I’ve photographed a lot of performances and performers over the years, ranging from musicians from folk to rock to classical; theater including experimental, off, off-off and even a radio play; and an issue that keeps coming up is camera noise. Camera noise isn’t much of a problem at a rock concert, but for a chamber concert or during a quiet stage performance it can be a serious problem.
This came up when I was about to shoot a theatrical performance at BAM, the Dread Scott Decision, part of their Brooklyn Bred series. Sometimes I’m asked to shoot a dress rehearsal, but this was a performance which included audience participation, and without the participation, well, you get the idea. So they asked me to shoot the actual performance with a sound blimp.
Sound blimps are pretty simple in some ways: a foam-lined box with a clear plastic viewfinder peephole, a focus button, a shutter button, and a foam-lined lens tube with a clear filter over the business end of the lens. They were originally designed for unit photographers on film sets, so stills could be shot at the same time and from the same point of view as the film camera, without the sound of the shutter being recorded.
In some respects life was easier back in the film days. I was shooting with a Leica, mostly, a really quiet camera. I shot the Dehler quartet inside a converted barn at Talcy in the Loire once, and no one blinked at the minimal shutter sound. DSLRs are different, though, louder, and bursts can be truly annoying. So a blimp.
Blimps are big, bigger than you might think, and awkward. Some are very awkward. Whatever efforts the designers at Canon or Nikon may have gone to to make their cameras easy in the hand are obliterated by the rectangular boxes which are sound blimps. And with the classic Jacobson sound blimp, once the camera is in the blimp, the available controls are 1/ focus and 2/ shutter. That’s it. (Aquatech’s new blimps, which I have since tried, and which will be covered in the next post, are quite different.) So you can rely on “P” if you care to, or manual, but forget about changing any settings. “P” does not, in my book, stand for “Professional”, and I’ve got issues with letting the camera think for me, so I went back to my fallback position, which is manual. Set the ISO, white balance, shutter speed and aperture, put the camera in the blimp, go to work, and hope the lighting doesn’t change too much.
This worked out well, especially with a monopod to bear the additional weight of the blimp. It also made it easier to get a grip on; the rectangular box, even with hand straps on either side, is neither elegant nor handy in any sense of the word.
The performance went well, and I even swapped out lenses (each lens needs its own lens tube, in part because the foam inside has to grab the zoom ring, but not the focusing ring, of the particular lens you’re using) at two points.
When I got back, I thought it would be helpful to see how much sound the blimp actually attenuates, so I made a few recordings with the Canon 5D MkIII (the camera I used for the shoot) as well as the original 5D, both naked and in the blimp.
I used a Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic 6 feet from the camera, into a Zoom H4N recorder, in a 12 X 12 foot, hard room, the kind of room where sound will bounce around. I amplified the sound on all takes the same amount, so my voice on the first recording peaks at -3db.
Here are links to the audio for the 5D MkIII:
As you can hear, the bare 5D MkIII peaks at about -5db on single shutter clicks, -4 on bursts. In silent mode, it peaks at about -20 db.
In the Jacobson sound blimp, it peaks at about -30db. Big difference! I’ll look at the new Aquatech sound blimp in the next post.