Packing the perfect multi-media gear kit

September 11, 2018 11:00

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.

That’s why lately, for certain trips, I’ve been expanding the equipment in my kit. I think everyone’s kit bag is a fingerprint of that reporter’s priorities, preparedness and possible equipment-failure paranoia. I follow NPR reporter Don Gonyea on Instagram. Occasionally he arranges all of the equipment he takes on the road on his dining room table and takes a photo. I really like looking over the recorders, microphones, cables, etc.

I’ve been encouraging my colleagues to shoot more and better photographs. My station has invested in a couple of DSLR cameras. I’ve been investing in online photography courses and buying equipment.

Now, I’m returning to the environment beat, which sometimes means going into the field with biologists researching 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. Photos used to be an afterthought. Audio was the primary concern. I’ve decided that’s not good enough.

After working with a TV producer for a while, I’ve learned 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, I work on getting a little bit of decent video, some great quality still images for the web, and the best audio I can.

It is a lot to juggle, literally. I have had my mic in one hand and my DSLR in the other 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.

 
Recently, a story took me, on my own, on a four hour trip to a state preserve of more than 105,000 acres.

I packed 25 pounds of electronic gear and cameras – 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 – for two days in the forests. I hoped to find elk. They’re fairly rare in Michigan, about 1,000 of them spread across a few counties. I wanted to record a bull elk during its fascinating mating “bugle,” to get that perfect photo and, if possible, also shoot some video.

 
The equipment list
  • A shotgun microphone (Audio-Technica AT 835b) and a Tascam DR‑100MKII recorder with a 16GB SD card mounted along with a pistol grip for the mic on a tripod, using an inexpensive crossbar to hold each of them.
  • A back-up recorder, a Sony PCM-M10, with pretty hot (high audio gain) onboard stereo mics, mounted on the top of my DSLR camera.
  • A Nikon DSLR and a quality 200-500mm lens (long lens), shooting in a RAW format.
  • A second tripod, for the DSLR with the Sony audio recorder, with a ball head to allow smooth movement during a video if I need to follow an elk or a herd as they move across the field.
  • A second Nikon DSLR with high quality 24-70mm lens, a workhorse lens that I carry with me most of the time, as the back-up camera and for wide shots.


My worst nightmare was some noisy tourists appearing, screwing up my audio. But, noisy people are always an issue.

It didn’t go as planned.

On the first day, I took my 25 pounds of cameras, recorders, microphones and accessories into the forest where a hunting guide suggested I set up. He was very helpful and a great interview.

I saw no elk and learned that I brought way too much equipment to monitor. The shotgun microphone, while useful in recording distant crane calls and birds, was not helpful in this fluid situation. I had no idea from which direction the elk might appear.

Aside from that, the elk were not yet in mating season. The weather had not been cool enough to prompt that cycle. So, the elk were not “bugling,” the haunting mating call of randy bulls trying to attract cows. That shotgun microphone would have been critical for that. Now, not so much.

Day two, I abandoned the shotgun mic. I took just my small Sony recorder and relied on the stereo onboard mics. I’d experimented with it the day before. The results of ambient sound (chiefly crickets) added an aural depth because of the stereo. That meant one less tripod, one less bag of camera accessories, and a lot lighter load.

Just before dawn I ran into some septuagenarians whose hobby was elk viewing. More good audio. Serendipity is often my friend. They also had a bunch of cameras with long lenses in the Toyota Land Cruiser they were driving. They encouraged me by saying I’d likely see an elk soon. Just three weeks ago they had seen 14 bull elks in one place!

During dawn, I saw no elk. I decided to spend the midday searching the forests. I took only one camera and the Sony recorder with a “rabbit” fur cover to reduce wind noise and popping consonants. Still, no luck.

Dusk, I was back at the rise overlooking the clearings. One recorder. One camera with a long lens and a remote trigger. A second camera with a lens with a lesser focal length as a backup.

No elk.

After sunset, I started packing up gear and saw something out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was probably another deer. I’d seen a lot of them. Looking through the long lens, I realized that at the very last moment I had in the field, I finally had an elk in view. While focusing and shooting, I grabbed the handheld Sony and started whispering into it about the moment. Video didn’t even enter my mind, because it was simply a mammal grazing, not all that thrilling. However, the still shot was important to satisfy the listener/reader’s curiosity.

What did I finally see?
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In production, I decided to leave the handling noise as turned on the recorder to talk into it at the moment of spotting the elk. The handling noise was an interesting device to use as a transition. I’d never used it before because radio people don’t use microphone handling noise, right?


Here are my conclusions. If you are recording and shooting something fairly predictable, such as bears at a waterfall fishing for salmon, all that gear would be useful. You’re aware of where things are going to happen. There’s more certainty. It would be worth packing it in, setting it up, and capturing everything you could.

When you have no idea whether you’re going to see wildlife and you don’t know where it might appear, travel light. In the end, all I needed was a small audio recorder and one camera with a long lens, a remote trigger, and a tripod. Everything else, as it turns out, was superfluous.