With there being little end in sight for folks working at home with the ongoing pandemic, we figured we could compile a quick guide to the hardware side of video conferencing and virtual meetings. We’ll be covering a couple of simple webcam and microphone choices, and then digging deep into lighting and backdrop/background.
For those of you stuck at home or those of you anticipating having (or wanting) to continue working from home long into the coming months, we hope that this will be a useful tool for having the best set-up possible!
What is Needed?
So, on the face of things, you could just get a webcam and call it a day. For many students and starting workers, that’s likely to be fine. However, as my recent articles on webcams and microphone set-ups have probably shown, a humble webcam is just the tip of the iceberg!
The idea here is that we’re going to look into a more complete set-up, for an at-home professional office.
Ideally, you’ll be able to switch out things like the microphone and webcam preference using those other two articles, and still get a more professional-looking result from the lighting and backdrop info below for all of your video conferencing and virtual meeting needs.
Let’s get into it!
Although we have a more specific guide on webcams, we figured we would use the opportunity here to throw in a “cost-effective” option when it comes to webcams.
The biggest problem a lot of webcams have in general is they have a super-small sensor, a plastic lens, and don’t come with particularly good software. So, if you were going to buy yourself a webcam just to get going without looking like trash, what is worth purchasing?
What I tend to advise is to look for an established brand, and look around the $100-120 price point. This (generally) ensures that you’re not getting an entry-level webcam with garbage output quality, while also not getting too expensive (even if you have the option to expense it your company, they won’t cry at you with this choice—nor will your wallet cry if you’re paying yourself).
Along these lines, one brand stands alone: Logitech. Their software is well-made and comes with plenty of extra features designed around the camera. Plus, they are all still plug-and-play, so you can safely ignore that software without getting terrible results, if that is your preference.
Logitech C922 ($115)
With 1080p video, as well as a glass lens and a rock-solid autofocus system, this is a nice step up from the standard $40-60 options out there and justifies the price jump.
Remember, if you want more of a breakdown of solutions at different prices, consider looking through our Top 5 webcams for YouTube and Streaming article!
As you might have noticed with our Top 5 Microphones for YouTube and Streaming article, there is a whole range of prices and set-up types you can get here too. However, with our pick here, as with the webcam above, we’re just trying to satisfy the general aim of getting something that is simple to set up while being noticeably superior to a built-in option from a laptop, webcam, or headset.
Again, there’s a huge range of these, but the “good” USB microphones (not requiring any extra hardware or software unless you want it) tend to come in at around $130-160.
Elgato Wave ($130)
There are so, so many options at this price point (e.g. Audio-Technica AT2005USB, Blue Yeti X, HyperX QuadCast), and it is honestly very hard to pick a single choice. However, the Elgato we’ve selected has just about won out here, thanks to its simple integrated desk stand, really simple set-up for solid audio quality, and (if you want to download it) some great software too.
All of the microphones I just mentioned are honestly good choices (and popular for their performance-to-price ratios), so any are a good bet if you’re after a particular look to your set-up. And don’t forget that we have a dedicated guide list about microphones for those seeking additional detail!
Lighting is seen by some as a mystical art, but when it comes to a simple set-up, there honestly isn’t a whole lot to it. At a basic level, we use lighting to highlight things for the camera, be that foreground or background details, or people in the scene. Now, naturally, for video conferencing and virtual meetings, we are after a set-up that best highlights you.
So, let’s look at how we can do that!
If you haven’t got a whole lot of money to spend on lighting set-ups with stands and so on, getting a backlight can be the cheapest solution to get a different look. This light is what it sounds like: it is a light placed behind you. The aim here is to take advantage of how the camera sees light to increase the separation of you from your background.
With entry-level webcams, this can be crucial to ensure you aren’t getting lost in the image of your room or office background (especially if you have darker hair!), so that you stay the main highlight on your stream!
Entry Level: GLORIOUS-LITE 50W LED Work Light ($30)
There are loads of variations on these lights, mainly due to them being used (as the name suggests) as work lights for lighting small work areas, be that indoors or outdoors. There’s not a whole lot to the set-up here, just set this up as far behind you as you can, and angle it upwards to highlight your back.
Do note that this 50W variant is reasonably strong light for indoor use, so if you are in a small space (with perhaps only 1m of clearance behind you), then go for the 30W version.
Upgrade: SANSI 50W RGB LED Flood Light ($50)
A simple upgrade to the above, this adjustable RGB flood light provides the same level of light intensity with the addition of a controller and color adjustment. Altogether, this a no-brainer upgrade for someone looking for a solid choice for a only little more price.
After this point, you’re basically going to be looking for a complete lighting kit, listed below!
The Key Light
Traditionally, this is the first light you would go for when ti comes to video and photography. To get a good key light tends to cost a little bit more.
This is mainly because it is pretty much required that it is an adjustable light, and that it can be set-up on some sort of stand so that it is at the same height as your head (regardless of whether you’re standing or sitting on a chair).
Like the backlight, you can get variations on a key light which are designed to give your face good illumination and nothing else, but these can often look flat and will mean that the light is directly in front of you, making it harder to see what is on a screen too.
Entry Level: Desk Ring Light with Swivel Clamp Arm ($34)
The cheapest standalone set-ups are ring lights like this one, which comes with a simple adjustable desk clamp so you can move the light to suit your set-up.
It’s well worth taking the time to get this set-up right. To save your eyes, I know a lot of folks who will just mount the light higher and have it shining down on your face; however, do note that the higher you have the light placed, the more shadows it will produce! So, have your camera active when you’re moving it so you can see what impact this has on the end result.
Cheap Alternative: SIMAWAN Ultra Mini Bright LED Video Light ($10)
This is an inexpensive option if you are using a camera with a hotshoe. It’s just a simple attachable LED light. This is much cheaper than anything else for this role, mainly because it’s super-small, super-simple, and assumes that you already have your camera set-up nailed down and simply want a direct light source to finish things off! This is still adjustable to some degree, so have your camera on so that you can change the brightness to give you a nice even light without blinding yourself!
Anything over these options starts to get into combination kits, so let’s move onto those!
Key and Fill Lights
What can often happen with just a key light is you get really flat-looking color on your face if its directly in front of you (like the examples above). Now, this isn’t the worst thing in the world, as most entry-level webcam set-ups won’t benefit from anything more than this anyway.
However, if you’re wanting a little more serious lighting set-up, we have to use proper lighting techniques, which means lighting you from at least 2 sources. Here, you will still have the key light source, and to counter that light you have a fill light. These are placed at 90 degrees to you, as this example image shows:
The best way to do this is to set up the key light first, to give you a reasonable level of brightness (remember not to go too strong here, to prevent making your skin look awful) then turn on and adjust your fill light so that you have a nice even-looking brightness.
Remember, we’re not going for a moody cinematic lighting effect here, so if you end up having different levels of light on your face, it could very easily look awful. Please be careful.
As you can see from the example image, balancing the lights should give you an even shadow directly behind you. If you are finding from the video you have a shadow to the left or right of you, that means the light opposite is either too bright or that side light is too weak. So adjust things to get it right!
Entry Level: Neewer Dimmable 5600K USB LED Video Light with Adjustable Tripod Stand ($50)
This kit from Neewer isn’t anything super-fancy, yet for the vast majority of you it will be more than sufficient. These go up to a little over 1m in height, and they are designed to sit on a desk or be on the floor while giving you that simple 2-point lighting set-up we explained above.
Upgrade: Neewer Super Slim LED Video Light with Light Stand ($90)
Designed to be a literal upgrade to the first pack, this kit uses floor-standing lights and is an upgrade in every way. It lets you adjust the temperature and intensity of the lights, and offers the option to run them off the included batteries. That last feature makes this kit a superb choice if you want to pack the lights away again after each use.
Full 3-point Lighting Set-up
This combines your Key, Fill, and Back light to provide an excellent all-around lighting solution for a very professional looking video conference, recording booth, or streaming set-up.
The general aim here is to have a more complete balanced set-up, so this is where you tend to find more studio-ready kits available.
Standard Kit: MOUNTDOG Photography Studio Softbox Lighting Kit ($100)
Don’t feel freaked out by the softboxes! These will give you a less harsh light when compared to the LEDs by themselves, so they are often desirable when it comes to a studio set-up. It is worth noting here that you will need to have the space to set these up. So be sure to double-check those dimensions.
Now, we could recommend an upgraded pack here, but this is already a very serious professional arrangement and the prices climb rapidly from this point, so we figure at this point it’s better to focus on our next suggestion instead: backdrops!
Most will recognise these as green screens or blue screens behind someone, which allow both video conferencing and streaming software to key out the colour and replace the background with whatever you want.
Those of you already doing a lot of video conferencing might have noticed some software attempts to do this without a greenscreen, instead relying on the camera focus to know what parts of the background to cut out. The results aren’t great there, as a lot of the time the software struggles to separate you from the background due to poor lighting. Which is why we focused on lighting first!
This isn’t a requirement to get your set-up looking “nice”, yet it can make the difference if you’re wanting a professional set-up that lets you fully control what is shown behind you in a very clean way.
Note: moreso than before, when using keying techniques, it is important to have any shadows be directly behind you. Any soft shadows off to your side can effect what the greenscreen looks like to the camera, and can lower the quality of the keying out.
Standard Kit: Neewer Photo Studio Backdrop with Stand ($75)
This comes with everything you need to have the screen set up behind you. You need the floor run-off so that you are not casting shadows onto the screen itself, all while being able to key out that space if also needed.
The way this is mounted should allow the screen to use its own weight to remove any creases from transit, however with these fabrics you can often steam iron (NOT a standard iron) to remove them from the back of it once it’s mounted. Never do it on the front surface.
Now, the observant amongst you might have noticed that this kit comes with a black-and-white backdrop too. These are generally if you want a simple background colour, and although they are mostly used for photography, a number of video users often go for the simple white background to just give a clean office look on their videos and conference calls.
Combined Lighting and Backdrop Kits
Some of you might have noticed how a lot of these kits can be used together—and the manufacturers of these products have noticed that too!
Standard Kit: Neewer Studio Kit ($170)
What you have here is a full set of lights for both the 3-point lighting set-up and a light for illuminating the backdrop, in addition to the whole set for mounting the lights and backdrop.
Yes, this is an expensive kit, but this is also the largest and most all-encompassing option we would recommend to anyone looking to have a set-up like this inside their home.
Just the Basics
So yes, at this point, we’re ending our little video conferencing guide. We’re stopping here mainly because anything above this starts getting into studio-ready set-ups, which tend to be both physically enormous and very pricey. However, don’t be fooled into thinking the options above are the end of the game!
Everything from the lighting to the camera choice to the rest can all be improved. The overall idea here has been that, even if you go bonkers with everything we’ve discussed, hopefully you won’t end up spending more than $500 for a complete home set-up. Then again, if you personally want to upgrade everything, you can go into the thousands to suit your taste and needs.
Setting aside that nonsense, however, we’re hoping that this article has been useful for you!
Do you have your own favourite home video conferencing and/or virtual meeting set-up(s) you prefer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!