The video camera connected to your computer – yeah, the webcam – is one of your most power tools. Using it properly can make a huge difference for people watching your videos.
Do you use Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Periscope or Facebook Live yet. These are powerful communication tools. We're living in a time when we can all spread our message, through the power of video -- and most of it can be done right here, at your desk, with the humble webcam.
You'll be hard pressed to find a computer that doesn't have one hooked up to it and every single laptop and portable device seems to have one.
One of the problems I've been noticing, off and on is that there is a WIDE array of video quality "coming through the pipes". I'm not even really talking about the blockiness or jittery video that can happen when there's questionable wi-fi quality, or a congested 3G or LTE network. I'm talking about the quality that's being shot. I'm talking about overly dark or overly bright and off colored video, that we're shooting.
I thought I'd take a few minutes here and give you a few guidelines, tips and tricks and best practices that can help you get much better quality from your webcam. If you keep these things in mind, when you're shooting, either on your webcam or on your portable device (phone/tablet etc) you'll make the experience for those viewing your video much more enjoyable.
(By the way, some of the links I provide to hardware or software may be affiliate links.)
Connect to a Hard Internet Line
One of the most important things to consider when shooting webcam video, whether you're on Skype or Zoom or any other service is to always connect to a physical network connection when you can! Wireless internet routers have gotten really dependable over the last few years, however, there are many factors that go into a stable wireless connection than just the physical hardware. The routers position in the building, your distance to it, the radio channel(s) it's using, the number of people on that wireless connection are just a few of the considerations.
In an office environment, there's a good chance that, if professionally managed, the wireless signals can be incredibly stable, but to be safe, and increase the chance that your connection will remain rock solid, always plug in a physical network cable. This will not only ensure that the connection is more stable but as a general rule, will also me much faster.
Some laptops today, may not have a connector, in favor of saving space. You can buy a USB-to-ethernet dongle that allows you to physically connect to a wired network and ensure a better video and audio signal. In my opinion, every laptop bag needs to have one of these in it.
The Webcam is an Actual Camera!
I know it may seem a little obvious, but did you know that the webcam you use is an actual camera? I know, I know... I'm being sarcastic. I really don't mean to be but sometimes people don't realize that that webcam is.... a video camera. Kind of like the folks that shoot tons of video on their iPhones, holding it vertically... When was the last time you watched your TV while it was tilted vertically?? I digress.
One of the things that will make your webcam video quality stand out from others is treating it like it's a proper camera. It may be located on the top of your computer screen, but that doesn't mean that it needs to be aimed up your nose. If you and I were shooting a video for your website, you wouldn't want me to have the camera pointing from the ground, up at you while you talk. You want the video to be head on or even shooting from a slightly elevated angle. Shooting from a slightly higher position is generally more flattering for most people.
Take a look at these examples. For each one, I've included a video shot with the camera at a given angle and a picture showing you the position of the laptop with the attached webcam. In these cases, I'm using a Logitech C-910 1080p webcam.
Keep these things in mind when setting up your webcam
- A Webcam mounted on a large monitor or iMac may be a little too high, depending on the size of the monitor. Raise your seat if needed to level out.
(use your preview window)
- Place your laptop on a stack of books or a shelf to bring the webcam level or slightly above your face.
- The webcam should never be pointed up at your face. It’s VERY distracting and not flattering at all!
Note that the webcam and screen are tilted severely back. While this is a good viewing angle for me, the person delivering the video, it's a horrible experience for the viewer. They are looking at a severe perspective shot of myself and the room. Shooting a webcam video with this extreme of an angle causes the viewer to become distracted with everything that's wrong. They won't be paying attention to you or the important message you're delivering.
Note that the webcam and screen is tilted more forward. The video image has a much less severe "up" tilt look. This is easier for the viewer to pay attention to.
Use books or boxes to elevate the laptop and webcam to "eye level". This mimics the traditional camera look that people expect to see when watching video. There is no tilt perspective that the viewer has to ignore. They are able to focus on the actual video content and the message with few distractions.
Good Lighting Makes GREAT Video
This is one of the most often overlooked aspects when shooting webcam video. Many people think that they have enough light to get a good video image. One thing I've learned over the past 25 years is that our eyes take in and compensate for low light a LOT more than our cameras do. If you're in a dim space, but can see things ok with your eyes, that doesn't mean that the camera will.
Webcams come in various resolutions and quality levels. The lower quality (cost $$) cameras don't handle or compensate for low light levels very well. Depending on your camera software, you may be able to adjust the exposure, brightness, contrast, and coloring. Keep in mind though, that the less light you're using, the fewer adjustments you'll be able to successfully make.
When setting up for recording webcam video, the BEST case scenario includes you having at least one decent light source, set slightly above and in front of your face. This can be from:
- a lamp on your desk
- several lights in your room bouncing off the walls, providing a nice even wash on your face
- a window with daylight streaming in.
- in this case, you should be facing the window with the cameras back to the window, catching the light on your face.
- 2 lamps on either side of your computer/workspace.
I've got a few examples of bad video lighting and a few examples of good.
This is an example of not enough light on my face. The image is "backlit". Meaning the light coming from the window, behind me is what the camera is using to set the exposure. You can overcome this a little if your webcam software has settings for exposure, brightness, and contrast. However, the best thing to do is light your face more.
In this example, the light source is coming from directly above. Notice the harsh lines it creates on my face. Also, notice how it's overexposing on my forehead. With most video, you can use editing software to fix exposure and coloring problems. However, when there is this much overexposure, there is literally no color information in those white areas to be recovered. The video image is highly unusable and distracting for the viewer.
In an office environment, this is usually caused by fluorescent lighting mounted directly over your desk. Yes, that nasty kind. In the next example, you can see how turning those off and using the window can be a better option.
For this example, I have a bad backlight problem. I also don't have any lamps on my desk to compensate and light my face better. However, I can use the window to my left as the primary light source. I simply move my laptop and webcam so that my face is facing the window. Notice how much better and more even the lighting on my face becomes.
If you're in an office situation, turn off the overhead lights and see if you can just use the window as the primary light source. You may need to test and preview a little bit to see if the overhead lights are too harsh and end up hurting your image instead of helping it.
This example shows how using a couple of lamps can really help overcome the backlight issue. In an office situation, should be able to turn off the nasty fluorescent overhead lights and just use your lamps.
In an ideal situation, I would not be next to a window, or my lamps would have daylight bulbs that better match the light coming from the window, but in a pinch, putting a lamp or two on your desk will provide better lighting. Also, if you have the option to shutter or close the blinds or drapes on the window, that will help lessen the natural light, and allow the lamps to blend more.
Frame Yourself Properly
One thing to consider when getting prepared for your webcam video shoot is to frame up your shot properly. This is called "composing the shot" and is a big factor in your viewer enjoying the video experience. We want as few distractions as possible for the viewer so they are able to focus on you and your content.
Check to make sure that you’re centered in the frame, not too far, not too close
- Center yourself in the frame.
- Keep the webcam level with your face as mentioned earlier.
(use books if necessary)
- Not too close... not too far. Frame yourself from the chest up if possible.
- Adjust the camera so “head room” lessens. No large gaps between the top of your head and the top of the picture.
- Keep movement behind you to a minimum.
- No fans if possible
- No waving flags or anything that can distract easily
- No traffic or crowds of people if possible
- More movement can cause problems when the internet connection isn’t as solid as it should be. Keep movements behind you to a minimum.
Manually Adjust the Camera Settings
On Windows, Logitech and other webcam suppliers generally include some software or a control panel that allows you to make exposure and color adjustments to your webcam. This can help you brighten up a dark image or richen up the color. In most cases, you can also adjust the focus and sharpen the video image if needed.
Webcams for the Mac are generally plug-n-play and don't require driver installations. Some of the later ones from Logitech do have control software that you can install but in most cases, you'll need a third-party adjustment panel to tweak your exposure and color settings.
I've used both iGlasses and Webcam Settings on the Mac and have found each of them to be very good at tweaking my camera settings. They not only work with external USB webcams like the Logitech C920 / C930 family, but also the built-in FaceTime HD camera found on iMac and Macbooks.
- Use the software that the camera came with your laptop or webcam to adjust brightness, exposure, and color. Generally for Windows only.
- If your webcam doesn’t have settings you can adjust, try 3rd party apps.
It installs as a webcam and will be the webcam you select for your videos.
Logitech cameras have software installed for making adjustments on Windows systems
iGlasses for Mac. Installs as a virtual webcam. Choose it instead of your facetime or logitech webcam.
Webcam Settings Panel works on Mac and allows you to adjust settings on any USB camera connected. Including the built-in FaceTime camera.
Plug in a Microphone
If the viewers can’t hear you clearly, it won’t matter how nice you look. External mics allow your voice to be recorded much cleaner. They can also help keep extra noises out.
- Use an external USB microphone like the Samson Meteor Mic
- USB headset mics like those from Logitech work very well.
- Use ear buds with a built in mic if available (like from your iPhone)
- The webcam mic should be the LAST resort
- Turn off desk fans and other machines that may cause noise during your recording.