When you are creating a video, whether of birds or anything else, the visuals are only part of the equation. To record a truly engaging video that transports your viewer into the scene, give equal consideration to the audio. As I’ve learned from spending months in the field at a time, good sound, like good editing, can create atmosphere and tone while seamlessly drawing a viewer into your film without ever being noticed. On the flip side, there is nothing more jarring than bad audio to ruin the viewing experience. Fortunately, capturing good quality audio is possible with just a little bit of planning and thought.
Gear You’ll Want
While modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras are increasingly capable of capturing high-quality video, their built-in microphones leave much to be desired. The first thing to pick up is a small hotshoe-mounted microphone like those from RØDE that plug straight into your camera ($60-$300). Next, if you really want to take your audio recording to the next step, consider picking up a separate audio recorder. Zoom makes a wide variety of high-quality recorders that can be had on a budget (as low as $120). For a bit more money (around $300), there are models that have a modular microphone system that gives you a lot of options from directional shotguns to stereo microphones.
It seems obvious, but when you are in the field, take a moment to close your eyes and simply listen. Take note of the sounds of the environment where you are standing. Birds are often quiet unless they are singing, and the sounds that can help us tell their story are actually the soundscape of the habitat where they live.
Think in Layers
As you are listening, try to pick out a couple of different layers of sound. In a marsh, you might have a little bit of wind through the cattails, a distant flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, the occasional splash of a fish. Just like a series of images can tell a story, think about how you can layer these different sounds to help tell your story.
Create an Ambient Recording
Start with a base layer, a simple ambient recording. Whenever you are working in a location, take the time to create an audio recording of the ambient sound. Let it run for 5 minutes so you have a nice block of audio. This will also allow you to have a consistent background audio if you are planning to cut together multiple video clips.
Focus on Songs
In many of my video clips of birds, the avian subjects are not actually making any noise. In those cases, an ambient recording may be enough, but if you are filming a bird singing or making some obvious noise, you need to capture that audio. For this, a shotgun microphone (like some offered by RØDE) is best: It acts a bit like a telephoto lens, allowing you to isolate sounds and keep your distance from your subject. Whether you are recording directly into your camera or into a separate recorder, be sure to set your levels to the loudest point of the song and be conservative. Just like recovering highlights from an over-exposed image, it’s easier to make something a little bit louder than it is to recover a sound that has peaked.
Drew Fulton has spent most of the last 15 years telling natural history stories through photography and video. He has worked on projects for Audubon, National Geographic, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and others. While he loves to work internationally, he is always drawn back to exploring his home state of Florida.