Over the last month we have all become regular video conference participants, of course very much par for the course for me but the rest of the family are now taking part in online quizzes, community meetups and have become experts in the use of tools such as Zoom, Houseparty, and even Microsoft teams !
In this short post I’m not going to cover the etiquette of video calling (Mute when not talking and don’t multitask it’s rude) rather offer some pointers to making you look and sound good or at least a little better on screen.
Sounds Good ?
At the very minimum you should be able to improve the way you sound to other people on the call. A common thread here will be to avoid using the inbuilt microphone/camera on your computer and instead something a littlebetter. In terms of the cheap and usually rather hidden microphone on your computer a better replacement would be the simple headphones you might use for your phone (with a 3.5mm jack plug).
Better would be dedicated headset even one with noise cancelling perhaps, the great advantage here is that the microphone ends up a consistent distance from your mouth.
I am a big fan on Plantronics devices, but there are many available at most price points, of course you do end up looking like an Apollo Flight Director at Mission Control but hey that’s not a bad thing.
Having a good microphone does make a big difference to the quality of your interaction of course even if you don’t use video so it is worth making the effort here – if you really want great results then a condenser microphone which produces the warm sound of talk radio is the ultimate upgrade. With a condenser microphone such as the Blue Snowball below make sure you put the microphone into cardioid mode which will pick up sound from directly in front of the microphone only.
Most video conferencing systems can cope with the duplex problem of broadcasting what you are hearing and thus creating a nasty feedback issue, however I think it’s always best if you can and especially if you are alone to use a headset/headphones for listening to the call.
Camera – it’s all about the glass
So goes the photographers mantra, it is all about the glass, e.g. the quality of your camera lens. Once again your very expense laptop probably has a cheap inbuilt camera prone to poor low-light performance, motion blur, and noise artifacts – otherwise known as looking rubbish.
The obvious step is to use an external webcam, such as the popular Logitech 920 but these have become very hard to find recently with the unprecedented growth of home working.
There are of course many other webcams from various OEM’s but there is a very good alternative already in your pocket..
Use your phone for video conferences
Your relatively expense smartphone actually has quite a high quality front facing camera for taking all those selfies and combined with computational photography techniques produces excellent results when used as a video conference camera.
Most of the popular video conference systems have a phone app for both iOS and Android and allow you to connect using the same links you would use on your computer. Indeed in most cases you can login on your phone for video/audio calls and at the same time your laptop to follow along with slides etc..
Key to success here is positioning your phone, you don’t want to be holding your phone for any extended period of time and of course want to avoid the “up the nose” camera angle if you can avoid it. The solution is to use a small desktop tripod such as the Gorillapod or Manfrotto mini tripod with phone clamp.
Note : most consumer video conference tools don’t support true HD so it maynot be worth trying to gone beyond 720p 30fps if you have the choice !
Try to position your camera at eye level, so with my example above I would aim to put the tripod on some books perhaps to raise the camera or course a webcam on top of your monitor is perfect but remember to look into it, for other on the calls you donlt want to appear distracted looking at something more interesting (unless of course you are commenting on the quality of the proceedings so far!)
And finally lights !
If you have ever visited a Film set or TV studio you will know the importance of lighting, so even in your home office or bedroom adjusting lighting can make a huge difference to how you look on screen.
Most importantly try to avoid backlighting, your camera will try to adjust exposure as much as possible but if you are in front of a window you will always appear dark almost in silhouette as the bright light coming in from the window dominates. So if possible move the camera so the light is behind it.
If you are using artificial lights the same rules apply, move a table lamp or use the bright screen of your laptop to try and light your face. Ideally you want to have multiple lights to provide both key and fill lights to prevent shadows forming on your face. I use some LED spotlights from Ikea above my monitor to achieve this and the results are quite good.
Here are some examples of the difference lighting makes..
So now when the BBC or CNN skype you for your comments on something or another, and yes they are getting that desperate, you may look as good or better than the host !