The Friday Five: Improving Your Video Calls

As video calls have taken a bigger spot in our lives in the past few weeks, here are some cheap and easy ways to up your video call game.

What a weird few weeks it’s been. I hope everyone has been safe and healthy during these interesting times. For those who have been working from home, I’m sure video calls have been a part of your life. They certainly have for me!

Since I’ve been doing this for a bit, and since I also have some things to bring from dabbling in the photographic arts, I thought I’d share some easy things you can do to help improve your video conference setup. Each one of these ideas can be done independently of each other, so as to be flexible for limited budgets, but the total cost of all five of these different interventions shouldn’t exceed $100. With a couple exceptions, you probably have the kit around your home already!

1. Think about lighting. In photography, the best definition I heard of a photo studio is that it’s a place where the photographer can control the light. Now, you certainly don’t need fancy umbrella flashes and speedlites, but the addition of a couple of lamps to your office studio (that you probably already have in your home) will help out. Just make sure that the light source is in front of you, not behind you. If you go this route, you’d want light placed both to your left and right to offset shadows. But even better: If you have a place where you can open some blinds to let in natural light, do that! Camera sensors don’t do so well in low light situations, so this will help out a lot.

2. Bring the camera up to eye level. Although they’re gosh darn convenient, the placement of the webcam on the top bezel of your notebook computer isn’t the best placement because it affords everyone a nice view up your nostrils. If you’re using a notebook computer, consider setting it on top of some books or boxes. Or…

3. Get a separate USB webcam. Supplies online may be limited at the moment, but try to find a USB webcam in the $40-$60 range. If you want extra credit, find one that has a standard camera tripod mount (1/4″-20). Just as in point #2 above, you’ll want to set this webcam on top of some boxes or books so it’s at eye level. Most of the webcams in this price range from the major manufacturers are plug-and-play with both Windows and macOS so you can worry about other things, not drivers and compatibility. If you’re using a desktop computer or have an external monitor plugged in to your notebook, then most of those webcams have some sort of stand to set on top of that monitor. Play around with that until you get the right setup. Also, by having the camera separate from the notebook, you can have the notebook at a much more comfortable angle for your use.

4. A mini tabletop tripod can help, too. If your webcam has that 1/4″-20 standard tripod mount on it, then you’ll enjoy more stability if your webcam was mounted to that instead of sitting on a stack of books or boxes. (This, of course, assumes you’re using a notebook computer instead of a desktop.) Since your webcam is quite light, you certainly don’t need to spend more than $10-$15 on this tripod. If you want extra credit, and who doesn’t, find a smartphone clamp that can attach your phone to a tripod so you can do hands-free video calls from your smartphone! Because it’s all based on that standard 1/4″-20 tripod mount, you can mix and match kit from different manufacturers. (You can also experiment with things like Dutch angles, but that might be for friends and family, not your work colleagues or clients.)

5. Say what? Finally, we should talk about sound. (If you already have a Bluetooth headset for your phone with a good quality microphone, use that here – just follow your manufacturer’s pairing instructions.) If you have a set of headphones or earbuds that don’t have a built-in microphone, that’s OK, since your computer or separate webcam will probably have a good microphone built in. This differentiation is important so as to limit audio feedback and echoes on your end in the call. If you need to purchase a set of headphones, plan to spend $20-$30. You’ll want to make sure they have the appropriate connector for your device, whether it’s the traditional 3.5-mm audio jack or USB-C. The advantage of a headset is that the microphone is now closer to your mouth so it sound cleaner to the others on the call.

Happy video conferencing! And I hope you and yours stay safe, stay healthy, and stay indoors.