A Guide To Shotgun Microphones And Boom Poles For Filmmaking

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An essential part of video production and filmmaking is ensuring you have quality sound.

Regardless of the pictures, a project with poor quality audio will be difficult to watch. Unfortunately, in-camera microphones do not offer clear audio, so instead, we have to find other ways to record good audio.

There are plenty of different ways to collect audio, and all are applicable in different scenarios. From on-camera microphones to lavaliers, to condenser mics and more, the options are seemingly endless.

If you don’t need to read a guide, but instead want some suggestions on which shotgun or on-camera microphone to buy, you should read this article instead.

However, on most film sets you will see a shotgun microphone and a boom pole. Typically, this requires someone monitoring the levels on an audio recorder and a boom pole operator holding the pole as close to the subject as possible without getting in the shot.

In a controlled setting, it is possible to use a c-stand to hold your boom if you are short on crew, though we will talk more about how and when to use boom poles later in this article. Regardless of whether your production is no-budget, low-budget, or well-funded, there will always be times where shotgun mics are helpful.

If you’ve struggled to record audio or are looking at ways to get a clearer sound for your filmmaking projects, this article will help explain how to do so with a shotgun microphone and a boom pole. If you’re looking to buy a boom pole, read our guide Five Best Boom Poles For Your Budget.

After explaining what exactly a shotgun mic is, and how it differs from other microphones, as well as what constitutes a boom pole, I’ll go over some tips and best practices to make sure your audio is as good as possible.

What Is A Shotgun Microphone?

A shotgun microphone is a directional microphone, meaning it picks up audio directly in front of it. Because of these microphones long and cylindrical shape, they isolate audio in front of the microphone, while minimizing other sounds from the size and the rear.

The narrow pickup pattern of shotgun microphones makes these microphones especially well-suited to pick up human vocal frequencies. Due to this limited range of focus, shotgun microphones are commonly seen on all sorts of sets where dialogue is needed.

Within the category of shotgun microphones, there are still plenty of different things to consider. Some variants of shotgun microphones include on-camera shotgun microphones, directional condenser shotgun microphones, and long shotgun microphones.

On-Camera Shotgun Microphones

Perhaps the simplest shotgun microphones are on-camera microphones. These microphones, such as the Rode VideoMic, mount on the shoe mount of a standard DSLR or Mirrorless camera. They have a 3.5mm jack that can plug into most cameras, and often have settings to adjust the dB level.

For example, the Rode VideoMic has a low frequency cut off, designated by a slanted line, as well as -10, 0, and +20 dB level settings. A good on camera directional microphone can offer very usable audio for many situations, however, the distance to your subject is limited by the camera.

As these shotgun microphones are so short, they do not have a super tight pickup pattern. Especially if your subject is far away, you run the risk of picking up extraneous noise.

Additionally, a 3.5mm input is less reliable than an XLR cable and relying on your camera to adjust audio levels is dangerous. Using a shotgun microphone with an audio recorder, such as the Zoom H4N, is much safer and you can more easily take steps to avoid peaking.

Short Shotgun Microphones

The length of the shotgun microphone can play a big part in determining the directionality of the pickup pattern and the situations you may use your microphone in.

Short shotgun mics are extremely common and include those mounted on cameras. These microphones are typically quite durable, and the small size makes them a bit more portable.

Many short shotgun mics that aren’t on-camera microphones tend to have XLR inputs and require phantom power from an audio recorder or mixer. It is possible to buy audio adapters that can mount on your camera as well if desired.

The pick-up pattern of short shotgun microphones is still very directional and more precise than lavalier and handheld microphones. However, they are less directional than longer models and though they can perform well at four feet away, you ideally want them to be closer to two feet.

Medium Shotgun Microphones

Medium shotgun microphones are often used in TV and film for booming and voice pickup. These microphones also tend to require XLR input and external power.

The benefit of a longer microphone is a more directional pickup pattern and rejection of off-axis sound. With minimal background noise, they can be used from six feet away, though are best at around three.

If you are booming and recording voices, a medium shotgun microphone is the safest bet. They are still very directional, however, remain easy to use and offer some leeway in terms of placement.

Long Shotgun Microphones

Long shotgun microphones are best suited for exterior shots and have a very tight pickup pattern. Though you always want to keep your microphone as close to the subject as possible, using a long shotgun microphone from distances of around nine feet is possible as long as there isn’t too much noise outside.

Considering the tight pickup patter, it is necessary for the boom operator to aim the microphone at the subject. If not paid attention to, changes in the microphone angle can be quite noticeable with a drop off in audio.

With longer interfaces, a fixed mic or skilled boom operator is required. These microphones are super helpful for distant sounds and loud environments, but their sensitivity makes changes in placement noticeable.

Long shotgun microphones have more issues with reverberation indoors due to their tight range and high sensitivity. As opposed to an echo, which is sound being directly reflected back, reverb is the remainder of the sound in the room after the source has ceased.

In rooms with high amounts of reverb, the on/off-axis sounds are quite similar and omnipresent, causing sensitive shotgun microphones to pick up on it. Monitoring your audio and being cautious about hard surfaces and echoes is always a necessary step.

How To Use A Shotgun Microphone

When using a shotgun microphone that isn’t mounted on your camera, you will need to take a couple of things into consideration. First is that you will need an audio recorder in addition to the microphone, and most likely an XLR cable.

The Zoom H4N Pro

A recorder such as the Zoom H4N Pro (link to Amazon) is a relatively inexpensive way to use an external microphone and lets you monitor levels with headphones and adjust the sensitivity before recording.

After setting up your microphone and recorder, there still are a couple of things to take into account.

Though shotgun microphones give you a little more leeway than handheld microphones, they do not guarantee clean audio. Understanding the best practices behind these microphones is important to use them to their full extent.

The first thing to understand is that these microphones do not let you pick up conversations from long distances. Depending on the microphone you’re using, you can get up to nine feet away and still have useable audio, however that is pushing it and requires a very controlled environment.

Instead, the best set up for these microphones is around three feet away from the subject and ideally pointed down. Aiming the microphone at the subjects head from above limits the chances you will pick up any background noise.

These microphones are directional, so they pick up what they’re aimed at, including anything behind them. Booming limits the audio collected to your subject and the ground beneath them.

In certain situations, you may find yourself needing to position the microphone below or to the side of your subject. If this is done, monitor your audio before shooting to make sure you aren’t picking up any unwanted sound.

Also, avoid aiming the microphone at hard surfaces. As we covered, these microphones are very sensitive and can pick up reverb we may not hear naturally. Always monitor the audio.

A final note is to avoid moving the microphone quickly. Shotgun microphones are sensitive and all to easily pick up handling noises. These microphones can even get wind interference from sudden movements. Windscreens and shock mounts, discussed in the next section, can help.

Accessories For Your Shotgun Microphone

In order to get the most out of your shotgun microphone, there are some accessories you should strongly consider. In addition to a field recorder and XLR cable, a windscreen, shock mount, and boom pole will help you drastically.

Shotgun microphones are sensitive to wind and can even pick up sound from air-conditioning or vents in indoor locations. To help reduce the problems with wind, you can acquire a wind screen to put over the microphone. These can either take the form of a foam sleeve or a furry sock that goes over the microphone (also known as a dead cat).

There are also more expensive windscreens called “blimps” that are a hard case that goes around the microphone and can have a dead cat screen over it. Blimps do well to protect your microphone and often come with a shock mount built-in.

A shock mount is used to help reduce the handling noise that a shotgun microphone may pick up. These often use rubber fixtures to help minimize the shock of sudden movements and let the microphone float more freely.

Shock mounts can either take the form of a handle for you to hold, or a mount that you slide the microphone into that attaches to a boom pole, or camera if you’re mounting the microphone. Making sure you have a way to mount your microphone is extremely helpful as shotgun microphones are not designed to be handheld.

How To Use A Boom Pole

The most popular method of mounting a shotgun microphone is by using a boom pole. Boom poles are extendable poles with a screw or shock mount at the end to affix the microphone.

If you’re looking to buy a boom pole, read our guide Five Best Boom Poles For Your Budget.

The benefits of a boom pole are many, letting you position the microphone out of frame but still close to the subject, as well as letting you utilize a shock mount. You can also twist the pole during a conversation to capture both the subjects’ dialogue. If you’re doing this, it’s a good idea to give the boom pole operator a copy of the script so they can follow along.

Some booms have an XLR cable build it that runs through the pole, however, that is not necessary. It is just as easy to wrap an XLR cable around the outside of the boom pole.

Holding

When using a boom there are some best practices to keep in mind. These tips will help keep you from tiring out, as well as let you get the cleanest audio.

As we mentioned before, first and foremost you want to keep the microphone as close to the subject as possible, ideally two to three feet away. Make sure to communicate with the camera operator or director to figure out the best way to do so.

It is also preferable to have the microphone positioned directly above your subject. This way you will ensure that you only pick up their voice and nothing behind them. If you’re recording a two-person scene, you can put the microphone between the two and gently twist it between the two to pick up all the dialogue.

When holding the boom pole and microphone, holding the pole with both hands over your head, or behind your head and resting on your shoulders, is the easiest way to do so without getting too tired. Having the boom pole run parallel with your shoulders is far easier than holding it out directly in front of you.

Working With A Crew

Ideally, if you’re recording audio with a shotgun microphone and boom pole, you’re working with a small crew. If possible, it’s best to have a designated boom operator and sound person. Monitoring levels as much as possible helps protect you from getting unusable audio.

When monitoring audio, do so with headphones whenever possible. This will let you hear any extra noise, such as airplanes, that might otherwise go unnoticed. Doing this in addition to setting the sensitivity on an audio recorder ensures you’re getting the best audio.

When setting the sensitivity, try to aim to have dialogue around -6 Db. If the audio gets above 0 Db, it will be clipped and then become unusable.

If you can’t use a crew, you may need to be a bit more generous with your levels. Especially if you are in an unscripted setting, your subject may become more animated or suddenly speak louder, so you need to be ready for dynamic changes.

If you’re shooting by yourself or can’t afford to have a boom operator, mounting your boom pole on a C-Stand above your subjects is a potential workaround. Just be sure that it is secure and the stand is sandbagged.

When To Use A Boom Pole And Shotgun Microphone

There are certain situations when using a boom pole and shotgun microphone is more useful than other methods of recording audio. The technicalities of these microphones make them well suited for dialogue, yet certain factors may inhibit their usefulness.

Environment

If you’re trying to collect room tone or the sounds of an environment, the hyper-directional nature of these microphones can be more harmful than helpful. The fact these microphones limit from the sides means you may fail to capture your surroundings completely.

These microphones also can often pick up audio that the human ear is unaware of, such as wind, cars, and planes. Due to their sensitivity, shotgun microphones are not great for outdoor shooting in high wind situations.

Instead, difficult windy situations may be served better by lavalier microphones. But a shotgun microphone with a windscreen can be a valuable back up source of audio.

This is also the case if you’re trying to have an extreme long shot where it is impossible to have a microphone near your subject, or if your subjects are moving very quickly.

It is essential to keep shotgun mics close to, and pointed at, your subjects. If this can’t be achieved, then lavalier microphones are a great alternative.

Production

If you’re using a small crew or shooting by yourself, shotgun microphones can be useful but only in controlled and static settings. If your subjects are moving, a camera mounted microphone and/or lavalier microphone are better options.

Also, be careful of environmental restrictions. If you are in a setting where there isn’t space for a boom pole, or large audio set up may be intrusive, on-camera microphones and lavaliers are more discreet.

The same goes for an interview with uncomfortable or sensitive subjects. An entire audio crew may be overwhelming or intimidating. As a filmmaker, it is always helpful to understand the impact a crew may have on the environment.

Conclusion

Shotgun microphones are a ubiquitous method of recording audio for a reason. These microphones are extremely useful for picking up dialogue, and their directional nature limits background audio picked up.

With most of my independent productions, I use an on-camera shotgun microphone (the Rode VideoMic) in tandem with a lavalier microphone. On bigger productions, I have used larger condenser shotgun mics such as the Rode NTG2, which gave me very impressive and rich sound.

If you’re shooting with a small crew, one of the first things I would recommend assigning people to help with is audio. Having a boom pole operator and sound engineer monitoring levels can save you from finding out that all the audio you captured is unusable or wasn’t even captured, to begin with.

All said and done, shotgun microphones are diverse and their applications just as much so. No matter the filmmaker or their budget, there is a shotgun microphone that will help you get the job done.

So, let us know in the comments if you shoot with a shotgun mic and which one. Also, if there are any tips or tricks you use that weren’t mentioned above, please share them. Otherwise, hopefully, this article helps you collect the best audio possible on your next filmmaking endeavor!


Cade Taylor is a filmmaker and writer based out of Los Angeles. Originally from Seattle, he continues to work as the Outreach Coordinator for the Bigfoot Script Challenge, where he helps connect up-and-coming writers with industry professionals. When he’s not working on his own projects, helping out with Bigfoot, or covering desks, Cade loves to share what he knows with other filmmakers and promote great content.

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