Field Research

Location Sound Recording for Field Researchers

This course was designed for field researcher including video ethnographers and anthropologists following the International Visual Sociology Association conference in Tinos which I attended a number of years ago. I am a professional engineer who has worked as a sound recordist for 30 years and who also studied ethnography as part of my BA with the Open University in the UK.

Whether it’s an observational documentary film or a video ethnographic field research project, the principles of sound acquisition on location remain the same. And no matter how wonderful the subject and visuals are, if the viewer cannot hear what is being said then there will be frustration.

I had the pleasure of meeting Greg Scott who is the director of the Social Science Research Center and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at DePaul University. He teaches courses on ethnographic documentary film production, photographic/visual sociology, substance use and abuse, underground economies, street gangs, and other topics. And this is what he has to say on the value of quality sound.


‘The reality of the research videographer is that you are filming in places where people live and work, play and fight. You take what you can get. But that is not an excuse for poor preparation and inadequate equipment. The name of the game should really be audiovisual ethnography, because when it comes to both analysis of what you have and the reaction of the viewers, bad sound will hurt you worse that bad picture’¹.





This course pays particular attention to methods of acquiring the best possible sound in any situation in the field. It is suggested that the video camera has a uniquely distorting effect on the researched phenomenon ². Research participants, it is argued, demonstrate a reactive effect to the video process such that data is meaningful only if special precautions are taken to validate it. Strategies suggested include a covert approach to the data collection itself (cf. Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Haass, 1974) ³

If the goal of the researcher is covert recording or to be as unobtrusive as possible then this course will cover the range of equipment and field techniques to achieve this as much as possible. (Please note that in discussions of covert recording video and or audio it is assumed that researchers gain approval and consents and the appropriate code of ethics is adhered to).  Whether it’s onsite naturalistic observation using customer encounters to transform brands and products or  field observations which are focused on human beings in terms of interviews and capturing interactions or to capture a soundscape – the tools and methods of acquiring sound require a range of equipment and techniques and all the appropriate and possible techniques are covered whether the researcher assumes the role of active or passive participant.



Course Content

  • Setting up audio through the audio and camera chain
  • Techniques for placement of personal mics to avoid rustle and using period drama film techniques to hide the microphone for naturalistic aesthetics in film making or for covert observation.
  • What is phantom power and why do you need it.
  • When to use the boom mic and how to hold it comfortably for long periods of time
  • How to reduce or deal with background noise in order to hear the subjects better.
  • How to keep you and your mic out of shot.
  • What are the limiters for and when should you use them.
  • How to set up the levels through the sound and camera chain.
  • What is a high pass filter and when to use it to enhance the sound quality.
  • How to get a feed from a mixing desk.
  • How to tackle noisy environments.
  • Which mics to use : Omni, Bi-directional, shotgun or cardioid?
  • Which recording device to use? Do you need to use an expensive, data hungry device or will an iphone suffice. Will that preclude you from using a professional shotgun mic or are there workarounds?
  • If you want to record discreetly with the subject becoming less aware and self-conscious what are the best techniques and equipment to use. What are the psychological tools you can bring to make your recording as authentic as possible.
  • How can you use ‘spot micing’ techniques used in film dramas and candid camera productions to capture day-to-day activities as unobtrusively as  possible



When I started working as a sound recordist 30 years ago it was a very male dominated profession. I was a 5’1″ woman who not only had to learn the nuances of sound recording but also overcome the physicality of the job.  There are a number of techniques and tricks in the course which will enable field researchers to feel comfortable with the strenuous and physically demanding aspects to field sound work.




¹Video Ethnography in Practice: Planning, Shooting, and Editing for Social Analysis Wesley M. Shrum, Gregory (Greg) S. Scott SAGE  Publications, Incorporated, 2016

² GOTTDIENER, M. (1979) Field Research and Video Tape. Sociological Inquiry, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 59 – 66.

³EIBL-EIBESFELDT, I. and HASS, H. (1974) ‘Film Studies in Human Ethology’, Current Anthropology, vol 8, no. 5, pp. 477 – 479.

Smiley, S. (2015). Field recording or field observation?: Audio meets method in qualitative research. The Qualitative Report, 20(11), 1812-1822.


Stevens, J., Schmied, V., Burns, E. and Dahlen, H. G. (2017), Video ethnography during and after caesarean sections: methodological challenges. J Clin Nurs. doi:10.1111/jocn.13677

Mariampolski, H., 2006. Ethnography for marketers: A guide to consumer immersion. Sage.


HEIDER, K (1976) Ethnographic Film. Austin (editor) Texas: University of Texas Press.


ALBRECHT, G. (1985) ‘Videotape Safaris: Entering the Field with a Camera’, Qualitative Sociology, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 325 – 344.