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The DigiCam Chronicles: Sound Is Half the Picture

by Derrick Story, author of the Digital Photography Pocket Guide

As digital photographers, we spend lots of time capturing, organizing, and ultimately sharing our images with others. For this installment of the DigiCam Chronicles, it's the sharing I want to focus on -- specifically, enhancing those presentations by adding audio voiceover to them.

You may have heard the old filmmaker's adage, "sound is half the picture." Amen to that! Do a few informal tests with the audio muted and you'll hear what I mean. (More precisely, you won't hear what I mean.)

Of course, it's not like we're totally deaf to this situation. Thanks to iPhoto, most of us are already adding music to our slideshows and that's a tremendous improvement. But sometimes we need to impart more information than the lyrics from a Britney Spears song to get our point across. This is where voiceovers come to play.

Today I'm going to show you three different types of projects where voiceover is a true enhancement to the visuals:

  • Audio postcard -- I don't know if anyone has coined this term yet, but it's how I describe creating an audio message with a picture attached. It's really easy, and what an impression it makes on others when they discover them in their inboxes.
  • Digicam movies -- As if digital cameras weren't already cool enough for capturing still pictures, you can make QuickTime movies with them too. But most cameras don't have the all-important "microphone in" jack for external mics. Fear not, you can easily add great voiceovers and breath life into those mini-masterpieces.
  • Screenshot animations -- Why just show a screenshot when you can actually record your cursor moving about the screen opening and closing dialogue boxes? Even better, also describe what you're doing in your own words. Oh yeah ...

Sound interesting? It does to me. So let's get our equipment together and make some noise.

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Sound Gear for Mac OS X

After much experimentation, I've settled on this set of tools for my voiceover work in Mac OS X. You can use existing tools such as your computer's built-in mic and iMovie for recording sound. But there are some tradeoffs in both quality and efficiency. If you don't want to invest a few extra bucks to upgrade, use what's at hand and have fun -- after all, that's what it's all about, right?

GriffiniMic and Radio
Shack Headphones.
For around $50 you can buy a portable, high quality audio-in system for your Mac OS X computer. Shown here is the Griffin iMic with a Radio Shack multimedia stereo headset.

But I've found that I can work faster, cleaner, and produce better stuff using the items listed below. Pick and choose as you wish.

  • Apple PowerBook G4 -- or any USB Mac running OS X.
  • iMic audio interface by Griffin Technology -- you can fool around for hours with workarounds to connect a microphone to your modern Mac. Or you can spend $35 for the iMic that unlocks all the "audio in" power of your computer. Your call.
  • Radio Shack multimedia stereo headset (combo mic and headphones) -- list price $20; I got it on sale for $10.
  • iPhoto digital shoebox.
  • QuickTime Pro 6.1 -- if you haven't already upgraded, now's the time. It's the best $29 I've ever spent since that first dinner and movie date when I was 17.
  • QuickVoice by nFinity -- I'm a big fan of software that taps the power of QuickTime via a terrific UI. QuickVoice is exactly that. I could record my sound in iMovie and fuss with exporting, etc. But with QuickVoice I record, then open the QuickTime file and add it to my pictures. Easy. Real easy. Sells for $20. You can download a trial version.
  • Snapz Pro X by Ambrosia Software -- The pro version enables you to capture screen animations. It comes bundled with the new PowerBooks or costs $49 if bought separately. You can download a trial version for free.

As I mentioned earlier, you can create workarounds with just about everything in this list except the Pro version of QuickTime. In fact, if you have developed a low-cost audio recording system for Mac OS X, tell us about it in the TalkBacks at the end of the article. I'm sure others would like to read about it.

The Audio Postcard

If you try nothing else from today's article, make one of these. Simply put, you record a friendly message and attach it to a picture, preferably an image of you having fun. When you first read how to do this, it might seem like a lot of work for creating such a simple product. But most of the work is setting up your system the first time. Once your tools are configured, you can make one of these postcards in just a few minutes. To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about, here's an example.

This audio postcard includes a 20-second message with two pictures and is less than 250kb -- an easily downloadable attachment even for dial up recipients.

To create the postcard, first export your photo(s) out of iPhoto using the Export command. I recommend you use a 320 x 240 pixel dimension to keep the file size down. Crop your pictures as necessary to give them the strongest impact at those dimensions.

Then open QuickTime Pro. If you're creating a single image postcard, simply open the JPG in QuickTime -- it will create a one-frame movie from your picture. If you want to add two images like my example, use the "Open Image Sequence" command under the File Menu. (If you need more explanation about how to manage image sequences, see my article Soccer Salsa for step by step instructions.)

Screen shot.
Use the Open Image Sequence Command in QuickTime Pro to create multiple image postcards.

For Audio postcards, I like to leave each image on the screen longer than for normal slideshows, so I choose "10 seconds per frame" from the frame rate dropdown window.

Screen shot.
After you choose Open Image Sequence in QuickTime Pro, you'll need to choose the frame rate for you images. For audio postcards I like 10 seconds per frame.

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