Equipment: It's Not Just About the Audio

Aug 28, 2018

A few days ago, Lester Graham of Michigan Radio posted to facebook about the equipment he was preparing for an upcoming story he was covering.  We were intrigued and asked him to share his insights with our members.

I follow NPR reporter Don Gonyea on Instagram. Occasionally, he’ll arrange all the equipment he takes on the road on his dining room table and take a photo. I like looking over the recorders, microphones, cables, etc.

To me, everyone’s kit bag is a fingerprint of that reporter’s priorities, preparedness and equipment-failure paranoia.

Lately, for certain trips, I’ve been greatly expanding the equipment in my kit.

After a few years assigned to covering Detroit, I’m returning to the environment beat. Reporting on the environment sometimes means going into the field with biologists as they research wildlife. In the past, I would have taken a pretty decent point-and-shoot camera and captured a few images for the online treatment of the story. Not anymore.

Images Are Part of the Job

Photos used to be an afterthought. Audio was the primary concern. I’ve decided that’s not good enough.

I’ve been encouraging my colleagues to shoot more and shoot better photographs. My station has invested in a couple of DSLR cameras for their use. I’m hoping we buy at least some better quality point-and-shoot cameras for each reporter. Ideally, we’d get people to stop using their outdated phones -- or at least get better phones.

Personally, I want to bring the quality of my photography near the quality of my audio. I’ve been investing in this goal: taking online photography courses, buying equipment. I want to be able to capture a little bit of decent video, some great quality still images, and still get the best audio I can. It is a lot to juggle.

(By the way, after working with a TV producer for a while, when it comes to producing video for online, skip it unless there are really outstanding images. Not many people are going to watch your video unless there’s a real payoff. Instead, work on getting one great still photo -- at least -- to draw online visitors).

I literally have had my mic in one hand and my DSLR in another shooting photos.

This shot was during a scrum in a hallway. My microphone is just out of sight of the frame. I try to keep distractions such as microphones and recorders out of the frame if possible. That means getting close.

One magazine my station partners with uses my photos often. Other publications and websites ask to use my photos fairly frequently.

A Look Inside Lester’s Gear Bag

I’ve got an upcoming story which involves a four hour trip to a state preserve, spanning more than 105,000 acres. I hope to find elk. They’re fairly rare in Michigan -- about 1,000 of them are spread across a few counties.

I’ll be on my own. I’m packing in 25 pounds of electronic gear and cameras for two days in the forests. I have my audio and visual wishlist: I want to record a bull elk during its mating “bugle,” a fascinating sound. I also want to get that perfect photo. If possible, I’ll also shoot some video.

Because the camera is never perfectly quiet, I need to record the audio several yards away from it.

The Audio Gear

I’m using a shotgun microphone (Audio-Technica AT 835b) and a Tascam DR‑100MKII recorder with a 16GB SD card. I mounted the recorder and a pistol grip for the mic on a tripod, using an inexpensive crossbar to hold each of them. I’ll point the mic in the general direction of where I think the elk might be emerging into a clearing and use my headphones to make adjustments as needed.

A back-up recorder, a Sony PCM-M10, will be mounted on the top of my DSLR camera. I’ll use the onboard stereo mics because they’re pretty hot, with high audio gain. From a distance, the stereo recording might really be nice. We’ll see.

Again, the camera and the handling noise will interfere with the recording, but it’s better than missing everything if the Tascam failed for some reason.

That camera with the Sony audio recorder are mounted on a second tripod with a ball head. This allows smooth movement during a video if I need to follow an elk or a herd as they move across the field.

Ready to go and hoping to catch great audio and images.

The Camera Gear

I’m using a Nikon DSLR and a quality, long 200-500mm lens. I’ll be shooting in a RAW format to get as much information in the image as possible. Because the elk are likely to be at quite a distance, I might have to crop the photo quite a bit. I don’t want a pixilated or fuzzy image.

I will be carrying a second Nikon DSLR with high quality 24-70mm lens. It’s a workhorse lens that I carry with me most of the time. It’ll be the back-up camera and I’ll use it for wide shots.

So, that’s two recorders, a shotgun mic, two cameras, two tripods, along with lenses, cables, batteries and a case full of SD memory cards for cameras and recorders.

Yes, I’ll be freaking out about audio, photos, video, checking everything while trying not to scare away the elk. I imagine it will be interesting. My worst nightmare is noisy tourists appearing, screwing up my audio.

But this is the world we live in now. In news media, there is no such thing as radio, TV, or newspaper coverage. We are all multi-media. You might as well embrace it.