How To


Words in a subject’s own voice more powerfully convey a quote than any printed version of the same words. Sound adds the cultural richness of accent and the reality of emotion to accompanying images.

A New Orleans accent is vastly different from that of someone from Maine. Speech can reflect a person’s education or lack thereof. The sound of gunshots changes how a viewer sees a picture of a soldier crouching with a gun.

Natural sound—“nat so,” as it’s called in video—lets viewers share what the subject is experiencing.

Of course, collecting sound while shooting images alters greatly the traditional photojournalistic approach to shooting. The art of the photojournalist has always been to remain a “fly on the wall,” relatively unnoticed by the subject after a period of adjustment.

Capturing sound in addition to images may require conducting a face-to-face interview or placing a wireless microphone on a subject. These are additional intrusions into a subject’s routine that challenge the photographer’s search for natural, candid images.

The following section on sound is applicable to still photographers collecting sound with audio recorders or to shooters using video cameras. The key to success in either medium is collecting clear sound.

The Marriage of Image and Sound

For the photojournalist, multimedia comes in two basic flavors: slide shows that combine still images with sound and pure video with its moving images and accompanying sound.

Multimedia pioneer Brian Storm, founder and executive producer of the multimedia outlet, was MSNBC’s first director of multimedia. “Sound brings pictures to life in a way that captions alone can’t accomplish,” he says. “Audio lets the people in your pictures speak for themselves. Audio also increases your chances of being published, as your story will be ready-made for a variety of media.”

Just as photographs of a clash between police and protesters can convey the intensity of the scene better than a written explanation, sound captured in interviews or with a narrator’s “voice-over” can powerfully provide the context in which images were recorded.

“If you close your eyes while watching a news program like ‘60 Minutes,’ you will find that you can absorb the story with no problem. The images enhance the story, but it is the sound that is vital to understanding,” says Dirck Halstead, a digital video pioneer whose workshops train photojournalists transitioning from still to video storytelling and whose web site,, provides a wealth of information for multimedia journalists. The sound provides the narrative.

Interview or Shoot First?

The question of whether to shoot first or ask questions is a bit like the proverbial chicken-or-egg problem. Both have their advocates.

Interviews Reveal Photo Possibilities

Sometimes you must ask questions first and shoot later. When working on a story about a geology professor who is going to lead a field trip, interviewing the teacher first is likely to lead you to watch for backgrounds that include the kinds of rock formations that coincide with the purpose of the trip. Had you not interviewed the professor before the hike, you might have missed the formations on the tour. Or, for example, if during an interview the head chef of an exclusive restaurant emphasizes that she cooks solely with copper pans, the photographer knows when shooting later to capture her in a setting with lots of copper cookware.

Photos Yield Questions

Photographers often must simply shoot first and ask questions later. If a student wearing a shark costume is walking across a college campus, shoot, shoot, shoot. Capture the candid moments when they occur. Do not interrupt until you have observed how other students react to this “fish out of water.” Only then should you interview the walking fish and, hopefully, some of the passing students who have turned to react.

Ask. Shoot. Then Ask and Shoot Again.

The real answer to “Which comes first, the interview or the photography?” lies in the need to do each more than once.

If you start with the interview and then shoot, you can watch for images that support your subject’s remarks. Following this round of shooting, the best journalists will follow up with a second interview. The second interview provides another opportunity to seek information based on what was observed and photographed. You may even want to show your subject the footage you have shot and have the person comment on the situations you photographed.

This approach provides a tight lock between the pictures and the audio. This one-to-one correlation between captured audio and visuals results in the clearest possible material for a multimedia or video report.

Where to Conduct Sit-down Interviews

For a sit-down interview, the first challenge is where to hold the conversation.

Listen. Start by finding the quietest place possible. Stand for a moment in each room of the subject’s house or office, and just listen.

What noises do you hear? In the kitchen, do you hear the sound of the refrigerator going off and on? In the living room, can you hear the sound of the freeway traffic zooming by or the ticking of a wall clock?

Repetitive noise like a hammer banging or a fan whirring is particularly irritating
to listeners. Even sophisticated editing software cannot eliminate distracting noises like these.

“We turn off the background noise in our minds,” says Jim Seida, MSNBC multimedia producer, “radio playing, pen tapping, air conditioner, but the recorder amplifies background noise” and removes it from its original context.

Make an On-Location Sound Studio

When you survey a situation for an interview location, look for a room with padded couches and thick drapes that will absorb sound.

“Sit on a couch rather than a kitchen chair,” advises Storm of “Cover a table with a blanket. Close the curtains. Turn off the computer. Unplug the fridge… Just remember to plug it all back in before you leave.

“What you’re trying to do is create a sound booth wherever you are for the interview. This process is extremely important to the final product and is similar to shooting an image against a clean background as opposed to a busy one.”

In extremes, Storm recommends interviewing in a car with closed windows. He cautions to avoid places with lots of echoes like gymnasiums or hallways. A small tiled bathroom is the worst place of all.

   Tip: “If you have to interview someone in a space with bad acoustics, you can compensate somewhat by placing the microphone very close to the person’s mouth,” says Storm. “This will effectively amplify the person’s voice and thereby reduce the ambient noise. 

Shut up, Please

If there are other people present during the interview, do not be embarrassed to politely ask anyone in the room to be quiet. Extra-neous voices will dramatically reduce the impact of the interview. Ask everyone nearby to shut off their cell phones and to unplug their land lines. There is nothing more distracting during an intimate interview than the obnoxious sound of a telephone ringing exactly when the subject is about to reveal something personal.

Interviews In the Field 

Show the Source of the Sound

Of course, you cannot carry out all interviews in a sound studio, real or contrived on the spot. When shooting an antiwar march, you must interview subjects on the street.

Keep the microphone close to the subject’s mouth but photograph the marchers in the background so the viewer can see the source of the noise. As long as the words of your subject are clear, the background noise can help to set the stage for the interview.

Placing the Mic for an Interview

Ira Glass is the host and producer for the highly successfully “This American Life,” an hour-long weekly program on Chicago Public Radio that is distributed by Public Radio International. Each program typically centers on a theme that is explored in several “acts,” usually two to five. The program is well known for its ability to tell profound, almost visual stories in interviews. No pictures.
Just sound.

In his book Radio: An Illustrated Guide, Glass says that placement of the microphone is the single most important factor in capturing a quality recording.

Proximity is Important

Glass says to try to locate the microphone four inches from an interviewee’s lips.
This proximity helps bring out the natural bass in the subject’s voice and makes the person sound more “present.” When the mic is close like this, the recording sounds richer and captures less of the natural hum in
most rooms.

    Tip: With the microphone this close, interviews can be marred by the sound of the subject breathing. Avoid recording this sound by positioning the microphone below the subject’s mouth rather than directly aimed at the person’s face.

Lavalier Microphone

Positioning a lavalier mic, which clips onto clothing, about two buttons below a person’s collar is a standard practice. Bring the cord up through the subject’s shirt so that it will not show in photos or video footage. Place the mic so it will not rub against the person’s clothing when he or she moves.

Recorder’s Built-in Microphone

Avoid placing an audio recorder with a built-in mic on a table between you and your interviewee. If you must, put it on a soft surface such as a towel or a sweater to avoid the bounce back of sound waves hitting the hard table and echoing into your microphone.

Shotgun Microphone

You can hold a directional shotgun mic one foot away from an interviewee’s mouth and still get good sound. However, a poorly directed shotgun mic can miss the subject’s voice and instead amplify background noise behind the person. Position a shotgun mic high and aim it down toward the subject to reduce some of this distracting background sound.

Mic Each Person

When interviewing several people at the same time each should have a microphone. They will all sound better, and the nearest person to the microphone will not sound louder or more important than the rest.

    Tip: When you ask a question, point the microphone back at yourself. Otherwise, the question may not be loud enough to hear when editing.

Sound Recording Practices

Testing, Testing

Spend a moment recording some small talk with your subject, or have the subject recite the ABCs or a favorite poem. Then rewind and listen to the selection before starting the interview. This delay will be a little awkward, but it may save you from recording an unusable tape.

Try to avoid using the Automatic Gain Control (AGC) on your recorder or video camera. Automatic Gain Control strives to record all sound at exactly the same level. When something is very loud, the AGC
quiets it down to middle volume; when a sound is very soft, the AGC circuit boosts it up to the middle. Since Automatic Gain Control is always striving toward the middle, it is likely to amplify ambient sound when no one is speaking, or to subdue the sound of an emphatic interviewee.

Pros always set the audio level by hand and monitor it throughout the session. Monitoring can be difficult when trying to shoot and record sound simultaneously, but it’s essential to capturing usable audio.

Tip: Do not let the sound level go too high. Like overexposing a still image, once the sound level hits the “danger zone”—usually above -0 db—the sound fidelity cannot be recaptured in the editing process. When recording an interview, have the subject speak in a natural voice, set the volume level, and leave it.

The Sound of Silence

Now that you are set to record the interview, take a moment to record silence. Of course, there is no complete silence. Your 60-second recording will pick up any ambient sound in the room, even if it’s just the “sound” of a quiet room. Later, while editing, you will find 60 seconds of natural room noise very useful. This “silence” can be used over places where a door banged, someone coughed, or you need to add a pause between a subject’s sentences.


Once you have set up your equipment for the interview, focus on your subject.

“Don’t pay any attention to the microphone that you’re holding two inches from someone’s lips. Look them in the eyes, not the mouth,” cautions Storm. “Listen to what they have to say and show them that their story is important to you. Soon, the subjects will forget about the microphone, and they will relax enough to give you a good interview.”

Sit close to the person with no furniture between the two of you. This close proximity will foster a more intimate conversation.

Nod as someone speaks but avoid saying “un huh” or “ok” or  “mmm.” When you acknowledge a speaker’s comment out loud, your voice will be recorded, too, and you may find it hard to edit out your voice later. Limit yourself to keeping good eye-contact and responding with a head nod.

What to Ask

Most good interviewers have a list of questions written out or memorized before they start recording an interview. You may even want to speak to the person on the phone in advance. A pre-interview like this can help generate your final list of questions.

Ultimately, says Jesse Garnier, web services manager for the Associated Press, the responses to your researched questions will provide the following necessary information for the final, edited piece.

– The essence of the story
– The information the viewer needs to know
– What viewers will learn from the story

Open-ended Questions

When composing your list of questions, start with a neutral question such as “tell me how you got into your profession.” Wait until much later to spring a killer question such as, “Are you still beating your husband?”

Save the harder questions for later in the interview lest the subject get angry and refuses to continue.

Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Ask questions that will elicit a thoughtful response instead of a factual reply.

– Why did you start…?”
– What was happening when you arrived?

Ask questions related to the senses.

– “What did it feel like, sound like, smell like . . . ?”

 Tip: When editing, put answers to questions like “how many, how much, when?” in a voice-over. You do not need a series of fact-laden statements from an interviewee for the final sound track.

Follow-up Questions

Listen to the subject’s answers. Do not be in a rush to get to the next question on your list. You may want to ask a different question based on the person’s response. If your subject says, “I’ve been studying astronomy for 20 years,” follow that response with a question like, “What motivated you to start studying astronomy 20 years ago?”

Be direct with critical information. A subject is probably not going to like all your
questions. “If you are going to say anything critical about a subject,” says Ira Glass, “Say those criticisms to their face, up front, during the interview… It’s just simple fairness. You have to give them a chance to respond to the criticism.”

Stay on topic. “If an answer seems boring, politely move things along,” says Glass. “Challenge. Cajole. React with amazement. Laugh if they’re funny.”

Ask “what it all means.” For “This American Life,” each segment requires the subject to reflect on “what it all means.” This kind of question is an excellent interviewing device for any journalist. The interviewer tries out a hypothesis on the subject.

  • “Do you think that people tend to act this way in this kind of situation?”
  • “Do you think it’s as simple as ‘There are a lot of people who feel defeated’?”
  • “What does this say about small-town America?”

Eventually something sticks. This kind of reflection on the part of the subject provides a perfect summary ending to most pieces.

Interviewing Strategies

Your original question list is a guide. If a subject opens up a surprising area of the past that he or she wants to reveal, follow the lead. Time and tape are cheap. Digital
storage is practically free. If you have time, follow the conversation in unplanned directions. Of course, if you are pressed and on a deadline, steer the conversation back to your main thread.

Ask questions in pairs. If you ask questions in pairs, people will always qualify their answers. Storm of, gives this example. “Suppose you’re interviewing the paperboy. You ask, ‘How long have you been a paperboy?’ He says, ‘Two years.’ ‘Two years’ is what you have on tape. What are you going to do with that statement? The phrase ‘two years’ cannot stand alone, because there is no context to the response unless you include the question.

“Ask instead, ‘How long have you been a paperboy, and what’s your favorite part of the job?’ Now he must qualify the order of his answer, ‘I’ve been a paperboy for two years, and I love throwing the paper at garage doors.’ Now you’ve got something you can use.”

Include the answer in the question. Ideally, you can build a report by stringing together quotes from your subjects. If the subject’s answers are clear and complete they will tell the story for you, and a narrator will not be necessary. To accomplish a report like this, ask your interviewee to repeat your question when he or she starts to answer.

For example, suppose you ask, “Why did you burn down the house?”

If the subject responds, “I did it to get back at my mother,” you’re going to need to a “voice-over” to set up the response. “Jane burned down her house. When asked why, she said, ‘I did it to get back at my mother.’”

Instead, if the subject repeats a question before answering it, all the information will be contained in the remarks:  “Why did I burn down the house? I burned down the house to get back at my mother.”

In this form, the answer requires no “setup” in narration. You will edit out your own question and be left with a complete, easily understood answer from the subject.

Before starting the interview, coach the subject to answer questions by first repeating the question, advises the AP’s Garnier. “My name is Jesse Garnier,” not “Jesse Garnier,” in response to “What is your name?”

Be silent. Pause after each response. Often, people will fill in and add to their answer. A reporter for the Boston Phoenix once interviewed an alleged Mafia boss. When the cigar-chomping fellow finished his response to a question, the reporter sat still and waited. And waited. The nervous subject filled in the pauses by adding more and more revealing facts—answers to questions the reporter never would have dared ask.

“People nearly always answer questions in three parts,” NBC News Correspondent Bob Dotson told attendees at the NPPA Video Workshop in Norman, Oklahoma. “First, they tell you what they think you have asked. Then, they explain in more detail. If you do not jump right in with another question, if you let the silence between you build, they figure you do not yet understand, and they make an extra effort to explain their thoughts more concisely. Often they make their point more passionately and precisely the third time.”

Natural sound is better, naturally

Natural sound is anything other than a formal interview. Stop. Listen to what you hear right now. You are listening to natural sound.

You may hear a computer hum, a radio or television playing, people talking in the other room, the wind blowing, cars passing, a baby crying, your own fingers on the keyboard. Natural sound can help provide texture and a sense of place to a story.

National Public Radio programs such as “This American Life” and “All Things Considered” provide excellent examples of the power of natural sound.

With nary an image, the background sounds of life often play behind the words of the main subject in these stories, or fill the pauses between verbal exchanges in an interview. As a result, these audio-only pieces are often shockingly visual.

Natural sound can be incorporated in a variety of ways in multimedia and video
storytelling, so gather as much ambient audio as possible when you are in the field. If, for just a moment, viewers feel as if they are on the farm, in the slaughterhouse, or on the street where your story takes place, you have succeeded.

What brings them there? The interview with the farmer in a silent room, or the
natural sounds of chickens, cows, or a tractor sprinkled throughout the story?

And, finally, as mentioned earlier, do not forget to record at least 60 seconds or more of pure background sound even during a simple sit-down interview. Record the tone of the room itself. You may need some of that silence to cover pauses between edits later.

Shooting and Recording Simultaneously

Interviewing a Subject in Action

Interviewing people while they work has the advantage of saving time and also gives a more immediate feel to an interview. For example, interviewing the chef while she prepares lamb stew in a bustling kitchen adds an additional touch of reality to the sounds of the interview.

However, interviewing someone with an audio recorder while taking pictures is
possible but comes with challenges and risks. For one thing, juggling a still camera and a recorder is awkward. Beware of that stew.

Leave it to resourceful photojournalists to find a solution. Glue one piece of Velcro to the recorder, which can then be attached to a wristband made of the other piece. Some-times shooters place a recorder near their subject but out of their viewfinder’s frame.

This does not solve an even more critical problem—the sound of a still camera’s shutter can be annoying in an audio track.

For the best results when recording audio and shooting at the same time (for stills or video), attach a wireless mic to your subject. This lessens (but does not eliminate) the impact of sound from a still camera’s shutter and allows you to place the audio recorder somewhere out of the way. The subject can then move about unencumbered by wires, and you can concentrate on shooting.

A wireless microphone operates like a tiny radio station and electronically sends an audio signal to the recorder or video camera. Stay alert to situations that might cause interference with the transmission .

A video camera is preferable to a still camera in situations like these, of course, because it does not produce the sound of a shutter release. In any case, a wireless setup is best way for the video as well as for the still shooter in search of candid photography.

       Tip:  While ambient sound can add immediacy to a story, the general noise of a busy kitchen may drown out the chef’s words. Wear headphones while recording to determine whether the chef’s spicy quote will be clear enough for the final story.

For the video “Shooting Stars at Cannes” on the enclosed DVD, each subject was fitted with a wireless lavalier microphone. This allowed the primary subjects to move freely while being photographed at work.

Recording Natural Dialogue While Shooting

The best ambient sound for a documentary often comes from people interacting with one another rather than talking to the camera. When they forget about the mic—and they will—you can record natural dialogue.

“Inside Sports Illustrated,” also on the enclosed DVD, is filled with natural
dialogue captured by wireless mics and shotgun mics.

This kind of dialogue can be as powerful in multimedia pieces as it is in video by providing a sense of unobserved presence with the subject. As the subject moves about, continue to record, capturing the sometimes mundane but often storytelling moments of the person’s life. With a careful choice of recorded comments—and enough of them—viewers will feel as if they are witnessing an unguarded day unfold.

If you do not have a wireless mic, find a second set of hands. Pete Souza, a still photographer for the Chicago Tribune working on a multimedia piece about presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s trip to Africa, was unable to mic the candidate wirelessly. While Souza concentrated on shooting, the Tribune reporter with him handled the recorder to capture natural sound.

If you are alone in the field and unable to use a wireless mic, is there someone else you might quickly train to help handle the recorder while you shoot?

Storytelling with Audio

You can tell stories using photos and captions as well as with pictures and sound. See Chapter 11, “Photo Story,” to review approaches to developing photo stories that will work in either medium.

Most multimedia reports break down into the following styles of audio.

A pure audio report with just natural sound is rare but possible. Shooting for The New York Times, David Yoder photographed a story called “Playing Italy’s Finest Violins.” The piece showcases a master violinist who plays historic instruments to keep them in shape. The only sound for the entire piece is the music played by the violinist. Produced by Joshua Brustein, the report also included captions and an accompanying written article by reporter Ian Fisher.

The voice-over correspondent is usually the reporter accompanying a photographer. In the Palm Beach Post’s effective multimedia piece “Train Jumpers,” writer Christine Evans’s voice-over backed by natural sound provides the facts and tells heart-rending individual stories that further bring to life Gary Coronado’s powerful images. The project successfully documents the dangerous, desperate journey of Central American immigrants to la tierra prometida—the promised land of the United States of America and the jobs it represents. Coronado rode the rails himself for months to document the treacherous quest for a better life. The reporting/photography package not only captures the unglamorous danger of the journey but also introduces groups trying to help the desperate immigrants mutilated along the way. Check out the team it took to produce this amazing report.

Note that while many large news organizations may assign producers to assemble multimedia reports, photojournalists at many media outlets do their own producing, reporting, audio recording, and interviewing.

The photojournalist as guide to the multimedia report is another means of using sound—the photojournalist writes the voice-over and provides the authority on the topic.

Patrick Brown’s long-term project “Black Market” documents the illegal trade of animals in Asia. Video of Brown sharing his experiences accompanies his powerful still images, and his voice continues over the photos he is discussing. The narration in this story also reveals how he went about the project, including his experience of pretending to have cancer in order to photograph inside an illegal zoo that provides bear gallbladders to clients who believe it can cure cancer. The photographer’s own words tell about drinking a concoction made from a bear’s gallbladder.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching example of a photographer narrating his own piece is called “The Reach of War: A deadly search for missing soldiers.” While New York Times photographer Michael Kamber was accompanying a platoon of soldiers on patrol in Iraq, one soldier was killed and others wounded. Kamber’s photographs and eyewitness account bring the viewer directly into the harrowing experience. Kamber’s voice-over explains the story and also provides incredible tension and depth. Kamber notes not only what happened when the soldier was injured but he also observes what did not happen. “No screaming, never rushed,” he says of the medic, who stays calm through the ordeal. This kind of personal observation, something a still photograph cannot capture, is priceless in a dramatic story like this.

Character-driven audio is that in which the primary voice is that of one subject, who also becomes the narrator. The subject may have been recorded in a formal interview or in a natural setting. The beauty of audio like this is that the sound alone can build a script.

Gina Ferazzi photographed and recorded audio for a story called “Prospecting the San Gabriel River” for the Los Angeles Times. The audio for the piece consists of just one voice, that of a prospector who tells his tale at the site where he spends his days searching for gold. The man speaks at length about his experiences against an audio backdrop of the natural sound of a rushing stream and, at times, the sounds of gold-panning machinery and background voices of other prospectors.

“Kingsley’s Crossing” is a tale documented first in still images, with sound recorded later. The combination is such a powerful storytelling package that it won a 2007 Emmy Award for Documentary/NonFiction for Broadband. Emmy Awards for broadband are recently added categories to the prestigious professional awards.

Like thousands of other immigrants trying to escape grinding poverty, 23-year-old Kingsley of the West African nation of Cameroon desperately wanted to reach Europe and its potential for paying work. Award-winning French photojournalist Olivier Jobard photographed Kingsley’s journey across half of Africa over six months, including a harrowing boat passage that ended when the vessel sank. Kingsley and Jobard survived the shipwreck (others did not), and Jobard continued to accompany Kingsley on his dangerous quest, which eventually does end successfully.

In “Kingsley’s Crossing” features Jobard’s remarkable images, combined with audio from a three-hour interview with Kingsley following his arrival in Europe. Kingsley’s lovely, accented English recounts his desperate, dangerous quest.  The resulting combination of stunning images and moving first-person narrative brings viewers into intimate contact with one driven, desperate human being in his quest for a better life.

Perhaps the most difficult audio track but potentially the most rewarding is one built from natural sound alone gathered while following a subject over a long time during the course of normal activities. Recording and editing these candid comments into a report puts viewers directly into a situation without a voice-over or authority figure explaining what is happening. Viewers make their own observations based on what they see and hear.

For a three-part series for the Los Angeles Times called “The Lifeline,” photographer Rick Loomis and reporter David Zucchino captured the actual words of soldiers wounded in Iraq as they called home to tell their families what had happened to them.

The team also recorded doctors during surgery. The natural sound of doctors, medics, and patients backed by the sounds of a busy medical setting gives the piece an authenticity that would have been missing in a formal voice-over interview.

“I cried,” wrote one Times reader on the outlet’s web site, “when I watched and listened to the words scribbled by a wounded soldier with a tube inserted into his throat that prevented him from speaking being communicated by a nurse via the phone to his family back home.”

Preparing Audio:

Transcribe the Words

One of the most tedious but necessary steps in producing a multimedia piece or a video is to transcribe interviews from audio to paper.

This step in the process is called logging. You do not have to note every word exactly, but this stage of the editing allows you to see on paper what was said and to more easily identify and edit out the unnecessary parts.

Organize the Copy

Identify the crucial quotes. Circle your favorite three or four comments from each interview. Find the critical parts that tell the story. Save the emotional, the humorous, the powerful moments, but toss out boring or repetitive dialogue. Do not worry yet about “umms” and “ahhs.” You can clip those out later when editing the sound track.

Eliminate your own questions. In most cases, your edited piece will omit your questions and contain just your subject’s responses. This strategy speeds up the presentation of the material. In a piece edited in this manner, the subject appears to be speaking directly to the listener/viewer without the interference of a correspondent. The approach puts the emphasis on the speaker not the questioner.

Save the best. Having noted the most interesting parts on paper, return to the computer to copy and paste them into a new document. You will probably have reduced an hour of interviewing into five minutes of interesting quotes.

Let the quotes tell the story. Finally, reorganize the quotes into a logical, storytelling order.

Write the Script

When you sit down to edit the final piece, you will have at your disposal a set of photographs, interviews, and natural sound. You can build the story by ordering the images first and then marrying the sound to the photographs, or you can build the audio track and match the images to it.

If the story has particularly good images, you might start with those first. Typical video documentaries build the audio track first and later support it with complementary images.

Once you have selected and arranged your best storytelling quotes, you will quickly see if a voice-over script is necessary. Great interviews and natural sound accompanied by strong images may well make a narrated script unnecessary. If critical facts are missing from the interesting quotes you have chosen, a voice-over must supply them instead.

Include the five Ws and H. For either scripted narration or natural sound, include who, what, when, where, why, and how early in the piece.

Identify the dramatic arc. The difference between writing a narration for voice-over and a straight news story lies in the need to create a dramatic arc. The opener needs to grab the viewer’s interest. The middle of the piece must explain the problem or show the reason for covering the story, and the end must leave the viewer feeling satisfied.

Write simply. Write in short sentences using simple words. The mind cannot absorb oral information as quickly as the words read on a page, observes Jesse Garnier of the AP.

Keep in mind that long parenthetical and complex sentences are difficult to read out loud. Write the way you talk. Do not use words or phrases that you would not use in normal conversation. Tell the story to your roommate, your friend, or your colleague. Then write the voice-over in the same conversational manner.

Natural Sound Can Provide a Script

Documentaries often are assembled from natural sound segments alone. The same can be done with multimedia. The natural sound, if clear, often contains enough information to dispense with voice-over narration.

Natural sound segments are useful for “establishers.” Many documentaries start with a segment that places viewers in the midst of action so they can experience what is happening. Steal this approach from the documentary maker to create powerful multimedia.

In an extensive documentary about White City in southern Peru, students from the University of North Carolina and the Univer-sidad Catolica de Santa Maria used the ambient sound of nuns praying to introduce “Cloistered for Christ,” a multimedia story about women living apart from society. “White City Stories,” a web site featuring multimedia stories about education, tradition, and industry in this city, was named one of the top web sites of the year by Time magazine.

Editors sometimes do find one drawback to natural sound. The information can spill out in haphazard and highly emotional bursts, sometimes requiring the addition of supporting material in a voice-over narration.


Journalists typically write a script after the photography has been completed and then assemble the images to fit the script.

A voice-over is a narration written and usually read from the script by the reporting journalist—often the photographer these days. The narrator’s voice will play over a sequence of still images or video clips that tell the story. You can record a voice-over using an audio recorder, a video camera, or, with recording software and an external microphone, even your computer.

Reading a script is an art that requires smooth, natural delivery and clearly emphasized main points. This is a very new skill for photojournalists to master. Some people reading a script sound as though they are talking to a person right in the same room. Others sound wooden, forced, and unnatural even if they wrote the script themselves.

Try voicing your script and let others tell you which category you fall into. If it is the latter, you might find someone else to handle this role.

A stand-up features the journalist appearing on camera to narrate at least part of the story.


There are a number of commercial and even free software programs for editing sound. These are easy to learn with tutorials, manuals, or supplementary books. Also, check out the help feature on each application.

With your final script at the ready, set up a three-column spreadsheet or other document to note down your sound bits in one column, the corresponding images next to them, and written captions beside those.

A grid like this provides a tangible, visual guide to setting up the story in the multimedia software you will be using. Referring to your three-column guide, use the sound editing software to slice out and label the important quotes and supporting ambient sound.

Your edit points are almost always at the very beginning of a word or at the end of a word. Sometimes you need to add a little pause between phrases so that an idea being expressed by your subject has time to resonate. Editing software allows you to add pauses like these easily. And if you remembered to capture ambient sound from the place where you conducted the interview, you can cover the pause with ambient sound, making the pause sound even more natural.

Although you can edit each phrase spoken by your subject to slice out those irritating and surprisingly time-consuming ums, ahs, and  “you knows” that sprinkle conversations, it is important to keep the rhythm of speech natural. This is another place where the sound of silence you remembered to record earlier can be used in final editing.


Although storytelling approaches are universal, the difference between shooting still images for a print layout and still images for an audio-driven slide show is not unlike the difference between writing haiku and writing a novel. Both forms use words but the latter uses a lot more of them.

An average magazine story in Esquire or Rolling Stone might use six images. A multimedia, audio-driven slide show—even a three-minute report—needs a minimum of 40 or more different images to engage a viewer to stay with the pre-timed piece.

Just adding more pictures from a routine assignment can be a photographer’s trap.

David Leeson, a photojournalist whose still images have helped win Pulitzer Prizes for The Dallas Morning News, notes that it is challenging enough for a still photographer shooting for a typical print assignment to get 10 or 12 great storytelling images. Leeson, who now shoots video for the newspaper’s web site, opines that the other 28 stills in most multimedia slide shows tend to be weak. “Those are the images that would have wound up in File 13—the trash can,” he says.

Sean Connelley, multimedia producer for the Oakland Tribune, says that slide shows need many more detail shots than a typical picture story in print. The photographer also needs to shoot images that will serve as transitions to introduce and end sequences.

Even though each shot in a slide show may be on the screen for as few as three seconds (or less), you still need quality, well-composed, and candidly shot images, just a lot more of them. Obviously, the longer the sound track runs, the more images you will need. The Sacramento Bee’s Renée C. Byer’s story of “A Mother’s Journey,” which follows a mother and her dying son through the boy’s final months, shows how powerful a combination of words and great images can be. The moving story won a Pulitzer Prize.

When shooting for multimedia, you must keep audio in mind. Creating a powerful multimedia piece demands that the words and images work together directly since they are presented—and absorbed by the viewer—simultaneously. In a report for the Washington Post titled “Cleaning Floors, Brightening Minds,” photographer Lois Raimondo and audio reporter/producer/photo editor Nancy Donaldson tell the story of a school custodian who also serves as the after-school art teacher and all-around role model for the school’s youngsters. The excellent images, interviews with multiple subjects, and natural sound provide an interesting, well-rounded report.


Filmmakers use a number of shots that are sometimes overlooked by a still photographer searching for the decisive moment. Action shots of the subject are important in multimedia, but reaction shots of observers or others also help tell the story.

For a more cinematic effect, some photographers use continuous shooting mode to capture a series of images that are then edited to rapidly appear on the screen almost like a movie. Andrew Craft of The Fayetteville Observer used this technique to good advantage in his piece on “The National Hollerin’ Contest.” Although most of the images are of people at microphones, the photos of individual contestants flashing by rapidly add a film-like dimension to the report.


Once you have finished editing the sound, you will begin to combine the sound with your photos to make a multimedia slide show.

Soundslides is a simple and popular software application that photojournalists use to combine sound and images to create multimedia pieces for the Internet. The program basically digests JPEG photos and sound files and outputs them as a slideshow in Flash files ready to display on the Internet.

You should import the images into Soundslides in the order that you want them to appear. This program will then automatically make a Flash animation.

You might want to use iPhoto, Apple’s Aperture, or Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom to order the images. Apple’s iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Pro Express, and Adobe’s Premiere also are commonly used for combining sound and images. These programs will make a movie file instead of a Flash file.


Viewers accustomed to fresh televised images flashing on a screen every few seconds tend to expect the same when watching a multimedia piece. Of course, you cannot achieve this rate of image bombardment using stills, but you do not want to bore viewers. Leaving images on the screen too long is likely to send them clicking away to another story on the Internet. On the other hand, viewers will not have sufficient time to absorb each image
if they pass through too quickly. Nancy Donaldson, who produces multimedia reports for, generally limits the time the image is on the screen from five to eight seconds. For a five-minute piece, she says, she includes about 40 images.

When viewing Gary Coronado’s “Train Jumpers” online, watch for the effective pacing of images during a series in which a young man races for a rapidly passing train and misses.


While many multimedia reports include images, sound, and text, do not assume that viewers will read captions while looking at pictures and listening to audio.

Despite all the hype about multitasking, scientists have proven that the human mind can do only one thing at a time well. It can move quickly between activities, but it jumps linearly. You might say that the mind “cannot walk and chew gum” at the same time.

Plan your presentation so that viewers can concentrate on watching and listening to the slide show. Do not expect that they can or will read captions on the pictures while also listening to the sound and looking at the images.

Think about how you yourself examine a picture layout in a newspaper, magazine, or book. You cannot read the captions at the same moment you are looking at the picture. In fact, you may look at all the pictures before you return to the captions. Imagine adding narration or dialogue to the mix.


Once you have finished, ask other people to watch the piece in your presence if you have time. Watch them, not the screen. Are they alert? Do their eyes wander? Are they moved in the appropriate places?

After the piece plays, ask a few questions to see if the story they saw is the one you thought you presented. Is your story complete and accurate? If not—you really do not want to hear this, but it is true—you may need to rewrite, reorganize, or otherwise re-edit the report.

Ultimately, you do not want to lose the journalism in the sound and Flash.

Excerpted with permission from Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach , Sixth Edition, by Kenneth Kobre.  Copyright 2008. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted or distributed without prior written permission.


The UC Berkeley journalism web site is a treasure trove of advice for multimedia journalists.

The plummeting costs of digital cameras, digital audio recorders, and editing software as well as increasingly fast Internet access are greatly changing photography, videography, video editing—indeed, all of journalism. As new media technologies are converging toward broadband distribution of news on the Internet, journalistic skills and job descriptions are merging rapidly, too. This morning’s newspaper photojournalist may also be this afternoon’s multimedia producer or tomorrow’s videographer. The picture taker may well be called on to record sound, conduct interviews, even to write, narrate, and edit.

Will the story be told in a single image or perhaps as a picture page on paper, or will it spill forward on the Internet as a multimedia piece containing dozens of still images supported by audio interviews, and perhaps snippets of video? Will video documentaries distributed on the Internet become the primary vehicle for journalistic storytelling in the future?

Because the answers to these questions are still being determined in newsrooms around the world, today’s photojournalists also must master sound equipment and collection of audio in addition to cameras, lenses, and the ability to shoot compelling images.

Here we will introduce technical information as well as approaches to capturing sound, shooting for multimedia and video, and producing the final story.