Are You Doing Audio Slideshows Yet?

I’m a fervent believer, a virtual “evangelist” if you will, in combining multimedia along with still photography. I can only speak to travel and documentary photography, but multimedia obviously lends itself to all visual disciplines such as wedding, landscape and other photography styles and directions.

I teach emerging photographers and photojournalists classes that shows them how to make quick work of slide show production, using their own images and audio generated in the field, to produce a cogent photo story under the simulation of publishing deadlines. Most of the class time is spent photographing in the field, while indoors time is devoted to weaving the material into photo stories, and the storytelling; the core of all multimedia productions. I will be teaching such a class at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in the Himalayan foothills of India in July 2009.

An important word of caution is necessary before I get launched in my sermon. Multimedia is not a panacea for ill thought out or badly produced projects. It still needs good stories, great photographs and certainly, audio that is part of the story and part of the photographs. Adding a song downloaded from an online music store to a set of unrelated photographs is not what I’m taking about.

Let me share with my readers what I use in producing audio slideshows in terms of gear and software, to get it out of the way because I feel it’s of secondary importance. What you choose to use is largely a personal choice, and what you feel comfortable in using. Many software products now come with trial periods, so we have no excuse in getting stuck with an inferior product, or with one that is not intuitive.

I use SoundSlides which is one of the easiest slideshow making software available, for audio editing I use GarageBand (an Apple product) or Audacity (a remarkably intuitive audio editing program freely available for download both PC/Mac) and a Marantz PMD620 Professional Handheld Digital Audio Recorder.

As far as audio slideshows and multimedia are concerned, I normally follow a set of guidelines. Notice I used the qualifier “normally” because I don’t believe there are hard rules for creative processes. So here are some of the guidelines I keep in mind when producing a slideshow (listed in no order of priority).

Image Effects. I avoid using image effects such as the much-vaunted Ken Burns style in my audio slideshows. I’ve seen slideshows of impressive still photographs totally marred by excessive panning, rapid close-ups and “pull-backs” that are, if anything, dizzying. I prefer letting the viewers’ eyes do the panning, and have them choose what to focus on. It’s a continuation of my preference of not cropping my photographs outside of the camera.

Many multimedia gurus urge minimal use of such image effects, and they are probably right. Use them only when really you need, and the less is better. As for my audio slideshows, they’ll remain “effect-less” and devoid of artifices.

Fade Ins/Fade Outs. Most of the slideshow software allow for the choice of various transition effects between images. SoundSlides offers crossfade (my default choice), fade in/fade out, and straight cut. This is really a personal choice, but the simpler and the more seamless the transition the better. Again, no one wants viewers to feel seasick or go cross-eyed. When you choose a transition, use it for the entire length of the slideshow.

Opening Frame or Lead Photo. There are various choices to start an audio slideshow. Many photographers start them off with a blank frame accompanying by the voice of the story’s protagonist or a narrator, which is an effective technique. Others start them with the title frame along with the audio of a bell, gong, chant (I often do that), and others start them very simply with a title frame with the audio kicking in later. Whichever way you choose to start your audio slideshow, remember you have just a few seconds to capture the attention of the viewer.

Time/Image. The time for which an image remains viewable is a largely function of the story itself, but the rule of thumb is around 4-5 seconds per image. This allows enough viewing time to visually and intellectually absorb the image. Naturally, the viewing time (or how much the image remains on view) depends on the story. I often started off an audio slideshow with a standard 5 seconds per image, but reduced or extended the viewing time to match the complexity or simplicity of the image. If the image has many components, I will use 5 seconds or even 6, whereas if it’s a simple portrait, I will keep it up for 3 seconds or so. I much prefer lengthening the time/image to emphasize a point in the story line, or to focus the viewers’ attention on something specific rather than using a panning effect. I feel that viewers will see what I’m seeking to show them without me shoving it down their throat.

Narration. I believe good narrative style is a talent that requires years of learning and experience. It’s almost like acting, and requires patience and coaching. Neither of which are readily available to most photographers. While I seldom narrate in my audio slideshow productions, I have done so once or twice and I must admit I didn’t enjoy it. I was told that to give a natural tone to the narration, I had to pretend I was talking to my mother. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that would work for me. Others suggest recording one’s narration while looking at one’s reflection in the mirror, or have a friend or spouse take the role of a silent interlocutor. The point is that narration has to be relaxed, conversational and non-rambling. Nothing spoils an audio slideshow like a flat or bored monotone, and an appropriate level of vocal energy is always a welcome ingredient in slideshows. I always remind my students that silent pauses in a narrative are good because they give time to viewers to ingest what they’re seeing, possibly for the first time. They’re like paragraphs in that they allow the viewers to catch their breath and think.

The Photos. Apart from the Lead Photo, which starts off the story, here are some of the types of photographs that ought to be part of the storyline. The Scenic Photos are those which set the overall stage and describe the scene of the story; preferably taken with a wide-angle lens. The Portraits are key. These humanize the story, and “connect” the viewers to the protagonists by evoking empathy or dislike, concern or disdain. The Itsy-Bitsy Photos are essentially close-ups photographs that not only add “texture” to the story, but also can be used as breaks between scenes. I’m currently working on slideshows featuring indigenous dances of Kerala, and I’m sprinkling the photo line-up with close-up shots of dancing paraphernalia, both to provide information and to allow the main photographs of the dancers to “breathe”. The Sign Off photograph is the “clincher” shot. It is as important as The Lead Photo because it’s this frame that stays in the viewers’ mind the most.

Ambient Sound/Music. I have nothing against slideshows accompanied by music tracks downloaded from iTunes or its equivalents, but I happen to think that producing them in this manner is the lazy way out, and such aural accompaniments are not more than background noise. Ambient sound, ideally recorded at the same time and location as the stills, interviews and good narration, when judiciously and carefully edited, are the backbone of the product. It’s certainly not easy, and I find sound editing to be a long and frequently frustrating exercise but when it clicks, it really clicks.

To illustrate some of the guidelines I’ve outlined, here’s a two-year old audio slideshow titled The Exorcised of Bahadur Shaheed made whilst in Varanasi, India. I had just started getting into multimedia production in earnest and I used narration and ambient sound to “backbone” the stills.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. very interesting, indeed.
    I use popular tracks as you mentioned from iTunes etc.,
    But this way of soundtracking is very … Live!

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