures. We add information. Good sound helps make the viewer like they’re really there.
Compare these two short video clips from my visit to the Pacaya volcano in Guatemala. The first clip is silent, the second has audio:
See what a difference it makes when we can hear what’s going on? The sound the lava makes as it flows is so unique: sort of a hollow, tinkling sound. Being able to hear it makes the visual experience that much richer.
How to Record Great Sound
So let’s take a look at how to capture audio well.
First, be aware that the microphones that are built into video cameras, DSLRs and smart phones have limitations. They’re very basic, and capture sound from all directions. That’s fine if you just want to record background audio. But if you’re trying to record yourself or someone else talking— especially in a noisy location—you’re going to need an external microphone. Here are the most common types.
The first is what’s known as a shotgun microphone. These attach to the top of a camera, like this one from Rode:
They’re called a shotgun not only because of their shape, but because they’re directional. They’re very good at picking up sounds in front of them, and rejecting sounds behind and on the sides. Shotgun mics are excellent for capturing ambient sound, which is an industry term for all the background sounds at a location. If you or someone else is speaking on camera, shotgun mics are most effective if the person talking is within arm's reach.
Next we have the lavaliere microphone, also known as a lav or lapel mic. These little guys clip on to your clothing:
Lavs are great to use when someone’s speaking or moving around or demonstrating something. A wireless lav gives you the most freedom. You just attach the receiver to the camera and the transmitter to your body, and it doesn’t matter where you go—the microphone will record what you’re saying. The other option is wired lavs, like Rode's smartLav+ for smartphones:
You plug one end into your camera and attach the microphone to your clothing and you’re good to go. Of course, you’re limited by the cord in how far away you can move from the camera.
Whether you decide to use an external microphone is up to you; it is an added cost and one more thing to lug along. Regardless of whether you use one though, here are some tips for capturing great sound:
1. Don't Narrate While Recording
If you’re talking as you're recording every shot, you have no way to edit your video later. You’re locked into that commentary and to the long, continuous shot you're describing. The only option is to get rid of the narration altogether, and then you lose all the audio, including the background noises that are an important part of your story.
Some people narrate because they want to be able to remember later where they were or what they were looking at. I totally get that: travel can be confusing, especially if you visit multiple sites in one day.
One thing I like to do after a video shoot is make a couple of quick notes about what I’ve seen—things like place names or highlights of the tour. You could do this while you’re travelling back to your hotel, or before you go to bed. The experience is still fresh in your mind, and you can refer to these notes later when you’re editing your video. If you don’t want to physically write this stuff down, use the voice recorder on your smartphone, or turn on your video camera for that matter.
So avoid narrating while you’re recording, or at least keep it to a minimum. Narration is better added later as a voiceover.
2. Get Close to the Action
Most people’s instinct is to stand back on the sidelines when they’re recording video because they don’t want to get in the way. But the secret to good video is to get close—not just to fill the frame with our subject, but to capture the best audio as well.
Here's a few shots from a story I did about street food in the quaint colonial town of Valle de Angeles in Honduras. Take a listen:
Notice how clearly you can hear the meat sizzling and the woman's hands slapping as she makes a baleada. If I had stood back and zoomed in to get those shots, you wouldn’t have been able to hear the sounds so clearly. Instead, I walked right up and put my video camera right next to the grill. The people cooking didn’t care. Getting close is essential, especially if you’re relying on the built-in microphone to capture sound. So be bold and "zoom with your feet" whenever possible!
3. Listen for Sound Bites
What makes video unique from photos is that we can hear the ambience of a place. So don’t just look at a scene to decide what you want to record—get into the habit of listening as well. What are you hearing in your location? Birdsong? Waves lapping on the shore? Record shots that capture some of these sounds, and add them to your finished video. I like to use them as punctuation marks between sentences. You can watch how I use this technique on my YouTube channel: check out Dogsledding in Haliburton and Arch's Iguana Farm, for example.
So listen for opportunities to capture little sound bites—these are going to be important elements of your travel video as well. Good audio won’t make up for bad content, of course, but it will help take your videos to the next level!