How to Film Wildlife – part 4: Birds singing

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BBC cameraman John Aitchison explains how to film farmland birds singing in open country. 

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How to film birds singing main spread.

BBC cameraman John Aitchison explains how to film farmland birds singing in open country. 

KEY FILMING SKILLS

The problem

Domestic camcorders usually have inbuilt microphones, which means the mic will be too far from your subject to be effective. The solution is to use a separate mic. This is possible as long as your camera has an input socket.

Find a song perch

My friend Chris Watson, the wildlife-sound recordist, showed me this technique. First, you need to spend a while just listening. Early morning is the best time for birdsong, and there’s often another peak in the evening.

You are looking for a perch that one bird sings from repeatedly, and somewhere to set up your camera.

Fix the mic

Birds usually sing from the top of a song perch, such as a fencepost, so fixing a microphone to it means the mic points straight at the bird with nothing but the silent sky above and no nasty sounds in the background.

Set the sound level

If your camera allows, set the audio level manually, because auto level control will increase the hiss during gaps in the song.

Monitor the sound with headphones to help judge if you’ve set this too high or too low, but beware – it’s easy to be misled about what you’re recording if the headphone level isn’t right.

To set this, put the radio on at home at a comfortable volume, set the mic level so it’s not distorting, then adjust the headphone level until the radio sounds the same – whether or not you are wearing the headphones.

Sit quietly

If you’ve done your fieldwork properly and you aren’t too close to the perch, your soloist should return and start his performance right on top of your microphone.

STEP-BY-STEP: HOW TO SET UP A MICROPHONE TO RECORD BIRDSONG

1 Fix the mic

I used a large rubber band to fix the mic to the post (made cheaply by cutting a section from an old car inner-tube). I placed the mic so it would be hidden from my camera position and therefore not visible in the shot.

The cable needs to be well concealed too, especially if it’s windy.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

2 Prevent wind noise

If it is windy, you’ll need a furry cover to prevent the unpleasant sound of a breeze buffeting the mic. The best ones make little difference to the sound quality, but they do look like small mammals, which might frighten some birds.

To avoid this, move the mic down the post.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

3 Wire it up

Connect the mic to the extension cable. Plugs and sockets like this are not waterproof and will crackle or stop working if they get wet, so you might want to seal the connection with some insulating tape or at least make sure the join doesn’t lie on wet ground.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

4 Plug it in

Plug the extension cable into the camera’s input socket. I usually make a half-hitch in the cable around some part of the tripod before doing this so it won’t unplug, even if I move the camera while I’m filming.

The camera’s own mic is disabled when you plug in an external mic.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

5 Press record

A robin is the perfect subject. Robins sing all year because, unusually, they hold territories outside the breeding season. They are so faithful to their favourite posts that you should be able to film the same bird many times, and once they’re used to you, they’ll allow you to get quite close.

 

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT 

Separate microphone Check your camera’s manual (or ask the manufacturer) to see whether you’ll need a mic with an internal battery. There may be a choice of stereo or mono, and wide or directional mics, though the beauty of this technique is that the mic is so close to the bird, almost any will do.

Furry microphone cover Rycote makes the best, and they fit most mics. 

Mic extension cable Maplin sells all sorts of cables and components. 

Alarm clock Dawn is early in the summer!

 

Look out for How to film wildlife on hilltops...coming soon!

 

Find out more about the work of John Aitchison and follow him on Twitter @johnaitchison1