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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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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Size does matter!

The retail trade would have us believe that increases in mega pixel numbers (mB) i.e. the number of pixels on the photographic chip, are directly proportional to getting better images from any new camera, whether video or stills.

This is in fact not completely true!!!

Another major attribute that affects picture quality is the actual physical size of that CCD chip (i.e. the actual size of each individual pixel), image quality is not just about the number of pixels.

My first Digital SLR camera was a Fuji Finepix S1 pro which proudly announced itself as having a 3.4 mega pixel. My mobile phone, a Nokia N95, boasts a 5 mega pixel camera. So I wandered into my garden this morning and took a picture with both.

Click to see full image

Even though the Nokia has 50% more pixels as the Fuji, the Fuji’s pixels are over 6 times bigger, spread over a chip area of 23.3 x 15.6 mm, where as the Nokia’s pixels are crammed onto a tiny chip just 4.8 x 3.6 mm.

Now I know that there are the factors of lens quality on each, but the fact remains that even though the pixel count of the Fuji is less, on picture quality the Fuji wins hands down. Each pixel has 6 times the available light to work with, therefore definition and contrast are better – especially in low light.

This is largely the reason why a digital SLR camera out perform its compact camera cousin, despite the pixel numbers being equivalent or even in some cases larger.

The same can be said of a professional video camera over a domestic or even semi professional camcorder.

So when the nice new camcorder you’re buying for your University/School boosts ‘HD’’ on the size, how much should you believe it?

I was recently tempted by an advert in my local Maplins Electronics store for an ‘HD’ camcorder for a mere £149. At that price I thought I had to try it!! After I got it home and shot a few scenes on it I transferred them to my computer for more critical analysis.

The resulting movies were quite disappointing and although the cheap lens obviously played its part, the tiny chip size simply let the pictures down. When you are trying to cram enough pixels onto a 1/3” chip to achieve HD status, you loose light sensitivity and image quality by making the pixels smaller.

You have to remember the chip in a HD video camera can be trying to create up to 150 frames of picture a second (Red, Green and Blue x 50), a stills camera has to reproduce just one frame. The more sensitive the chip and the faster it can work.

The BBC maintains that to record a ‘full’ HD picture, the bite rate (internal speed of the camera) must be above 50 megabits per second (mbs). Most domestic HD camcorders have bit rates as low as 5 mbs! Speed is another undeniable fact that contributes to better image quality.

So the bottom line is that for increased image quality of both video and still pictures then pixel numbers, though important, are far from the whole story. Overall chip size and the internal speed of the camera also have a huge effect on the actual quality. So when you see a piece of equipment labelled ‘HD’, don’t simply take it at face value, it maybe just good marketing!

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