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Monday, September 1, 2008

Breaking The Sound Barrier


Try multimedia to add more life to your images

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Huli warriors, Mt. Hagen Culture Show, Tari, Papua New Guinea.
Among the great leaps and advances with which digital photography has provided us is a whole new way of sharing our work with others. In the past, you could make prints, or if you were a professional, maybe illustrate a magazine article or a book project—pretty slim pickings. But combine the power of the Internet with the advances in digital imaging, and now you have a myriad of other ways to get your images out to the world. Whether using a web gallery or a photo-sharing site, you now can broadcast your vision worldwide with the click of your mouse.

With a medium as dynamic as digital photography and the Internet, it figures that nothing will stay still for long, of course. And one of the strongest new trends for us visual storytellers has nothing to do with visuals at all. We’re talking “multimedia” here—in short, the added dimension of sound.

Our video and film brethren have been collecting, editing and integrating sound with their presentations since the advent of the “talkies” nearly 100 years ago, but for us still shooters, it’s a brave new world. Like any new world, it’s full of wonderful possibilities and fraught with potential hassles.

In this column and a few upcoming columns, I’ll discuss the basics of gathering and using sound in your slideshow presentations. I’m not just talking about grabbing your favorite songs from iTunes and dropping them into a slideshow, hitting “Fit Slides to Music” and being done with it. That’s the first and most elemental type of multimedia slideshow most of us do, and even at this elementary level, it’s immediately apparent how much a good soundtrack can enhance and complement the beauty of your visuals.

But dropping music in a slideshow is only the beginning. Gathering ambient sound for your slideshows—whether it’s the crashing of ocean waves, the roaring of lions, the hubbub of an outdoor market or the musings of a portrait subject—and tastefully integrating them with some music and maybe even your own narration, can carry your visual storytelling to new levels of engagement and interest for your viewers.

As with digital photography itself, it’s the nation’s newspapers that are pioneering the multimedia slideshow on their websites, and that’s where some of the strongest examples of the new storytelling medium can be found. At the end of this column, I’ll list some sources for cutting-edge multimedia.

Gear. To jump into multimedia, you need three items: a device to record sound, a software program to edit that sound and create a soundtrack, and a slideshow program to integrate that soundtrack with your visuals. This is far too much territory to cover in one column, so in this first installment, let’s take a brief look at sound-recording devices. In subsequent columns, I’ll talk about sound-editing and slideshow programs.

The first thing you need is a digital recorder. You can get by with those little voice recorders that are primarily designed for transcription, but the good news is that, recently, all kinds of compact, high-quality digital recorders have appeared on the market in the sub-$500, sub-one-pound category, which are capable of extremely high-quality, better-than-CD sound.

Small, light and easy to use, these machines were developed largely for musicians who wanted a quick way to get high-quality recordings of their gigs and rehearsals, and for the ever-growing cadre of “stealth tapists” who make surreptitious recordings of live concerts.

Fortunately, the stealth taper’s recorder requirements—something that’s small, light and easy to use, with high-quality output—are exactly what most photographers need to break into multimedia as well. Nobody wants to carry large studio-recording equipment, mics and mixers, plus a camera bag, into the field.

Just as digital photography has JPEGs, TIFFs and RAW files as choices for recording your images, sound recording offers a variety of formats at different levels of quality and compression. The most familiar of those formats to the iPod nation would be MP3, but an MP3 is like a highly compressed JPEG in our world—yes, you can record this way, but you’re throwing out huge chunks of information to save on file size.

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