Blending photos, interviews and sounds lets you tell powerful stories. John Escolme explains how.
Journalists have accompanied their stories with pictures since the early days of newspapers, but the digital revolution has brought an entirely new trend - combining still images with sound in audio slideshows. More and more media outlets are demanding well-produced and curated content with an edge. An audio slideshow can provide that.
Here I'll guide you through the dos and don'ts, from collecting material to how you put it together.
Why an audio slideshow?
When should you use an audio slideshow and not written, video, audio, or radio journalism? Good question. An audio slideshow is not a medium for when you could not find your video camera, nor is it a way to just jazz up audio. Rather, it conveys special qualities that video, audio or print alone cannot.
Make an audio slideshow to add depth to a story: when the visual subject matter is beautiful or dramatic and the audio is stunning, with changing atmosphere, depth and distance. Audio slideshows need stories with pauses and time for reflection, letting ambient noise and images linger for emphasis. Video can give you some of these results, but audio slideshows provide a further level of emphasis, detail and intimacy with the subject matter.
An audio slideshow starts to lose impact after four minutes. So limit the interviewees to three or four. And leave room for the ambient noise, sound effects and music that will let the final piece 'breathe' (read more in the 'Recording other sounds' section).
In general, collect only about 40 minutes of material for four interviews, excluding ambient noise and sound effects. This should give plenty to choose from, leaving unused but interesting material for other features or as stand-alone interviews.
Try to find equipment that records in .wav format. Most small recorders will, and makes such as TASCAM and Marantz are generally easy to use. Avoid very cheap recorders - some will only record in .mp3 format. That may sound fine on your smart phone and headset, but when uploaded to a website the results can be poor.
It is important that interviewees' responses are clear and that background noise does not interfere. This is not video - the contributors' mouths won't move, so there will be no compensation for poor sound. Follow the usual rules for recording audio: ensure answers are clear and understandable, even if this requires many attempts, and ask contributors to explain points your audience won't understand (see How do I make a science news story for radio? for more tips).
Not too much narration
The ideal slideshow doesn't have narration. Its essence is that images and audio work with each other, conveying a wonderful sense of space, shifting time and place, and atmosphere. It is not easy, but it is good to aim for.
To work without narration, interviewees will need to be rehearsed to some extent, and asked to include the question as part of their answer. You will have to manage their responses fairly tightly, explaining that as far as possible they should speak in 'soundbites'. Interviewees should speak for themselves, saying who they are, their occupation, and then leading into their contribution.
Initially you may have to fill gaps in understanding with narration. If so, keep it short and natural sounding. If you cram in too much narration there will be little space for the interviews.
Recording other sounds
A good audio slideshow makes extensive use of sound effects. They can explain what is happening. Look around, see and hear the local circumstances. If the sounds are relevant, use them as a deliberate feature. In a forest, for example, you might use the sounds of moving through the trees. While recording, try to make a mental note of what you are likely to include in the final piece - you will learn to recognise which sounds and soundbites best suit the story.
Nearly every sound recorder will record audio in stereo - exploit this as much as you can. Expensive microphones will offer little benefit if you do not make good use of simple atmosphere changes. For example, if your story involves moving from inside to outside, record this transition and exploit the sense of change and movement, for example by recording doors opening and capturing the differences in background (ambient) noise.
When on location there will always be some background sound. This could be the hum of an office or a noisy street scene. Make sure you record plenty of this, even if you do not think you need it. When editing you will need some of this extra ambient noise to aid smooth transitions between sections, or to improve the pace of the final piece.
But there are ways to get around this, if necessary. The BBC's Paul Kerley had no access to ambient or background noise when compiling this slideshow from a studio interview and stock shots. He used sound effects from CDs and music as alternatives, with great effect.
If your organisation has joined the necessary licensing organisations, such as the MCPS or PRS, you should declare any commercial music you use on the forms they provide. There are various sources of 'rights free' music online but do check carefully that they are indeed 'rights free'. They may not be licensed for third party syndication. Music with a creative commons licence is a good place to start.
Having read so much about audio, you could be forgiven for thinking it dictates the finished product. But a successful slideshow depends equally on good pictures. The two really do have to work together (and there are no rules about which you should collect first).
There is surprisingly little to say about the type of camera to use: any modern digital camera or even smart phone can take very good images.
For a slideshow lasting between two and four minutes you should be aiming to collect 25-30 interesting images, even if you end up using significantly fewer.
The images should be straightforward - you may fully understand your subject but those watching your piece may be completely unfamiliar. There is unlikely to be time to shoot highly stylised images with moody lighting and dramatic effects, so keep things simple. Ensure the bulk of the subject matter is at the centre of the frame, hold the camera straight, and only try 'arty' shots as extras if you have time. And it is worth stating the obvious - keep things in focus! It's all about taking good, simply composed shots that tell your story in an obvious way.
You may not take pictures as stunning as these, but look at their simplicity and their impact, and get a sense of how they work with the audio.
If you are taking pictures of people, always ask permission. Keep them in close up or mid-frame - the fundamental objective is to see people clearly. The same goes for objects or anything you want to feature.
For example if your subject is wild animals you'll need some detailed images. A slideshow made up of distant landscape shots with the animals far off would be difficult to follow and would lack impact. Conversely if all your images were in close-up, the slideshow could become tiresome to watch. Ensure there is variety. If you are at a conference don't use lots of images of panellists sitting in a row. Instead, take close ups of participants' gestures, or perhaps shots of journalists taking notes - anything to widen the approach.
Audio slideshows are great for bringing archive material alive, such as documents and collections of old images. Close-ups work really well with written documents if you crop very tightly to key passages.
This audio slideshow shows very good use of images, close up treatments and subtle movement.
Back in the office
There are many audio slideshow software packages, from free ones such as MemoriesOnWeb and Picasa to paid-for ones like Soundslides. The latter is, in my experience, the most flexible.
Don't transcribe your recordings word for word. It is not efficient, and suggests you do not really know what you have just recorded. I recommend listening through your material while you transfer it into editing software and making brief notes of good sounds and possible clips from interviews. Experiment with alternating voices, interspersed with ambient sounds, sound effects, or music.
The best picture size for an audio slideshow is 976x549 pixels, which corresponds to the normal aspect ratio for monitors. Crop your images to this size, but if you cannot then it is best to use the original format (here too, try to be consistent). Crop top and bottom if the original is too narrow, or if it is far too wide find one focus of attention and crop accordingly.
With software like Soundslides, you can transition from one slide to another either by cutting or dissolving between them. You may also fade to black at any time - though normally this is reserved for the beginning and end. And you can zoom in and out, or pan left or right.
You can set the duration of these actions, though experience will show that fast zooms or pans give an unpleasant and amateurish look. You may feel you are injecting energy by zooming in fast, but if you do this over and over, it becomes an annoyance and a distraction. Very small movements are much more effective and also avoid picture 'judder' or shakiness.
In these two examples we see a short depiction of life at the BBC World Service in the production office and at the microphone, to help you visualise some of the aspects of good and bad practice.
The first video shows inconsistent cropping, very fast pans and zooms, erratic pacing (where some important shots are rushed through, and less important 'filler' images such as the files and clocks are held too long), and images that do not change at logical places, for example in time with the music.
This second video is much better. It shows completely consistent cropping (no black lines or gaps), and minimal pans and zooms so you can really see the images. The most significant pictures are held for longer than the incidental 'filler' images, and the images change on the beat of the music. If people were speaking, the images would also change at a logical place in keeping with the words.
Five key questions
These examples are very short and contain only music as a soundtrack, but you can see the basics of an audio slideshow evolving. The rest is down to you, and I recommend experimenting. Ask yourself five questions when working or thinking of working on an audio slideshow:
Is my story suitable for an audio slideshow?
Do my interviews have clear speech and good technical quality?
Are my images good, distinct and sufficiently obvious?
Do my images and audio work well together?
Are the pans, zooms and picture changes relevant to the story?
If you can answer yes to these, then get going. Good luck!
John Escolme is a broadcast journalist at BBC History providing content for History of the BBC. He completed a postgraduate journalism diploma in 1992, and has worked in various BBC and commercial newsrooms. His roles include radio and television production, and continuity-presentation work on television.
Selected audio slideshows on SciDev.Net:
Energy in mid-air