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Soundslides and the rise of the audio slideshow - Continued

If, as Joe Weiss hopes, Soundslides helps to usher photojournalists into the world of multimedia, it will be ushering them into a whole new world of reporting challenges. There is, for starters, that audio part of an audio slideshow.

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The Joy of Sacred Harp: An audio slideshow by Pauline Lubens of The San Jose Mercury-News. Click to view.

Juggling the competing demands of gathering audio and pictures, as opposed to just thinking about pictures, is the biggest challenge to doing day-in, day-out multimedia, Brian Peterson says. "You have to be thinking about almost three things at once. You're thinking about the audio, you're thinking about the pictures, and then you're thinking about how they're all going to go together as a cohesive piece."

All the photographers we talked to for this story generally treat gathering audio and taking pictures as two separate tasks whenever possible -- shooting for awhile, for example, then putting down their cameras before doing interviews or gathering ambient sound. Even in fast-changing situations, they rarely try to do both simultaneously.

"You just have to determine what's more important at the time," says Josh Meltzer. "It's a journalism decision." Meltzer adds that the two tasks inform each other. When he's working an assignment, if he gets a piece of great audio, he'll go looking for pictures to go with it, and vice-versa.

Even for the pictures specifically, audio slideshows call for a somewhat different mindset than shooting for the paper. Because you often need only one, or at most a handful, of pictures for a print story, says Peterson, "you dismiss a lot of things. But [for audio slideshows] you're really looking for transitions and details. You can really open your mind back up and start thinking about [shooting] those details."

Pauline Lubens, a staff photographer at The San Jose Mercury News in California, echoes Peterson. "Whether it's the detail shot of somebody's hand, or it's a shot of a shadow or a sign or a flag or a silhouette or something that's sort of generic, I try to move it [the eventual slideshow] along like you'd move video," she says. "Probably what I'm talking about is what [videographers] would call B-roll. I don't like to use video terminology for still pictures, so I call them transition pictures."

Lubens, who has been a newspaper photographer for 23 years, adds, "Despite how long I've been shooting photo stories, [doing audio slideshows] has greatly improved the range of images I shoot in a photo story."

All of the photographers we talked to are continually experimenting with the techniques and mechanics of gathering good audio (and, in some cases, watching and stealing ideas from the U.S. National Public Radio network's journalists whenever they can).

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Do the WAV: The M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 digital recorder. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy M-Audio)

Lubens, like the rest of the Mercury News staff, uses an M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 digital recorder, which captures WAV or MP3 audio to CompactFlash cards. (This recorder was the most popular choice among shooters who we talked to.) She keeps it in a fanny pack around her waist with a T-mic attached where she can quickly flip it on to capture ambient sound.

"I learned not to do hour-long interviews that you have to edit down to five minutes," Lubens says. She has also learned to ask questions in ways that don't lead to the one-word or fragmentary answers that make for unusable audio.

"For some reason, if I say 'tell me' at the beginning of a question, people almost automatically speak in a complete sentence." There is one group she can't cure of their love of crummy audio, however. "Kids are almost impossible. Kids are like, 'Uh-huh.' 'Yeah.' Fun.' [You ask them], 'What do you think about being in The Nutcracker?' 'Fun.'"

Richard Koci Hernandez, until recently a staff photographer at The Mercury News, is now the paper's Deputy Director of Photography for Multimedia. Along with colleague Dai Sugano, he spearheaded the paper's deep dive into multimedia journalism more than a year ago. (In just one recent month, Hernandez says, The Mercury News made 104 Soundslides audio slideshows, and Joe Weiss guesses that they have made more use of his program than any other newspaper.) Audio gathering techniques are a constant topic around the paper's photo department, Hernandez says.

"At first, we gave everybody a recorder and they would just record everything, the entire time they were [at an assignment]," Hernandez says. "That can really slow you down. If you record 30 minutes, you have to listen to 30 minutes, and re-cut it."

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Photo Booth: The many faces of Richard Koci Hernandez. Click to enlarge. (Photo montage by Richard Koci Hernandez/The San Jose Mercury News)

A much better method, he says, is to listen to the reporter's interview with the subject without recording it. "By the end of the interview, you've got a better sense of what they have to say, and you can just [re-interview them with] three key questions. When you come back [to the paper], you just have the three questions on your recorder instead of the entire interview."

On the question of audio technical quality, Hernandez says, "It's that old saying, if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough. You have to apply that exact same rule to audio. You have to get in close for good audio. For a good audio interview you have to have the microphone about a fist away from the mouth."

Rather than hold a microphone in somebody's face, Hernandez likes to use a Sony ECM-C115 lavalier mic and attach it to the subject's lapel. He turns on his recorder, checks his levels, and hands the recorder to the subject or has them slip it into their pocket. He then conducts the interview from a normal conversational distance.

(The Mercury News also uses the Edirol by Roland R-09 recorder, the Sony ECM-MS907 stereo mic, and the Sony ECM-607 shotgun mic.)

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Crystal Clear: The core of Josh Meltzer's audio recording kit, including a Sony MZ-NHF800 minidisc recorder/player and Audio-Technica AT835b shotgun mic. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Josh Meltzer/The Roanoke Times) 

At The Roanoke Times Josh Meltzer uses a Sony MZ-NHF800 minidisc recorder/player with an Audio-Technica AT835b shotgun mic. He keeps them in a waist pack, with the recorder set on pause, so that he can activate it by sliding a single switch. He makes sure that he's actually recording, and also judges the audio quality, by using headphones to monitor his recordings while he makes them. He says the windscreen for the mic is a necessity, and to kill the sound of his hand on the mic, he's covered it with standard mountain bike handlebar grips from a bike shop.

Audio editing tools seem to be the most consistent source of dissatisfaction among photojournalists doing audio slideshows. The list of programs in use includes the open-source Audacity, Apple's GarageBand, Adobe Audition, and DigiDesign's Pro Tools. Designed for much more sophisticated audio and musical projects than a typical Soundslides slideshow, they're needlessly complex, according to the photographers we talked to, but nobody's found a better solution.

Beyond the mechanics of gathering audio, putting together good audio slideshows, especially in the one-man-band workflows that Soundslides makes possible, requires more thought about narrative technique and storytelling flow than photojournalists are used to.

Next Page: Questions of Storytelling
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