Sound sells: Seven suggestions for great audio

As a lifelong photographer, I would love to share that the most important part about a Talking Portrait is the portrait part but it’s not. Having great lighting and clean editing, of course, is important but when we show a talking eProduct to a potential customer, the decision to buy is triggered when they hear what the subject has to say. In the high volume photo universe, the photos sold are captured memories that are held inside a print or file. Twenty years from now, the Mom buying this talking portrait is pulled toward the memory of what the little boy looked like, sounded like, and it treated to a small glimpse of his budding personality. Those are powerful reasons to buy, maybe the most powerful of all.

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Because of the audio component of a Talking Portrait is vital to sales and to customer satisfaction, we go to great lengths to record it clearly and coach the subjects into saying something noteworthy. Capturing clean audio is tricky, frustrating and unfamiliar to many photographers learning the hybrid photo skills needed to produce Talking Portraits so here are a few tips for recording sound that sells:

Sennheiser MKE 600

Mic choice. Many photographers want to use a clip-on style lavalier for this type of work but we find them to be too slow to move from one subject to the other, they are quick to pick up distracting clothing noises, and helping kids to place and hide the lav mics on their clothes can be a bit intrusive and awkward. Instead, we skip the lavalier style mic and use the one skinny super-directional pickup patterned microphones commonly called “shotgun” mics. The sound quality is higher than a lav, kids don’t panic if or when they see them, shotguns are quick to set up and if you are careful about the background sounds on your location you may find them to have a cleaner sound separation between the voice and the noisy ambient sounds.  We recommend the Sennheiser MKE 600 ($329) and a good quality XLR cable to connect it to your mixer.

Off camera. Using a shotgun on the camera will work for some action shoots, but a Talking Portrait set will produce better audio when you get the mic off the camera and onto a stand with a “shock mount” to keep it isolated from external vibrations. Then look behind your subject and to pay close attention to the sound that bounces off of your backgrounds and room walls because your mic will hear whatever it’s pointed at. Try to place the mic low on a stand and have it pointed up at the subject to reduce background sound reflections because most ceiling are sound dampened or far away or at a steep angle which makes them less likely to reflect sound back into the mic.

4 feet is fine. Shotgun mics have a small pickup zone and most are very good at rejecting sound outside of that zone. So as long as you can aim the mic at the subject’s mouth, you may find a distance of three to four feet yields superb sound with very little background noise.  If you have a group of people, try moving back to six feet or so and position the mic off to one side of your set to reduce the pickup zone diameter.

Use a mixer. Some shotgun mics offer an onboard battery to help move the sound to your camera or recorder but we find that a low-cost mixer that mounts between your camera and your tripod gives you the best, biggest sound with all the control you need. Mixers supply the voltage your mic will need to operate at a proper signal to noise ratio when it’s connected to a cable, and they will give you better level adjustment and monitoring features as compared to the ones built into your camera.  Need a list of which low-cost mixers work best for Talking Portraits? Try our Gear page here.

Need to use your lav? Try adding a parabolic reflector. If a shotgun and mixer are simply not in the cards, you can take the cavalier mic you already have and mount it into a parabolic reflector and turn it into a directional mic. Sounds weird but they work really well.  My favorite is the Sound Shark that mounts easily on a stand or even on your camera if you are less than 6 feet away.

Drop into the camera. The days of using an external audio recorder are over.  The current lineup of mirrorless and DSLR bodies are more than capable of recording broadcast grade sound and some even offer helpful features like auto-leveling, post-recorded sound headphone jacks, and quick level adjust dials to keep your audio sounding tight.  If your cameras audio input is not up to speed, look into upgrading the body instead of adding an audio interface or an EQ or an auto-leveler… (you really don’t need them for this type of shooting)

Hide the mic.  Try placing the mic under, over, or even inside your mainlight?  Mics sometimes have the same reaction as dentists drills – if you don’t see them you don’t panic about opening your mouth.  : )

I understand sound quality can be a difficult and expensive part of your eProduct equation to set up and get right.  But once you get the right tools configured for your setup, it’s easy to repeat and will provide years of profitable files.