– by Cliff Lawson, M. Photog.Cr., CPP
Even if things loosen up a bit and we do more in-person meetings, it looks like the web-based video tech is here to stay for many purposes. That being the case, we might want to look at some ways to improve our appearance. The cameras and microphones built into our computers are pretty amazing, but unless used with some thought, do NOT provide amazing results.
Let’s start with the basic laptop setup. First of all get the computer UP at about eye-level so the camera is not shooting up your nose. Check the background. It seems like the universe favorite is a bookshelf, but what ever it is should be neat, free of clutter, and darker than the subject—you.
Here is an example of what I see so often:
I have not worked with Microsoft Teams, so maybe they have a similar feature, but Zoom does have a selection of Virtual Backgrounds. The problem with those is that they are very bright, way too much in focus, use some truly garish colors, and consequently become a huge distraction to the subject—you. The virtual background is not a bad idea, but use an image of your own. Use something relatively neutral, make it a bit darker, apply a bit of Gaussian Blur to not make it so detailed, and desaturate it a bit.
In this example, I did all of the above plus gave it a slight vignette to darken the edges a bit. Looking at it here, I think even a bit more blur would help.
Just those few simple steps: raise the camera if using a laptop, improve your background or use a suitable virtual BG, and put some decent light on the subject—you.
But let’s say you REALLY want to improve what we get from just using the onboard computer camera. You can use your DSLR or Mirrorless camera as a webcam.
By using some decent light, an appropriate lens, and picking a good background, we can get this:
Converting your camera does require some additional equipment and will cost a few (or more) bucks. We need to convert the HDMI OUT of our camera to a USB IN signal to our computer.
Now I understand some of the later Canon cameras have a built-in HDMI to USB capability. Canon users will have to investigate that as i have no idea how it works.
For other Canon cameras and Nikon & Sony users, we need a HDMI to USB converter. Two are in wide use— the Magewell and the Cam Link. These are devices to convert an INCOMING HDMI signal to USB. NOT a converter to allow you to connect your computer to an HDMI TV. There may be others and cheaper options. These are the ones with which I am familiar.
Not sure about Cam Link, but Magewell allows you to use the mic from the camera if you already own a microphone for video recording. You want the mic close, so you need a long extension to be able to connect to the camera which will be 6-10 feet away. Really, the mic is optional. The mic in your computer is amazingly good. A dedicated microphone will have better quality and allow you to move away from the computer and not get the echo, but as long as you stay close to the computer, it is not necessary.
If you do not have a video mic, then consider a USB microphone if you want improve the camera mic. They range from $10 to a couple hundred. They are not all the same!
You could get REALLY fancy and buy a lapel mic transmitter and receiver. If you need to move around a lot, this would be the solution.
This is a video mic mounted on an umbrella adapter. It is now a microphone adapter.
You need a long cord to connect camera to the camera/converter. Check your camera for the HDMI connection. It is probably a Mini HDMI. If so, you need a 10 foot Mini HDMI to HDMI cable. You want 8 to 10 feet so you have flexibility on where to place the camera. This is true even if you do not need the converter.
I have a small Fuji camera I bought for travel and it make great video. That requires a MICRO HDMI, so be SURE to check exactly what your camera HDMI OUT requires.
Cables run from $10 to almost $50 for good ones.
When you get the cable, plug into your TV and verify you can get a CLEAN HDMI signal. That means no camera data, just the image. Nikon has a menu that allows both, so if you get a screen with lots fo stuff, check to see if that can be eliminated.
When you connect to Zoom, in the video control, just choose the HDMI connection and you should be up and running.
As to lighting, If you have a nice window light behind the camera, that is great. I used a ring light I have had for years. A studio strobe with a modeling light could work and there are lots of cheap continuous light products if you want to buy something. But really, even a regular lamp with a lamp shade can work. Since we are using our DSLR, we can adjust the WB to fit the light source.
If you have a newer computer, it may not have the old USB-3 plugs, but the newer USB-C. If that is the case, you will need an adapter of some sort since this things all come with USB-3 plugs.
Another add-on is an AC power adapter. For short meetings, battery power may not be an issue and cameras with a battery grip might be fine with two batteries. But for longer meetings or without the battery grip, an AC adapter is worthwhile.
You will want to set your live view timer to No Limit so your camera does no shut off in the middle of your very important presentation! The first time I used my setup I forgot to do that and had to re-engage the Live View a few times during the meeting. This is the Nikon display. Other brands should be similar. Yeah, I know…you might have to crack that manual.
So that is the basic. The use of the DSLR allows us to make lens selections just like we do for portraits. We can position the camera 6-8-10 feet away for a more pleasing perspective, choose aperture for more or less DOF, adjust the White Balance, and position the camera so we are not shooing up our nose as often happens when using the laptop and not raising it to face level.
Yeah, this is not cheap, but since it looks like we might be stuck with this for a while, why not invest a little to look good—ESPECIALLY if you plan to communicate with clients using Zoom or other similar techniques. As a potential client, I would figure if a photographer cannot make himself or herself look good, how can they make ME look good? They may not think that literally, but the impression is there, nonetheless.
I have always been baffled by how photographers will go on and on about how to convince clients that quality is worth the money and then want everything cheap for themselves. Buy the right thing the first time!
Cliff is a Master Photographer, Photographic Craftsman, Certified Professional Photographer, CPP Liaison and a PPA and PPC member. He has been in business since 2004 and is located in Parker. His main business is high school seniors, families, and corporate headshots.