When it comes to science communication, don’t underestimate the power of capturing photos, video and audio of yourself and your research in action. Even short clips — high-quality and planned in advance — can have a big impact down the road. The uses are numerous: social media, presentations, grant reporting, perhaps even media coverage or a documentary about your work.
How do we know this? We both work in that intersection of science and media. Aerin is an actual living scientist and science communicator whose work has been featured in a number of films, documentaries and media stories on radio, TV and print. Kelly is the communications manager at an international conservation non-profit, someone who was once a photo and video editor at a large daily newspaper.
Trust us — no journalist or university public information officer wants to record a scientist editing manuscripts in a sterile looking office. They want to see and hear the cool stuff you’re doing and to meet the people involved. But it’s rare that they can accompany you (particularly now).
So how do you make this happen? Well, the good news is you probably already carry the most important tool in your pocket: a smartphone. The rest is just planning and thinking ahead, and this is a great time to do that.
How to do it – Capturing important moments in the field on video
You can record video, audio, and photos as you do your research. Photos are a given, but video and audio can feel a bit more intimidating. It doesn’t need to be. You don’t need much special equipment — and if you can fit a few extra items in your budget, you’ll get better results.
What to pack
Tripod/small stabilizer with a smartphone mount
External lavalier microphone (in a pinch, you can use headphones with a microphone)
Extra battery pack
Extra memory or cables to download footage
Make sure the footage includes you doing things! You’ll probably be a character in whatever story is told and that means the audience needs to see or hear you in action. This might feel unnatural or even self-absorbed at first; if you have a colleague on site then you can take turns recording each other. Also, just try to see it as part sharing the ‘who’, ‘how’, ‘what’, and ‘where’ of scientific research. That’s how we have approached it and it’s normalized the process.
Kirsten Reid samples vegetation in Yukon’s Peel watershed area. Reid is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Aerin Jacob photo.
Capture normal tasks that are part of your day while doing research: counting flowers in a quadrat, loading the DNA sequencer, walking into a meeting hall, opening files in the archives.
Some more tips:
Get multiple short clips of you doing that task or process from a variety of distances and angles. Wide angle, medium, and close-ups of the same thing, e.g., wide shot of the whole group laying out field equipment, medium shot of one person putting an instrument together, close-up of their hand on the dial.
Consider shots that compare and contrast what you’re working on. For example, recording old growth forest versus a logging road or similar situations.
“Talking head” interviews: have someone film you or film yourself talking about where you are, what you’ve been up to or what you’re there to collect/study/observe. Shoot in thirds, if possible, including the head and shoulders of your subject.
Describing the sounds, smells, temperature and other intangibles to someone watching can be very valuable.
Time lapses of people coming/going, setting up a meeting room, making camp, a storm rolling in. You’ll want a tripod and lots of battery power. No tripod? Duct tape and a tree or one of those selfie sticks can help.
B-roll: these are the pieces of footage that are often run as someone talks in a voiceover in a video. These are a nice way to polish a video and often used to complement what someone is talking about. For example, if you are explaining how to collect fish tissue samples: record short clips of the river and of someone fishing, dissecting the fish, and opening/closing the -80C freezer. Or location shots to show where you are and how you got there — record arriving by vehicle or floatplane, setting up camp, sunrise over the campsite, and packing up camp.
Things to consider
You don’t need to record a ton of footage. A few high-quality shots can go a long way.
Make sure you have explicit permission to record other people, especially if they could be recognized. If in doubt, don’t do it.
Wind can really kill any audio so be mindful if you’re recording someone talking outside.
Always shoot video in horizontal or landscape format.
Set your phone to record as high resolution as you can manage. 4k is great option. It will take up space and eat your battery, so bring cables to download footage if you plan to get a lot and a battery pack, if needed. Here’s how to do that on iPhones and on Androids, but be sure to refer to instructions for your particular operating system.
Test your set up at home — don’t wait until you’re in the field and can’t troubleshoot.
When editing or having someone edit video, consider adding captions to improve accessibility and help people scrolling through social media feeds on mute.
Allow a few extra seconds at the beginning and end of each video to make editing smoother.
B-roll shots are best if they are short, usually under 20 seconds, and taken at varying distances and angles from the subject.
How to do it – Capturing quality audio in the field
Another option to be aware of and prepared for is capturing audio in the field for radio and podcasts. A radio producer once told us that “having high-quality audio is a gold mine” for them — but it has to be taken in the moment (i.e., recorded in the place/time that the work actually happened, don’t fake it later).
Want bonus points? Seek and capture “soundups.”
A soundup is a few moments of natural sound from a location, usually to establish the environment or atmosphere. They can also be action audio or descriptions of you doing an action that a radio or podcast listener can’t see, like pulling up a fishing net and being excited, setting up chairs for a meeting, or conversations with your coworker as you look through binoculars (“Wait, where is it? By the big rock… Oh! Yeah, I see it now.”).
If it helps, as with video, take a moment to describe the sounds, smells, temperature and other intangibles happening around you. These are invaluable when it comes to setting the scene and bringing the listener with you.
When Aerin was in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in summer 2019, she recorded lots of atmosphere sounds: the crunch of walking on gravel, wind on a ridgetop, slapping at buzzing mosquitoes, bacon sizzling over a campfire, calling a meeting to order, ordering pizza to the airport, and trying to start a boat motor. These little audio stories of that time and place are very useful for radio or podcast producers.
For Android: There are a variety of voice memo apps available, we like Smart Recorder. Google Keep also has a built-in voice memo system. Recording in WAV will allow you to fix audio issues after the fact, if need be, like if it’s too quiet or there’s a little wind.
Usually the built-in microphone will work in close quarters where you are protected from external noise, but if possible, consider bringing an external microphone. They are relatively inexpensive and plug into most phones. In a pinch, you can use the microphone part of a headset with one to record better audio.
How to use your footage
Whatever you collect, be sure to name and archive clips so they are easy to find when you need them. You never know when that moment might happen!
Last year, Aerin was approached by the producer for a National Film Board of Canada project. Because we had worked together to plan and record high-quality b-roll, their film could use some of the footage she had collected in previous months.
There are a number of video editing apps available if you feel like taking the next step yourself. But don’t feel compelled. There are lots of freelancers who will also edit a video together for you, or discuss with your institution’s communications team.
The key is to have those short raw clips at the ready as they can go a long way to accompany a media story about your work, a Twitter thread, Instagram story or your next presentation or even on your professional website.
Start thinking now about where you might use those kinds of clips – it may reveal places you could be recording them as you do field work or meet with research partners.
This guest post was written by:
Aerin Jacob is conservation scientist at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. She studies how natural and human disturbances affect wildlife and people, and has taken science communication training from COMPASS and other groups.