Better Sound and Smoother Video from My Nikon D5100

I bought a Nikon D5100 to explore DSLR video production without breaking my piggy bank. Soon I discovered that taking good video with a DSLR is a lot harder than with my video camcorder, for two reasons:  I needed better sound and smoother video.

Better Sound

1. Most DSLRs, including the D5100, do not have a jack for plugging earphones in to listen to and regulate the volume of sound coming from an external microphone.

Smoother Video

2. Many DSLRs, including the D5100, do not have adequate image stabilization to remove the shakiness of video shot just by holding the camera with two hands. There are all kinds of manufactured contraptions to steady DSLR footage, but even the cheapest cost a couple hundred dollars.

pistol gripI studied the steadying problem first, and discovered that the simplest way to achieve better stability is to lengthen the distance between one’s hands. I learned that I can reduce shake somewhat just by putting my camera on a tripod and picking up the tripod by two of the legs.

I save old photographic junk, and happen to have a pistol grip that was once used to hold a twin lens reflex camera–the kind you would hold at your waist and look down into to focus–and a flash bulb unit. Such a rig was standard equipment for photojournalists in the 20s and 30s.

I also happen to have a simple but excellent digital sound recorder, the Olympus LS-10. It has built-in stereo recording heads, but also a jack for receiving sound from an external mic. And it has an ear jack for listening to incoming sound.

I love my small external video mic, the Sennheiser MKE-400, which rests atop a camera’s cold shoe and plugs in via RCA cable to a mic-in jack. Ordinarily, I would plug that cable into the mic-in jack of my D5100. But there is no way to listen to the incoming sound on the D5100, because there is no ear jack. So I got the idea of using the LS-10 as a pass-through for sound coming from my external mic, in such a way that I can monitor whether I have a good mic connection, and also regulate the level of the incoming sound. Follow the steps below to see how I managed this.

  1. First, I glued a rubber strip onto the base of the pistol grip to protect the bottom of my camera when I fasten it to the base.
  2. Next, I mounted a ball joint swivel unit in the cold shoe of the pistol grip.
  3. Then I screwed the bottom of the LS-10 onto the top of that swivel unit and tightened all the connections.
  4. Next, I plugged the mic cable from the Sennheiser MKE-400 into the mic-in jack of the LS-10.
  5. Next, I ran a short length of RCA cable from the ear jack of the LS-10 to the mic-in port on my D5100. Now I was ready to make the rig work. Here’s how it goes:
  6. I turn on my microphone and the LS-10, and press the prep button on the LS-10, wich allows me to see the level of incoming sound from my mic on two bar graphs (for stereo recordings.) The LS-10 has a wheel on the right side which lets me set the volume of incoming sound. I set that volume not by listening (because I’ve used the ear jack for another purpose), but rather by watching the pulsing of the bar graphs. The LS-10 has a red peaking light which flashes if the sound is too loud. In this case, I dial down the level of incoming sound.

pistol grip rigThis make-shift rig addresses the two challenges described above:

1. It lengthens the distance between my holding hands to help steady my standing and panning shots. By supporting the weight of the rig with my camera strap around my neck I create a third point for a rather stable triangle: neck and two hands spread apart exactly the distance of my rib cage, which helps steady my elbows.

2. This rig enables me to detect whether I have a good connection from mic to camera, and to regulate the volume of that connection. Usually these functions would be handled by a DSLR XLR adaptor. (In which case, add another couple hundred dollars to the list of required sound equipment.)

My pistol grip has a threaded hole in the left side of its base which can receive the bolt from my tripod’s mounting plate, so the whole rig can be fastened securely to a tripod for maximum stability, but quickly removed if necessary.

Of course, the stabilization achieved with this rig is basic and minimal. I can’t take smooth footage while walking or climbing stairs, as one can with expensive stabilizers. But while standing in place this rig does pretty well to reduce hand shake. A smooth pan can be achieved by rotating my whole torso at the waist and holding my elbows tight against my rib cage.

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