Shooting in Public Places

This is written for lower budget video, but all issues apply to higher budget shoots. I have shot 35-mm film and no-budget videotape in many schoolrooms, stages, churches, public buildings, theaters, offices, hotels, homes, conferences, debates, dinners etc. If at all possible, scout the location before shooting. You'll be glad you did. Talk to everyone involved, discover the problems and find solutions before you shoot. Keep in mind that when you come later to shoot, your contacts may be distracted by the event that you are shooting or their other duties and not be of much help to you. Having asked someone to do something for you does not insure that it will be done. ASSUME NOTHING!

Go directly to Shooting in Public Places Checklist.

Some issues to address:

SET UP TIME: Is there enough time to set up and test everything before the event? Find out who schedules events or classes and make sure that you have enough time booked to set up. It will take longer if there are lighting and sound issues. Nonscheduled events often run late. You may have to be rude and start setting up to let people know that they are running late into your event. Do you have enough knowledgeable help?

LIGHTING: Is there enough existing light for a good image? Often ceiling lights shine straight down. This works for lecturing because it keeps the light out of the lecturer's eyes and lights their papers. This lighting is bad for film or tape. Sometimes there is light spilling from other lights that help "fill" and the straight down lighting is not as harsh. If there is a low ceiling and with a down facing light in front of a presenter, a small tin foil reflector can temporarily bend light toward the presenter. A small fill light from the camera or elsewhere else can also help.

MIXED LIGHTING: You can find fluorescent, incandescent, daylight and even sodium or mercury vapor light in the same room. You might turn some lights off, add more light of one type, close off window lighting or even color balance to a weird combination IF the light will be constant during the whole event. Consider the sun in and out of clouds or going down. Bring a video camera and white paper to check white balance when you scout and shoot. Mercury or sodium vapor lights are bad for color and are often noisy for sound. Turn them off if at all possible. Check if the fluorescent tubes are of the same type / color temperature.

Placing a small light for the presenter in the audience is sometimes possible. The cable should be taped down where people walk and you need a power outlet that is working during the shoot. Outlets may have a switch, be on a dimmer, be lightly fused or are shared with another use. A light at 45 degrees to the line between the presenter and camera will look pretty good without fill. A very tall stand might be needed to keep the light out of the presenter's eyes and sandbags for weight to make a tall stand safe. Except for wide shots the light stand might not be noticed. Consider hanging from the ceiling or a post. Consider a battery light for a short performance where cabling is not possible. Deep set eyes can be a problem. Consider if a light will be reflected in a presenter's glasses. A flash in glasses now and then as a person turns their head is acceptable.

A/V PRESENTATIONS: If there are video or slide presentations, the lights will be dimmed. Most presentations on the screen will be too dark to record except on very high gain or very fast film. The presenter will also likely be in the dark. Consider recording the presentation at some other time on a smaller screen where the image will be much brighter. Video and computer programs have sync problems with video cameras and film. Slower camera speeds on film and some video cameras can help sync. See film and video camera suppliers to sync video and computer monitors. Insure that dimmed lights are returned to full brightness after the presentation. Often people prefer dimmed lights, but that won't help your images.

STAGE SITUATIONS: If a room is a stage or doubles as a stage there are probably lights that can provide good lighting for film or video. Find out how to turn the lights on and adjust them. If the center position is brighter, try turning that center light off for a better balance for a larger group or area. If an offending light cannot be turned off, hang something over it such as black foil. Make sure that what you hang is fire proof. A horizontal bar on a pole can place the black foil over the light source if you can't reach by ladder or if a ladder is even available. Bring your own pole. Some times there are color filters on the lights that will not record well. Are the filters removable? Can they be removed from the floor? Is it allowed? The filters might be needed for some other event. Make sure the lights don't get dimmed during the event. Consider taping switches and dimmers and leaving a note, "Please Do Not Adjust".

BACKGROUNDS: A slide screen behind a person is not a good background. Sometimes the camera can be positioned to avoid seeing it. Insure that a screen is raised after needed. People assigned to do it can be distracted and forget. Often a screen can be left part way up and not be seen by camera and still be OK for presentations on the screen. Many screens will not stop part way up unless you can unplug the motor in the right position. If panic occurs and it gets lowered again, you could end up with a screen back into your shot and no way to correct it during the show. Sometimes a presentation projector is brought by the presenter and set up while you are setting up. Help them raise their image up to the partially raised screen. Bring some wedges to help level their projector. It might not be known at the time of your location scout that there are presentations on a screen. See the screen down and prepare for it just in case.

You might consider bringing in an appropriate mid tone background to put behind the presenter for close-up shots. On a stage situation there might be an existing curtain solution for a better background. Grip clips (spring clips) can hold curtains together where they don't meet. I have been told during a scout that certain backgrounds would be provided only to find something much less desirable the day of the event.

SOUND: If a room has a sound (reinforcement) system it may or may not be operated by someone. It may be locked up with no means to get a sound feed from the system. Getting keys can be difficult. Hooking into a sound system is not easy. I have gotten a clean, constant feed from a mixing board about 25% of the time in Santa Barbara. I try to set up my own mic.rophone system whenever possible and as a back up EVEN with a, hopefully, good feed from the mixing board. Not all operators know much about the sound system and may not be able help or refuse to let you hook up to the house system.

Small rooms usually do not need a sound system. You may be the only one who needs mic.rophones. Because a sound system is not needed for people to be heard, they usually forget about your need for good sound. You need a mic.rophone very close to every one speaking. A wireless or hardwired lavaliere on a person is good, but it doesn't help for people more than a two feet away. People are more concerned about getting their point across to the audience. If a mic.rophone is not needed for people to be heard, they will often forget about the mic.rophone that you asked to be held or passed around. Setting up a working sound reinforcement system is no small chore. You will need knowledgeable help.

There are problems getting a feed from a "house board" (sound mixing console) or one brought in. Most of their feeds are "line" level and often are not constant with the output to the amps when they make adjustments. There can be hum in your feed. The operator might not have the right adapters, so bring your own. You might consider a Pro Co AV Interface Box that will provide a mic. level output from almost any level of input. Hum can be removed in post production with a unit like a Roland SN 550 noise reducer, but many types of broad frequency noise cannot be removed.

Experienced presenters often adjust a mic. for better or worse. Inexperienced and often nervous presenters just start talking and don't consider if they are heard. A mic. on an easy-to-adjust boom can be helpful. The right tension adjustment on the boom is important. A counterweight might be needed for an additional mic. Goosenecks on podiums are often inadequate for tall or short people. A shock mounted mic. holder can isolate podium noise from the mic. itself. The Shure Shock Stopper #A53M works well. Consider what to do if the mic. ends up covering someone's face on camera or is turned away. People you told to help will often forget during activities. You might have to go up and adjust the mic. yourself. This takes diplomacy. The mic. should be below the chin to give good results. Most important is getting any mic.rophone CLOSE. If the mic. is too close, the level will change as people turn side to side. Try some different distances when you test. 6" to 9" is often good. If you have to make adjustments during a presentations, mention that you want people to be heard and not for your own sound recording. If you are involved with sound reinforcement, I highly recommend Sound Reinforcement Handbook by Gary David and Ralph Jones published by Yamaha.

SOME SOUND SOLUTIONS: In a single mic. situation, add your own mic. Buy or make a double mic. holder out of two mic. holders. If there is a boom on the mic. stand, two mics. will probably be too heavy. Bring a 3 to 5 pound counterweight that will attach to the weight end of the boom. You will need your own XLR cables. You might also bring a mic. stand and boom arm with enough weight for two mics. Yours and the house mic. A boom will get the mic. closer to the presenter and leave room for papers on a podium or in a presenter's hands. It will also help prevent the presenter from touching the mic. stand and making noise. I have found "house" mics. that are noisy so I keep a spare. Dark colored mics. are better on camera. Have black tape for the mic. stand or boom arm.

Another solution is having your own mic.rophone splitter ($60-$80) that isolates your feed from the existing house mic. Simple "Wye" splitters will reduce the signal, can create noise or hum and the house sound tech will not be happy. Hook the house mic. into the direct output and yours into the isolated output. Try the ground lift to remove hum. mic.rophone splitters are available from electric instrument stores, Full Compass, Markertek,
B and H Photo. Get a 3-way splitter for a few bucks more. Buy XLR male to male and female to female adapters because some systems have reversed inputs.

Another solution is a radio mic. or wired lavaliere taped to the regular mic. The radio mic. has a danger of radio interference from other radio mics. lighting, etc. A hard wire (your own XLR cable) is safer. Don't use unbalanced cable (one wire with a shield).

You can also put a mic. next to an amplified speaker. This isn't the best solution, but often the safest if all others fail. The Pro Co A/V Interface has a speaker level input if you have the adapters to attach to the speaker leads. To hook in you need the right adapters with large wire; a 1/4-inch "wye", stereo male phono plug to two stereo female phone plugs out. Some systems use "Nuetrik Speakon" plugs. Don't leave the house system disconnected to the amp while on; it can burn up the amp. Speaker level signals can fry you camera's input without the right signal reducing adapters. You can also hook into a headphone jack on the mixing board if you have a 1/4-inch phone "wye" described above.

Some conference rooms have an installed mic.rophone system, sometimes with boundary effect (PZM / mouse) mics. placed on the tables. They can give good sound, if people are close enough.

QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE: The easiest solution is to get the presenter to repeat the question, if they remember to do it. Consider putting up a sign to remind them. In a small room repeating questions is not needed as people can hear the questions. A moderator can remind them (if they remember). Passing a radio mic.rophone / talking stick around when a sound system is needed in larger rooms provides both good sound and regulates who gets to talk. Few institutions provide radio mics. and if you provide one you will have to also provide a "feed" to the sound mixer at the mixing board in a large room, but it takes time to set up and test. Shorter shotgun mics. on a pole can work in larger rooms, but echo can be a big problem. Echo is reduced in a room full of people.

THE TALKING STICK: For discussion groups and questions from the audience, a radio mic.rophone can double as a "talking stick" allowing people to talk in turn. This works well, but sometimes people gesture with the mic.rophone or don't hold it close, as they must to be heard when there is a sound system. People in the audience who can't hear will tell them to "hold the mic. closer" and you won't have to adjust the mic. level as much. It works quite well. You can ask people to hold the mic. close the first few times and the audience will take over from there. I have found conference goers more cooperative than executive types. A wired mic.rophone can be used for small groups.

Sometimes a presenter will remove the mic. from the mic. stand and walk around. If there is a double mic. or lavaliere taped to the regular mic. this would be a problem. Your own radio lavaliere on the person would be best. A mic. splitter attached some distance from the podium would be okay. It would allow the existing house cable to be free.

FEEDBACK REDUCTION: If you end up providing sound reinforcement, you should learn about feedback
reduction. It takes time to set up feedback reduction and it is necessary to make the system howl so that it must be done before participants arrive to the event.

OTHER ISSUES: Is there construction noise? Is there air conditioning or other noise? Getting a mic. close enough can overcome many noise problems. It must be very close, 1-2"! It's better to see a mic. in the shot than have bad sound.

Does the camera have to share a shaky platform with other people? This will show in camera especially at telephoto. Consider bringing your own platform, a ladder or taller tripod legs resting on the floor with something for you to stand on. Extension legs can be clamped on to your tripod with a little ingenuity. A higher camera can be operated with a lower accessory viewfinder.

Audiences are usually darker than the performance. Some video cameras allow slower shutter speeds that allow enough exposure but will blur moving individuals. This is often acceptable if the camera is on tripod and doesn't move.

Consider a separate monitor to make operating long events easier, and to check color balance (if the monitor is adjusted properly.) Looking through a viewfinder gets tiring.

PARKING: Do you have a valid permit to park close to a building entrance? Getting permits take time at larger institutions. Will there be a place to park even if you have a permit? Do you and other helpers have a map to the parking lot?

ARRIVAL TIME: People are often delayed. You should be there early and know whom to call if people don't shows up when expected. Always have a contact person. Make sure that they are reachable by phone or pager. Get numbers and ask whom to call if they are not available. Always have a back-up person!

Your attitude when scouting can effect the cooperation you get. Thanking people and compromising with their own problems will help. Demanding because you have someone else's permission may not set well with the people you have to deal with. You will never know if your contact has the clout or the respect needed.

This sounds daunting about shooting in public places. I have addressed some of the problems that I have encountered. There are more. Please share them. Curve balls are often thrown. You can never have enough cables, adapters, back-up equipment and alternate solutions. Failing to get good sound or picture is often not all your fault, but if you failed to address all the possible problems, you will blame yourself. If the hurtles are too high and too many to jump, don't waste your time and effort to fail and damage your reputation and digestion. See Shooting Music Events and Location Scouting and Video for Stage Productions.

Shooting in Public Locations Checklist
  Contact Name Contact Phone Number
Scheduling / Events    
Sound Tech    
Lighting / Electrician    

Silver and Black Foil  
Pole to Attach Foil  
Tripod / Tape / Film  
White Balance Card  
Radio / Batteries  
mic./ Splitter  
XLR Cable / spares  
XLR Adapters  
mic. Stand with Boom and Counterweight  

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.