The days of video calls being occasional, novel events are long gone, but sadly the days of video calls looking and sounding a bit rubbish are still very much with us.
And that’s okay. We’re not making movies here. The prime aim of most calls is to simply make your voice heard and to communicate what you need to communicate.
But wouldn’t it be a nicer world for everyone if the picture and sound were actually good? Prettier and more pleasant, sure, but also allowing for better communication of non-verbal cues. So let’s walk you through how you can improve the quality of your video calls.
Free tips to improve video calls
Before we get to the specifics, it’s important to understand the fundamental physics. Cameras operate by sensing light, so the more light there is, the easier they find it to capture you. There are things the design of the camera can do to mitigate this – large sensors to minimise noise, wider apertures to let more light in – but usually, it’s on you to provide plenty of light. More on this shortly.
For audio, the trick is usually getting the microphone as close to the sound source – your mouth – as possible. Doing this means that the mic is picking up more of your voice before the sound waves have bounced around the room you’re in, adding echo and reverberation. And because your voice is by far the loudest and most present thing the mic is picking up, background noises such as traffic outside or a humming fridge are reduced in the mix.
There is plenty you can do without spending a penny. Raise the webcam up so that you’re not peering down at it; that might mean, if you’re using a laptop’s built-in webcam, putting the laptop on a stand, which is good ergonomic practice anyway. Don’t sit with your back to a window or other bright light source, as the camera’s exposure will be confused and you’ll appear in silhouette. If you can, switch to rooms with lots of soft furnishings rather than, say, a kitchen. Find a quiet spot and close doors. Make sure the device you’re on has priority for your internet connection’s bandwidth – either through your router’s settings, or just by standing down other devices on your network.
One of the most effective tactics, regardless of anything else that follows, is to wear headphones or earphones. This makes the sound a little clearer for you, but even more importantly it means your computer isn’t having to try to work out how to remove the sound of other participants out of what your mic is sending back to them. This echo-cancellation tech is fine in a pinch, but it can degrade how you sound, and can even sometimes cut chunks out of your speech. Get into the habit of always wearing headphones, and turning echo cancellation off entirely in your video chat app’s settings.
SUMMARY OF free TIPS
- Don’t sit with your back to the window.
- Raise the webcam to avoid peering down at it (a laptop stand is your friend).
- Prioritise your device using your router (or just stand down other devices).
- Wear headphones with a microphone.
- If that’s not possible, use earphones.
- Switch off echo cancellation in your video call app of choice.
Upgrading your video
If you’re willing to spend a little money, you can improve things dramatically. On the video side, the cheapest and simplest option may be to buy a new webcam. But unless the webcam in your computer is especially bad (and I concede that some are) then it’s likely a new external webcam won’t make a huge difference to calls. If you’re willing to go beyond webcams, however, the jump is transformative.
The good news is that if a really high-quality image is important to you, it’s possible to go pro without a huge effort.
The very highest quality would be to use a full DSLR or CSC camera, and take the output from its HDMI port into your PC or Mac via a capture card like the Elgato Cam Link 4K. This not only gives you a lovely big sensor for great images in low light, and lots of control over how the camera senses the image – such as very good eye-tracking autofocus to keep you sharp, or control over exposure and white balance so you always look great – but you can choose or swap lenses too to suit. Consider a “fast” lens with a wide aperture (f/1.8, for example) to give your background a beautifully natural blur. Saves you tidying up!
This option will likely also give you up to 4K resolution, but outside applications where you’re recording for later publishing, this might be overkill, and tax your computer and internet connection.
There is, though, a middle ground. A camera such as the Sony ZV-1 can act as a webcam, connected simply over USB without the need to install software, and it offers lots of the benefits of a more expensive and more complex DSLR-based “webcam” setup.
Before you think about upgrading the camera, though, you can probably make things much better by adding some more light. Light panels such as the Elgato Key Light and Key Light Air provide lots of diffuse light whose brightness and color temperature can be tweaked on your smartphone, and it’s worth investing in something like this rather than a cheap clip-on ring light you might see in a gadget gift guide.
Whatever you chose for the camera and light, you need to get them positioned well. Investigate tabletop and clamping mounting systems.
On the audio side, don’t overlook classic call-centre style headsets. They’re not usually amazing, but they get the mic close to your mouth, and they mean you’re always using headphones.
Taking things to the extreme, you could get a big, proper mic such as the Samson Q9U or Shure MV7. If those don’t appeal, or fall within your budget, look for dynamic mics with a cardioid pickup pattern (such as both those models).
With your mic bought, mount it on a boom arm. Then get some big over-ear headphones like the RØDE NTH-100s, with their padded and cooled cups, to cut audio bleeding from your headphones to the mic. You will get comments on this setup in meetings, but it’s absolutely the way to the highest-quality audio from you.
You could opt for a TV-studio-style lapel or lavalier mic, though. If you’re using a proper camera as your webcam, you can plug it straight into that, but check out the very flexible AI-Micro by RØDE if you want to pair a lav mic with a traditional webcam.
Wear a pair of wireless earbuds (or even just one) and you’ll have good audio without drawing attention to your kit.
Watch how putting the general principles into practice can elevate your picture and sound on video calls. At the very least, you should elevate your laptop so your colleagues aren’t staring up your nose!
Summary of paid-for tips
- While buying a webcam does make a difference, there’s nothing quite like a “proper” DSLR or CSC camera.
- Buy a light panel (rather than a clip-on ring) to bring the focus on you.
- A Rolls-Royce audio setup involves a dynamic mic with over-ear headphones.
- But you can still do a great job (which will attract less comment) with a lapel mic and a pair of wireless earbuds.
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