Interviewing Family, Part Two – Recording Your Interviews

Here in Part two, we’re talking about how to record an interview with a family member.  For information the questions you should ask, please see Interviewing Family, Part One – The Interview. To jump straight to my favorite video gear, go here.

You’ll want to record your family interviews or perhaps just the conversation around the dinner table at Thanksgiving.  This is where the family stories come to life. In today’s world, the easiest way to accomplish this is with a smartphone, but any digital video camera will work. I don’t recommend the old videotape cameras these days. Transferring those files needs to be an entirely different post.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to record these conversations.  95% of what you hear during these conversations, you will not remember when you get back home!  Seriously, you won’t remember… or you’ll miss a little comment or gesture that may be very important.  Every time I’ve recorded an interview, no matter how casual it was, I was so grateful I took a few minutes to record, because when I played it back, my notes were not complete, I misunderstood what was said, or I just didn’t catch it the first time.

Taking a few extra minutes to set up any kind of camera to record, will become a cherished video or audio recording for generations to come. Additionally, you can replay it over and over to get every little tidbit of juicy genealogical information out if it. It’s the little stuff, you’ll find later, to be a huge clue in your research.

Prepare in advance of your family reunion or interview with the family.  Make sure you have plenty of storage memory on your device… Ideally for a couple of hours of video.

Position Your Subject Close in a Comfortable Environment

Whenever possible, position yourself near your interviewee.  I recommend using a microphone attached to whatever recording device you have, be it a cell phone or camera.  Unless you’re within arms length of the subject with the camera, a built-in camera mic will not be sufficient to hear the interview.  Having a camera that close to someone might be a little intrusive.  Therefore, I recommend connecting an external microphone.  They’re really affordable and very useful.

I use two different types of mics depending on the situation.  I use a lavalier microphone (some good ones are under $17, clips to your clothing), or a mini shotgun microphone by Rode (under $60, stays on the camera and usually used outdoors). These microphones are very affordable and worth every penny.

A side note: My full-time job for the last nearly 40 years as been in the television broadcasting business. I can tell you these mics really are decent mics for the price. Just make sure they’re fully seated in the mini port on your phone or camera.  Also, make sure the mic plug is compatible with your device before purchasing. Check the specifications on your phone and the mic to be sure they match.

Using the built-in microphone on cameras are for the birds… literally… it’s only good for recording the birds chirping in the outdoors, it will not pick up the sound of voice very well, unless it’s within arm’s length of the person speaking.  Even when doing selfies, I use a mini shot gun or lav mic for better sound.  See my demonstration on microphones.

For multiple subjects, use a splitter (under $12) and two lavalier microphones to record both the interviewee and the interviewer. Or perhaps a couple like a husband and wife sitting side-by-side.

I can’t emphasize enough how important quality audio is for genealogy.  You can mess up video all day long and people will tolerate less than perfect video, but without good audio… the entire project is toast.

Test your equipment in advance for both audio and video.  While at your location, do a little testing recording with the microphone clipped on your family member and ask them for just a little “testing 1-2-3.”  Then a quick playback of the video to ensure that you have good video and audio.

Today cell phone technology has gotten so good that many interviews can be shot on them, provided they have enough memory.

Don’t Hold Cell Phones Vertically
This is what video looks like when shooting with a phone vertically.

Make sure that if you’re using a cell phone for video, that your recording in a horizontal format and not vertical. You’ll want to record horizontally, so that playback on a TV or computer matches the format of the screen and you won’t have giant black bars on the sides of your screen (as shown above).  Test your cell phone first to make sure it will shoot horizontally.  Almost all phones these days do.

Hold Your Cell Phone Horizontally

Without being too intrusive, position the camera reasonably close to your subject. Please don’t try to make this a full broadcast style made-for-TV movie.  You don’t want to overwhelm your subject with bright lights, as if they were in a Hollywood studio. It is very intimidating and can make your subject nervous, uncomfortable and thus unwilling to share. You’ll want to be as low-key as possible.

Once you have a microphone clipped on your subject, after about 30 seconds they’ll forget it’s there.  Just caution them in the beginning to not pat themselves on the chest, as it will cause the mic to pop.

Do your best to avoid questions that can be answered with yes or no… but instead ask open-ended questions like “tell me about a time when…” Use historical or family events help prompt memory.

If recording at a family reunion, try to find a quiet location where you can conduct the interview. Try not to exhaust your elders, they’ll want time with the rest of the family too.  If you’re at a family reunion, consider setting up your camera on a tripod in a quiet location and rotate various family members for multiple interviews. Consider arranging with key elders to arrive extra early so you can interview them before the rest of the family arrives.

Again, be aware of how much memory you have for recording and your camera’s battery life.  Check you camera specs, your settings or Google your camera for how much video record time you’ll have.

A Pro Tip:  To save as much memory as possible, when anticipating longer interviews, change the video settings on your camera, prior to shooting, to a lower resolution video. Most newer digital video cameras have HD resolution sizes of 480p, 720p, 1080p and 4K (4000).  The smaller the number, the lower the resolution, and potential graininess you’ll see (but don’t worry about this too much unless you’re in low light).

Lower the video settings to save storage space.

To save memory, set your camera to one of the lower settings and make sure you’re frame rate is 30 frames per second or less.  For example, setting your camera on 720p at 30 frames per second, will save you a lot of storage over a longer interview. Setting your camera at 720p as opposed to 1080p will save you more than twice the storage space (see screenshot from iPhone 6 Plus video settings).  At 720p, you’re likely not going to see a difference from 1080p, and for family interviews, this is just fine for most applications.  Check your camera manual for specifics settings for your camera, well before the interview.

If you have, for example, 32 GB (gigabytes) of storage, equals 32,000 MB (megabytes).  Therefore, on my cell phone, shooting at 720p (30 fps), should get 533 minutes or 8 hours of video (32,000 / 60 MB per minute =533 minutes / 60 minutes per hour). Shooting at 1080p (30 fps) gives 246 minutes or about 4 hours of video.

I shoot on both my iPhone 6 Plus and a Canon digital SLR camera when I can.  I do this for two reasons, 1) I like to have two angles of my interview and 2) if one camera fails (runs out of storage or battery) then the other usually has the rest of the interview.

If you have a digital SLR camera, you can change batteries and storage cards as needed.  However, cell phones are so easy to shoot with, it’s hard not to grab them and just start recording. However, when shooting interviews, they can run long…sometimes hours and you can’t change the storage card on most cell phones.

Tablets are another option for recording, such as an iPad or Surface Pro.  All of these devices these days do an amazing job with great video quality.

If you have the charge cable with you, most cell phones can be plugged in while shooting to save battery. In a pinch, you may be able to borrow another family members phone if you’re unable to record on yours.

Pro Tip: Test the audio. Wear earbuds or headphones to check your mics before recording your interview to make sure the audio is clear.  You may need to record a test and play it back to hear the audio, since you may be using the audio port for the mics.

I recommend a tripod or table top tripod.  Your arms will get tired.  When without a tripod, I’ve propped up my cell phone on a stack of books or whatever is handy.  It also makes for a much steadier shot and more pleasing to watch later.

Lastly, you might be able to solicit the help of a younger member of the family to help shoot the video. The benefits are, it frees you up to ask questions and the young person might just become interested in the family genealogy.

I’d like to preface this next section by saying not only am I a genealogist, but a life long video professional working in all aspects of television production and management.  I’m amazed at how affordable and easy video gear is today.  Gear that used to cost us tens of thousands of dollars, is a thing of the past.  Most of today’s gear is very affordable for everyone and works really well.

Connie’s Favorite Gear for Interviewing

Depending on the situation I will typically use the least amount of gear, but might grab any or all of these.


Affordable Tripod

Small tripod with cell phone grip  Make sure it fits your cell phone.

Mini Table Top Tripod by Manfrotto.  Manfrotto has great gear and reasonably priced. Most of my tripods are Manfrotto’s.

Joby Grip for smaller phones and great for the kitchen table conversations.

Joby Grip that Bends, can be wrapped around anything.  Just remember you’ll need a way to mount the camera with this one.  See the cell phone mounts below to add to this bendable tripod.  They have the same quarter-twenty socket that mates with this tripod.

Selfie Stick

Selfie Stick – This is my favorite selfie stick.  It’s sturdy, lightweight, long extension, can get above crowds, and has a rechargeable remote trigger.  The only downside is the trigger will not start and stop video.  It will only trigger still photos. That’s okay with me, I love this selfie stick. If you’re using it with a cell phone, you’ll need to buy the cell phone holder separately.

Cell Phone Holders –  I like the threaded kind of holders as opposed to the elastic holders.  I have a larger phone with a rubber case on my phone and find these threaded holders work a lot better and last longer.  They have a quarter-twenty size threaded socket on the bottom that will mount on any standard size tripod.

Ailun Cell Phone Holder $5.99 (at the time of this writing).  I have both the Ailun and Neewer (below) phone holders. Go for the cheaper one.  They’re almost identical.  Event the art and packaging is the same.  The units are slightly different in shape but both work equally well to me.

Neewer Smart Phone Holder $9.99 (at the time of this writing).

Digital SLR Cameras (a.k.a. DSLR’s) There are hundreds on the market.  These are mine.

Canon 7D DSLR Camera You’ll need to use a tripod with this camera, when shooting family interviews.  Holding this camera for a long time will be tiring.

Or Canon 5D Mark III You’ll need to use a tripod with this camera when shooting interviews. This is a great camera if you’re into photography too!  I love my 5D!!!  Love, love, love!

Shot Gun Mic’s (Directional Microphone, Mounts on Camera)

Rode VideoMic Me Directional Microphone for Smart Phones.  I love this mic.  It is shockingly good for the price.  Also it’s easy, there is no clipping a mic on someone or dealing with cables.  However, for interviews, you’ll get a little better result pinning a lav mic on your subject.

Rode VideoMic Directional Video Condenser Microphone with Mount is a good camera to mount on a Digital SLR camera like the Canon 5D MIV I wrote about.  The mic mounts on the hot shoe of the camera (where the flash mounts). It’s very directional and will pick up sound in the direction it’s pointed and will eliminate most sound coming from the rear.  If your camera is noisy, it might pick up sound either from the camera or you, so shhhh… be very quiet when shooting.

Lav’s or Lavalier Micrphones clip on a persons shirt, ideally withing about  6 – 8 inches of a persons mouth.  Make sure they’re pointed up and not sideways.  The clips rotate. I’ve tested these and are great for the price.

BOYA BY-M1 3.5mm Electret Condenser Microphone with 1/4″ adapter for Smartphones iPhone DSLR Cameras PC  I own a pair of these, they work great for family interviews.

Have you recorded family interviews?  What gear do you use?  Tell us in the comment section below.

Comments are welcome below.

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