Technical & Practice

TW LP4S location Portable Mixer

I was looking for a second hand SQN when I came across the TW-LP4S from Hungary. It seemed too good to be true, a mixer with all these facilities for less than the price of a second hand SQN, so I took a risk!

The mixer arrived last Friday and I had a busy weekend with very little time to play with it before a job using it on the Monday.

Now, I have to say that everything I say below must be qualified! I constantly had to remind myself how little I’d just paid for it!!!! So below is my little review.


First impressions:

On the Sunday night I frantically sorted out all my kit for the following morning trying to make sure everything worked for the next day. My first operational issue in the garage was a little disappointing; the headphone amp would not drive my Beyer high impedance headphones. Panic then ensued whilst I tried to find my back-up pair, but when I did eventually find them, the mixer worked fine driving the Sony’s.

The next little issue I had was the headphone volume, which is a screwdriver slot? All the other knobs are nice machined aluminium so I did find that a little puzzling as to why? I’m sure there must be reasoning behind it but I just found it a pain (although you can use your finger nails so don’t chew them!).

As a plus, there are both ¼” and 3.5mm jack sockets for your headphones, and a monitor knob for Left, right, Mono (L+R), Stereo and M/S (L-R) decode.

So I plugged the mics in, tested cables, all working, pack away.

General impressions:

The mixer is of American influence, in that all the switches operate upwards. Different, but easy to get used to. Having said that it does have backlit UK PPM’s with peak/limiter LED’s, which is a great plus point.

The whole layout is actually very good and well thought out, everything is more or less where you want it (unlike an SQN!). It’s very solidly made, again from machined Aluminium giving it a very robust and professional feel. Although at over 2kg (with batteries), you won’t call it a lightweight mixer!

Power comes from 12 (yes 12) AA batteries or there’s a 4pin XLR for an external power supply (which comes with the kit). The power switch is on the front (where it should be), but there is no ‘off’ position – if you think about it if it’s plugged into the external mains dc supply why do you need to turn it off? If you do want to use a large battery like an NP1 to power the mixer, there is an extra adaptor available to fit to the rear of the mixer rather than use the 4 pin XLR input. DC input is 10-25v.

The main channel faders have a nice weight and are very smooth and easy to use. It’s possible to have one finger on the fader and use the PFL as well as the bass cut. A pan switch/knob is also associated on the front with each channel giving Left or Right, Mono (centre) and also a stereo gain function for both 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 channels. Tone is also there on the front, together with Battery check, a good limiter with ‘link’, a slate button and the mixer out (label EE for some reason?) and return monitor switch. You actually have the choice of two different return feeds on the right hand side made up of either 3.5mm jack or hirose inputs. Unfortunately the Rtn1 and Rtn2 select switch is also on the side instead of the front (oh well can’t have everything!!!).

Finally there is a main fader, which is a rubberised plastic knob (as opposed to the rest which are Aluminium), which is ok, but I would personally have preferred the same type as the channel faders, it looks a little odd as if it’s been replaced? Also the knob is a smooth click-round fader with a good feel but there is no ‘click-lock’ default position, which could be a little disconcerting.

The main fader has a +6db gain if you need it, which you may well do. I maybe wrong, but my impression in use is that it sticks to another Americanism in that the channel faders unity gain is measured at full fader, not at as a rule the 2-3 o/clock position as we’re used to (which indeed the main fader adheres to?). Without the main fader and a soft voice on an ECM77 I had very little gain left to use and the channel fader. Also the main fader is after the tone so affects its level, yet the meters are before the limiter so although the limiter LED’s flash and you can hear the effects, when in use you can’t see these effects on output level’s.


The left hand panel takes the balanced XLR mic inputs with both line ad -10db pads available. You’ve also Dynamic, phantom (12v and 48v) and T powering available with a main Phantom off switch to save power if you need it.


The right hand panel has single L&R XLR balanced, a Hirose and a 5 pin XLR unbalanced outputs with a mic/line switch for the Hirose. There is also a 3-pin XLR marked “video Assist” which is a mono -36db output for comms etc.

Direct outputs of each channel are provided on a 5-pin mini-XLR if separate recording is needed.

RTN 1 not only comes via the Hirose, but has a 3.5mm jack as well, the RTN2 is 3.5mm jack only.

Overall impressions:twlp4smetersend

In use I found it to be very quiet and it sounded very good. I have to say that I think this mixer is brilliant value for money and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough (even with the odd short coming). New, they retail for under £1000 USD and I’ve seen manufacturer-refurbished models on eBay for about £400 including the carry bag.

I think I’ll get long use out of the TW-LP4S, and maybe the only thing I think perhaps I need, is to look at the exact effect the meters have on the outputs or even whether perhaps I can talk to the manufacturers about altering the place where it monitors level?

There are other models of mixers in the TW range and if there as well made and as good value as this mixer, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommended them.

Their website is

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Sound on a DSLR

mke400topd7000First thing to establish about recording movies on your DSLR, as you may have experienced, is that the internal microphone is next to unless and the recorded sound can only be really used as a guide track. This isn’t to say that the mic is awful quality or the recording system itself isn’t up to scratch, but the fact that the omnidirectional mic is built into the camera body, picking up every hand movement, the focus servo and your heavy breathing!!!!

So the first choice to make is which camera top mic to go for and what sort of situation it can be used in. Pictured is my brilliant new D7000 (more later!) and my Sennhieser MKE400 microphone - this is a great little gun mic, very well built, high quality sound and fairly directional - i.e. looking forwards from the camera in the direct you’re shooting.  The rubber shockmount also separates the mic from the camera body fairly well.

When it comes to talking to photographers about microphones, I always use the analogy that microphones are a bit like using telephoto lens (plus you have no zoom) and have to change the mic according to the recording situation. A big gun mic like the ones you see on sports outside broadcasts in their furry windshields could be a long telephoto lens, whereas a lapel mic pinned to someones chest is the equivalent of your wide angle lens. Obviously there are many different mics in between just there are lens! The analogy isn’t perfect, sound can obviously be picked up outside of the mics ‘focus’ (or pick up pattern), but it does go some way to helping understand how mics works

mke400ond7000The MKE400 is a petit self powered gun mic perfect in size to sit on top your DSLR and not get in the way. The hotshoe camera top mic is only ever going to pickup general sound or atmosphere, you can’t expect it to focus in on someone speaking a distance away - you need to get closer or move a mic closer to the sound source - just like you were moving in to take a portrait. There are other self contained camera top mics like the Rode Videomic, but they’re not half as well made, large, plastic and have a tendency to fall apart. The Sennheiser MKE400 is also much smaller than the competition, the last thing you want is for the mic to get in the way of shooting the pictures!

Professional microphones are usually Phantom powered, they need power to come down the cable from a mixer or such like. This means to use most other mics you’ll need to get a sound mixer you can carry on the shoulder like the Rolls MX410 and cable to the camera via 3.5mm stereo lead. You could then put the more direction mic on top of the camera using something like the Rycote Universal kit, but you have to remember you’re going up in size which could be a problem, especially if you’re handheld.

There are a few battery powered professional gun mic like the Beyer MCE86s, but obviously putting an AA battery in a mic extends it’s length by 5cm, which could mean it gets in shot.  You’d probably be better off with the mic set up on a stand, or even better, on a boom pole with someone else operating and looking after the sound whilst you do the pictures!  In the end there’s no substitute for a Sound Recordist!

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The rise and rise of the DSLR

The DSLR in the last six months has begun to make huge changes in the way we shoot video. The film like quality of the resulting video, the huge jump in quality SLR lens give over video camcorders, it all makes the format perfect for shooting artist material.

Have a look at the Canon promotional Video by Vincent LaForet below to see what can be achieved.


Click the HD icon to see a higher definition picture - do pause the other one first!  Remember what you're seeing is, even in the higher quality version, only a compressed version of the 1080 line original.

They are many striking examples of the artistic medium given life by the digital SLR, but if you browse the net you'll begin to see a common denominator...... They're all music videos with sound and effects added later.  Why?  Basically sound was an after thought.  On the DSLR's for instance the microphone is obviously on the the camera, an inch from the photographers mouth so all you'll get on the sound track is breathing!  Heaviness dependent on work rate obviously!!!!!! As the mic is part of the camera body you pick up a lot of focus motor noise.


But the D5 and D7 and now the D7000 have a 3.5mm jack I heard you say.  At the Broadcast Video Expo in Earls Court, London, a show aimed at the top video producers and technicians in the country. my most asked question was??? How do we get decent sound out of a DSLR?   Mainly from Photographers now using their cameras for video!

It is quite hard with just the camera, even if you know what you doing.  Plus Canon 5D 3.5mm jack input has an awful automatic microphone level control, giving you little chance of putting down anything decent in sync with the pictures.  The only answer is to go back a few years, pull the clapper board out of the attic and record the audio separately, laboriously syncing everything up in the edit.


Have Canon been listening to you?  Maybe????  Have a look at the new 5D menu on the right!  Click on the menu to find out more.

The new firmware upgrade states:- "Improved audio functionality will allow users to set sound record levels manually using a sound-level meter displayed on the LCD screen. The audio sampling frequency has also been increased from 44.1KHz to 48KHz, providing the optimum audio signal typically required for professional or broadcast material."

Not only are they upgraded the digital sampling rate within the camera to 48k, making it compatible with all  professional equipment and software, they are making the audio input manual (you can turn the auto off) and you have audio metering in the eye piece - suddenly you have access to branch out from Artistic videos and use it on serious documentary footage!  With the right leads, instead of messing around with bits attached to the camera, it's now possible to use a decent Audio mixer giving fantastic audio quality, in sync, and great control and monitoring of the audio , whilst the camera simply has a light cable attached.

MX410Recommends, well what about the Rolls MX410?  Small Portable with four inputs meaning you can cover most  situations and a mic level 3.5mm output perfect to go into your DSLR mic input. And at a Price/Budget you can afford!

Have a look at it on this tiny mixer on the Kharisma Site, just click the image:-

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LED lighting

Health and safety are obviously major considerations in the practice of media within education, be it trying to get some naive student to simply think about where they’re going to set up a tripod (i.e. not in the road) or perhaps to consider the risk level of a particular location we’ve chosen to shoot in (swimming pool??).

Of all the Health and safety considerations the equipment that causes the most concern and risk must be lighting.  240v, live cables trailing everywhere to trip over, those cables attached to heavy lights high on stands to tip over and finally that’s not taking into account a few thousand kilowatts of heat to burn hands and set things on fire!

Taking into account these concerns I was impressed to see a new type of ’studio’ lighting.  We’ve all now got used to LED torches, which have now become the norm over normal bulbs, but seriously considering LED’s replacing powerful and accurate studio lighting (rather than a simple tiny torch bulb) is an altogether different consideration.


I was delighted then to see a demonstration of a new 12 inch square LED light panel.  They come in various models and types, the basic models come in either Daylight or Tungsten available in either different angle spot or flood.  One of the problems I’ve seen in the past with any LED light is the production of lots of circles of light, rather than any consistent light spread, but there was no evidence of this, just a even spread of  light - how do you get a 15º spot from a flat panel I don’t know?  Having a daylight temperature light without having to use gel is very useful.  I measured the daylight output and it was about equivalent to a standard tungsten 300 watt light with blue gel.   On a light meter the tungsten measured 3210k, which I’m told is actually within the tolerance of the meter itself!!  -  Not bad!   There are other models available with over 3 times the light output of these models - although I’ve obviously not seen them yet.

Each light has a built-in dimmer knob on the rear and DMX control socket - so both a dimmer and full DMX lighting control built in!  Also there on the back is the 12v professional XLR 4 pin socket.  It comes with a 12v mains adaptor, but will run a good number of hours on a battery - there is an adaptor option available to attach to the back of the light to take a camera battery should you need it.  My thought was a good lead acid battery on a longish lead would make a good stand alone light and if the battery was attached at the bottom of the stand, it would act as a lighting stand ballast, making the whole thing hard to knock over.  Having said that the light itself only weighs just over 2kg.

Of the lights I saw, perhaps the most useful and impressive was the model called the ‘Bi-colour’.  It was a little more expensive than the stand light, but on the rear was a second knob, where you could change the colour temperature of the light from tungsten all the way though to daylight and anything in between!  Again no gels in sight!  Very useful if you turn up to shoot in a room with mixed tungsten and daylight coming in through windows and you can dial in the exact colour temperature of the room at that time and even adjust as the sun comes down!  Again available in either spot or flood.

Don’t ask me how this is done, but there is also an adjustable focal length version in either tungsten or daylight colour temperature.  Models are either 15º to 30º spot or 30º to 50º flood or a full 15º spot to 50º flood.

On the health and safety front these lights make a huge case against the normal tungsten lights and well worth considering for studios or for use by students on location. A very safe option and ‘cool’ option!

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What your eyes hear!

Our eyes, as our main sense, very much dictate how we hear things.  They do say that it’s only when you remove the pictures, i.e. Radio, that the real pictures actually become better!

What we see in front of us on the screen will dictate what we expect to hear.  Over the years I’ve worked in numerous areas of broadcasting, one job I do for a long time was sound dubbing for the Nature History Unit in Bristol.  Most footage is shot on either a very long lens or in tiny macro and is actually mute - i.e. there was no recorded ‘live’ sound.  Everything you see was dubbed on using sound effects, live spot effects (me) and wild track atmosphere tracks recorded on location.

Yes, I’m afraid to say, Ants make no audible sound!!!  When you saw that Ant chewing on something, it was me eating an apple!  And, if you’d closed your eyes you would have heard me.  But, your eyes over rode what your ears were telling you and you heard what you saw.

When watching video you have a quite restricted picture in front of you.  Although widescreen has given us a picture more in line with our own ‘eyes’ view on life, you’d have to sit very close to the TV for it to fill your vision, most of us only get close to this at the cinema.  Therefore if you don’t see it on the TV, your ears will be sending your brain error messages.  For instance if you record an interview in a noisy room, but the interview is up against a wall, you don’t see the source of the noise and have it explained so the listener will become irritated by the noise.  If you simply had an opening wide shot, putting the interview in context, your audience would generally ignore the background noise.  If you can’t get away from exterior (i.e. off camera) noises (which is obviously preferable), you need to explain visually to the audience what’s happening to their ears.
looking to camera
The visual dictation of sound can even have editorial issues on your material.  In an interview situation for instance, if you have the interviewee looking straight down the camera lens, it’s as if they’re talking to the person would is watching the TV (the audience), so you won’t expect to see or even hear any questions from the interviewer.  It’s a major problem on TV news where the interviewee is squashed into some tiny studio somewhere and the only way round it is to have a shot of the reporter turning round to the interviewee in a monitor screen behind them, simply watch any news channel to see it done.
looking to the side of camera
Taking this further, if you interview someone for your video and sit the interviewer right next to the camera, you take the interviewees eye line slightly away from the camera.  This is the most versatile situation as visually they have stopped talking to the audience and are talking to someone else; yet you are not expecting to see the interviewer and you don’t necessarily expect to hear them either.  It means you have the option of using the questions of not (obviously recorded on a separate track!).
This situation is rather like a group conversation, you are the camera, someone is stood next to you talking to someone in front on you, you are concentrating on the person talking in front of you and the person next to you is out of your field of vision.

looking at an angle to cameraNow, if you angle the interviewee further round we open a new set of visual expectations.  Here your eyes are dictating and expecting to not only hears the interviewee but see them as well.

It’s rather like the group conversation again where the two people are now stood in front of you.  You maybe focusing on the interviewee, but you are expecting to see the interviewer and your head will turn to them when they speak, so you can’t get away with not seeing them at least once during the conversation.

So the important thing to take away with you is that sound should match the pictures. Sounds simple, but it’s a little more complex than you first imagine!

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To record in Stereo or Mono - that is the question?

builtinmicMost domestic and semi-professional video cameras have a stereo ‘internal’ microphone set into the front of the camera.  We’ve all seen the ‘home’ videos were you can hear the person with the camera breathing heavily rather than what’s on the pictures.

Well you’ll be surprised to know that professional cameras don’t have this microphone!  Although they have the capability to record in stereo (they have two audio tracks), the microphone attached the front (which can be unattached or replaced) is a single mono microphone, which is much more directional than the stereo version.

Unless you are recording a TV drama or film, professionally you would not tend to record in stereo on location.  The use of stereo on location recordings complicate the post production editing and sound mixing (dubbing) process and takes up valuable time, which if you’re up against schedule limits, be that broadcasting or exam, it’s a pressure you can do without.

The only time I would contemplate the use of stereo would be on an atmospheric shot - say a wide shot of students milling around a campus - and then only if really necessary.  The fact is most material/programmes will be viewed on a TV with the loudspeakers only a little distance apart, meaning all your effort in producing a stereo programme will actually be lost on the audience.

Location recording is not just about getting the best quality recording possible, but it is about planning ahead and trying to make the post production as simple and easy as possible.  The more simple you can make the recording and the more decisions you can put off until the edit/dub, the better.

On a professional camera the audio tracks are not actually labelled left and right, but simply called tracks (or channels) 1 and 2.  What you have is the potential of having a 2 track audio recorder!  The ability to record two separate things.

xternal Mono Gun & internal Stereo microphones on a Semi-pro camera

Even on a semi-pro camera, there will be external xlr connections marked channel 1 and 2, so make use of them!  For instance, if you are recording an interview and were to mix the two microphones together whilst recording, they are forever joined, you can’t separate them later, so you are tied into the decision made then and there.  The trick is to separately record the interviewer on track 1 and the interviewee on track 2, so when you come to the edit (and have good listening conditions), you can mix the sound tracks accurately or it maybe you can decide whether you actually want the to use the interviewers questions at all!

If you’re recording an event or something that is happening live, i.e. you have just one opportunity to record the situation, give yourself options!  Put a decent directional camera mic on track 1 and your presenters radio mic on channel 2 - you can decide which to use or how much of each to use later in the dub.  You could have the camera mic on channel 1 and someone with a sound mixer (with all the other mics) on channel 2?  Or take both channels from the mixer output and separate specific microphones left and right (to tracks 1 and 2) - give yourself options!

Think and plan, don’t just turn up expecting the internal stereo microphone to do the job - unless you’re into ‘atmospheric’ and echoy programmes!

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Basic Microphone Patterns

A microphone is a very basic mechanical/electrical device.  Simply put, sound waves, rather like waves onto a beach, hit a diaphragm, which produces an electrical voltage down a wire – simple as that!!!

It is just a simple volume driven instrument and next to the complexity of your ears it’s practically a prehistoric device!!! However scientists have managed to develop this little diaphragm to give us certain pick patterns to work with, this means making them directional.

If we look at a representation of a basic Omni-directional microphone pick up pattern it will give us an idea of how these patterns work.

If you walked around the circle drawn around the microphone head talking, it would pick your voice up at the same volume all the way round. This type of microphone is used as ‘Personal’ lapel microphones and in journalistic interview situations like post football match interviews.

The next progression is the ‘Cardiod' pattern’.

As shown, if you walk around the back of this microphone, volume will drop off until you’re virtually unheard. 
This sort of microphone can me used in noisy 'hand-held' interview situations and is used frequency for stage performances where the ‘dead’ area of the microphone is faced off to the foldback loudspeakers.

A development of this is the Hyper/Super Cardiod pattern of microphones.

The pattern has been modified to give a very front facing pick up pattern, with a very ‘dead’ area at 30 degrees to the rear, but with a small extra lob towards the rear.  This microphone is used extensively in professional recording.

A further development of this is the ‘Gun’ microphone.  The 416 microphone is used extensively in professional location recording. It’s the microphone you usually see in a Rycote  “Hairy” basket. What you notice is that although the overall pick up follows the ‘Super’ Cardiod pattern, as frequencies rise (the Blue pattern), the pick up becomes quite irregular and much more directional.

There are other microphone pick up patterns, but the above gives you an introduction to the main ones you’ll come across.

Whenever using a microphone to record it’s very important to know the characteristics of that microphone and how it works, and most importantly – listen to it!!!!   Listen to how it works by moving it around until you get it in the best position.

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Audio file formats - recording and storing

compact_discCD (Compact Disc), our first mass digital format, arrived with us over 25 years ago. It gave us clean digital sound in a way we hadn’t experienced before. There have been new HD audio disc formats introduced over the years (SACD), but CD was so well established they’ve become rare items.

In 1993, with the computer revolution well underway, MP3 was introduced to enable music to be stored relatively easily on a hard disc. A 3-minute CD track represented a raw ‘PCM’ file of about 60mB, whereas a MP3 file was only 3-5mB, allowing over 10 times the media to be stored.

So how does MP3 achieve this? As well as applying a mathematical formula to the raw PCM data to reduce its size, it applies what is called ‘Auditory Masking’. If a loud sound happens at the same time as a quieter sound, it decides not to record the quiet sound as it’s ‘Masked’ by the louder sound as you can’t hear it. Basically in recording an MP3, it has decided for you what you can and cannot heard and discards the information it feels doesn’t matter.

When I first heard an MP3 file played back on a decent Hi-fi (an orchestral track), I was at first quite impressed. It sounded as if the Orchestra had been closed mic’d rather than a simple microphone pair slung overhead. But as I listened I began to feel something was wrong. It took me nearly 5 minutes to work out why……. There was no hall!!!! There was no acoustic on the recording – the hall reverberation had been removed by the processing, making it quite a dry recording. If you listened very hard you just make out the dying reverb simply vanish at a given point.

Back in 1993 the average PC had just 32mB of RAM, a CPU speed of 60Mhz and the biggest ‘industry’ hard drive available was just 1Gb. The Internet was in its infancy and you would have to wait a few years till you could achieve 56k on dial-up!  We now have RAM size, CPU and broadband internet speeds in the Giga bits and hard drives in the Terabyte (1,000gB)!

With all this space and speed it seems crazy that we’re only just beginning to use CD raw quality PCM files on our computers (WAV & AIFF), such has been our preoccupation with the MP3 format.  Plus Blu-ray now gives us uncompressed audio 5.1 soundtracks with our films.

There has been a myth that has pervaded over the years that ‘Digital’ is perfect and once you are in the digital domain (i.e. on a computer) then deterioration of quality is a think of the past – don’t believe it!!! And especially if you start converting between file formats - There will be degradation!

So record in a raw format and stay with it right through the production process if possible. If you’re recording the audio to camera then HD format cameras give you the best sound file formats.

MP3 has served us for a long time, it just seems amazing its taken so long to return to an audio quality first achieved over 25 years ago.

Incidentally, the only time I can see the use of MP3 as a recording format is in a ‘news’ type situation, where you haven’t got long to record your interview and there’s a noisy background – the MP3 processing may help you lift the speech clear of some of the background noise, but then again perhaps you should look to record it properly!!!

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Simple Lighting for Stills and Video

So what’s the big deal about lighting?   Surely if you can see what your shooting, you just point and shoot and the camera takes care of the rest?  And if it’s dark then cameras have their own light source, a built in flash for stills and video cameras can have a little ‘head light’ fitted, so what’s the problem?  The mistake here is to assume that your camera is as good as your eyes, frankly they fall far short.

Then, even if you have sufficient light on your subject to render it visible, it can be the difference between an ordinary picture and creating a great image where the lighting is placed and controlled in such a way as to enhance the artistic qualities of the picture.

Consider a portrait shot, whether for stills or moving image, if we have just one light (or flash head) where do we place it to enhance the picture?

To understand the answer to this question we need to consider the effect that a light falling on a subject has - other than making it brighter like the ‘front on’ built-in camera light source. A portrait lit with the flash or light source on the camera shows little or no shadow on the face and the resulting image looks rather ‘flat’.


If the light source is moved from directly in front the subject (i.e. not the built-in light source), the person or object on which the light falls now casts a shadow which we can see, and it is these shadows that helps us create a feeling of depth and mood in our picture.

Move that light 45 degrees left or right of the camera and elevate it and we start to see classic looking shadows from the nose and chin.

If there is no other ambient light then this can look a bit dramatic as the shadowed areas of the face are very dark, but if we add a gentle light to help lighten or fill these shadows then we can still see the modelling that the first light gave but the picture looks more natural and less dramatic.  Remember a camera does not have the dynamic range of your eyes, so where you can see detail in the high contrast shadows, the camera will not.

This second ‘gentler’ light source need not necessarily be another lamp or flash head, it could just be a well placed reflector or piece of white card, reflecting the light onto the face from another light source.

If you really want to bring the portrait alive then the addition of another light coming from behind the subject, poin

ting towards the subject, adds a rim of light that helps separate the subject from the background lending further depth to the picture.

The technique just described is known as three point lighting and has been used in film and TV for many years as a basic form portrait lighting and yet it suits well for stills as well and is very flexible since there is wide variance available in the placing of those three lamps which can vary the mood from light and airy to dark and foreboding.ikealight

The pictures shown here to accompany this article were lit using a combination of up to three Ikea style 20w desk lamps.

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Camera Mic or Separate Sound?? Part 1

Should you use the ‘on-board’ microphone on your camcorder or should you plug in a sound mixer with headphones and an alternative microphone to give you ‘separate’ sound?

During my years at the BBC, one of my responsibilities was as a Sound Recordist for National Radio Documentaries – the sort of full-blown documentary that used to go out on Radio 4, rather than the news driven programmes that now seem to proliferate today. Then, working with a Producer and probably a presenter, we’d go out on location and record interviews and material to edit and dub a programme together back in the studio on tape or computer. My responsibilities were both technical and artistic – not only was I responsible for the technical quality of the programme, but the artistic feel and atmosphere of the programme. The Producer having talked through their overall view and requirements for the programme would then concentrate on the editorial content and the presenter, leaving technical and artistic issues to me. It was very rewarding to be involved right from the recording through to dubbing and mixing the final programme.

With the commercialisation of the BBC and a director General who only understood News, pressures were put on Producers to save money and not to take a sound recordist with them (a whole other story and debate!!!). But, the upshot was that producers were trying to do all the location recording themselves as well as produce the programme – the result being many programmes had to go through a rescue session in the studio as obviously the producer had been concentrating on the editorial issues, not anything technical. Remember this ‘rescue’ was always making the best of a bad job; you can’t make a good quality recording from a bad one – the original recorded material always dictates the overall quality.

I remember a particular Radio 4 Producer who had landed a very rare interview with Spike Milligan. He arrived and set the recording equipment up on a table in-between them. It was a stereo microphone and unknowingly he had pointed it towards the ceiling! The result a two hour interview, which if you listened to in stereo sitting exactly in the middle, was just about bearable (if a bit too echoy), with him and Spike hard left and right on the loudspeakers. If you turned the recording into Mono by adding the two tracks together (or indeed moved from your ‘middle’ seating position), they disappeared down a 20m hallway into the bathroom! As you have to consider Mono, as most people won’t be in that ideal stereo listening position or they’ll be listening on their small kitchen radio, it made the interview unbroadcastable, which was a pity, as the producer was not going to get a second interview!

So what has this to do with the use of camera mics???

The first point to make is that using a sound recordist, i.e. having someone solely responsible for sound quality (recording ‘separate’ sound), is a good idea.

If you then take the situation above and add video to the equation, as we are visually driven, it pushes the sound quality even further down the priority list, particularly if you’re working on your own!

So your ideal crew is a Producer/Director to take care of editorial and overall creative matters, a cameraman to put those ideas into the visual arena and take care of the video quality and a sound recordist to do the same with the sound side.

A lot of programmes today are shot with a two man crew, with just a director and cameraman and the sound is somewhat left to chance. Even if you then consider perhaps a two man crew with a Cameraman/director and separate sound recordist, you still have a conflict in the director/cameraman role where the editorial content will suffer and while you concentrate on the ‘pretty’ pictures!

I can relate a story that happened to a sound recordist friend of mine. He was booked to go on a 6-day shoot to South America to follow a couple on a trip. Two days before leaving the director phoned up to say the budget could not afford a full crew so she had decided not to take a cameraman and she was going to film it herself. As it’s usually the Sound Recordist that gets dropped, you might think it a result for sound quality???

The actual result was that in 6 days of shooting they came back with 56 hours of material/footage for a 50-minute programme!!!! What happened that the director was so involved in the editorial side she didn’t know when to stop, she’d even shot without the sound recordist plugged into the camera (i.e. mute!) in case she missed something. A Professional Cameraman would have come back with perhaps 12 hours of material at the very most. In his head, as he shot, he would put edited sequences together as he went, so giving the director enough material to cover a scene and an easy editing job for the editor back home. As it was she had 56 hours of resulting unsequenced material to watch and log before even thinking about constructing a scene. The resulting overall costs were probably more (although not as accountable) and the programme of much lesser quality.

Now having said all this, there are times when I’d consider, as a Professional Sound Recordist, allowing a cameraman to use the on-board camera instead of my ‘separate’ sound and these are principles you can apply to the simplest of projects.

I’ll talk about this in part 2.

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Camera Mic or Separate Sound?? Part 2

So when should you use the ‘on-board’ microphone on your camcorder and when should you use a sound recordist with audio sound mixer and ‘separate’ sound?

It all comes down to thinking forward to the final finished item and how you’re going to use not just the sound, but also the footage itself.

The most important sound item you’ll record is speech. Obviously use of the camera mic, unless you can get the camera with a few feet of the person speaking is going to be practically useless. Now the simple way around this is the use of Radio Mics. These have seen a huge increase in use over the last years as Sound Recordists are dropped as unnecessary from the crew and Producers seem to feel this is the only way to record speech. The problem with use of Radio Mics is that it’s not actually the best way to record sound – for a start you’ve lost all perspective in the sound – it doesn’t match the pictures having become internal in nature like a narration rather than the person on the screen talking – have you ever rested your head on someone’s chest, covered the ‘free’ ear and listened? Most of the sound comes from the chest and throat area, not the mouth. Therefore use of a Sound Recordist with boom and quality microphone is the way forward, positioning the microphone, overhead, just out of shot. Not only will the microphone give you the best quality (look at my article on “does Quality Matter”), but also it will give you the same acoustic as shown on screen.

Other elements of sound recording need to be considered individually. The recording of what we call ‘Actuality’ (action happening in front of the camera to be used as part of a piece) will probably be better captured by a recordist, with the ability to point the microphone in the best direction to capture the relevant sound and perhaps reject other sound by using the ‘dead’ rear of the microphone. Or perhaps just keeping the sound recording clear of a noisy cameraman!

Consider a situation where you’re recording a wide landscape shot – it maybe that pointing the microphone in the direction of the camera simply picks up some noise being coming from somewhere unseen – machinery or factory perhaps. With your directional microphone you can take open sound from the completely opposite direction – as there is no specific action in the shot the sound will match.

So when would I as a Sound Recordist, very interested in quality, consider allowing a cameraman to use the on-board camera instead of my ‘separate’ sound? The simple questions to ask are: “Is the sound going to be used?” or “How important is the sound”. It maybe the cameraman is just shooting ‘Cutaways” for an interview you’ve previously recorded and they will be shots dropped in over the interview to cover edits, so the sound is superfluous. Even if he’s recording some action to use as a cutaway, the sound will be very much background in the audio mix. Is the sound going under music? In which case would you hear it?

There are also safety considerations some times. It maybe the camera is going to run around with the camera or he’s working near machinery? In both cases the last think he needs is someone attached by cables to the camera.

Letting a cameraman simply use the camera mic is not a dereliction of duty for a sound recordist, just a good judgement of the circumstances and an understanding of the medium and the whole production process.

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Video vs Stills

Video technology has moved on so quickly, today you can even record video on your mobile phone.  It’s revolutionalised journalism, with reports and news video footage from places that  would have normally been impossible even 5 years ago.  Just think about the protests recently after the Iranian elections and how little would have been reported world wide had it not been for mobile phone video and chat rooms!

So is having a video capability on a stills camera just a marketing  gimmick?  Or could you use a stills camera to shoot your video?  Whilst the use of mobile phone footage on the news has very much seen the case of content being much more important than the actual quality, you couldn’t really justify it’s use over a good video camera on your media project without some artistic reason.  If ten years ago I’d presented the staff at BBC news channel with video content of this quality they would have refused to broadcast it and laughed me out of the room!

In our media world we’re only just beginning to get used to the idea of video cameras with solid state media cards rather than tape - I now warn you, your world is now about to be turned on it’s head!!!   The new kid on the block takes the capability of digital SLR’s to shot video to another level and will start to cause all sorts of dilemma.

The new Canon D5 Mk2 not only has a very large CCD (see “Size does matter!“) giving you true HD pictures at the chip, it also has a 3.5 mm jack audio input allowing you to record your own sound rather than use the internal microphone, plus it records directly onto the flash card in Quicktime format so iMovie and Final Cut have instant access.  Obviously being an SLR you have a huge availability of differing lens and……..  it retails at under £2,000 - cheaper than your semi-pro HD video tape cameras!  Plus your using standard Compact Flash cards the SLR which are far cheaper than the extortionate price companies like Sony are charging for the bespoke cards used in their semi-pro solid state tapeless video cameras.

Quick, go chat up the head of photography!

Have a look the above shot on the new Canon D5 MKII and take look at Damien’s Professional Blog PROPHOTONUT to find out a little more from a photographers point of view.

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