We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Lights, Camera, Action!’ and gotten excited about watching a movie, imagining perhaps that its as easy as uttering some words to spin the marvels of cinema into movement and produce what we enjoy watching on screen… however video conferencing is a great example of how badly cinema can turn out with the wrong tools and approach.
For so many silly reasons, people suffer terrible video conferencing experiences every day – on their phones using WhatsApp and in the office or home on computers running Zoom.
Often cases, self-driven consumer devices don’t video conference well due to low quality embedded cameras, underpowered devices, spotty WiFi where people are logged into the Net or poor lighting conditions which make it hard for small cameras to expose a decent image.
In professional workplaces, over-complicated ‘enterprise’ solutions seem to dominate marketshare – repackaging simple technology with flashy marketing that makes it seem like a board room will magically transform your video conference into a Tom Cruise action move sequence for the measly sum of tens of thousands of dollars.
Well – we recommend taking a step back before procuring video conferencing hardware to think about what you actually need to create engaging video from at least the side of a digital conversation which you can control at your workplace.
Here are some tips and tricks we use on campus at StartWell in Toronto that will step up your video conferencing game and vastly improve the experience of people remotely dialling into your workplace:
You’ll want to make sure the subjects are well lit, every time. This means at least making sure that there is plenty of light above the conference table – ideally using white tables to reflect top lighting back up on the faces of people sat around a conference table.
To give a sense of the room’s atmosphere you can light walls and objects on camera but remember to not light the room is such a way that there is a lot of contrast picked up on camera – overly bright areas will show up as flares on the other end when instead you want even detail captured.
On that note about managing contrast – for glass rooms, we recommend installing curtains which can block sunlight and any other light sources (including interior lighting from hallways or other rooms sharing glass with the video conferencing room.)
This one is tricky – most webcams (that is, a camera which connects to a computer using USB) are terrible. Their optics are too small to capture enough light and the result is a grainy looking image without accurate images. Furthermore, they aren’t all full HD (1920 x 1080) so your source image from the camera might not have enough detail to then downgrade through videoconferencing software – resulting in a downscaled downscale image that is grainy, blocky, blurry and nightmarish.
One step above webcams are conference cameras – these may be powered by USB but offer additional features that can create simple small room video conferences look decent – such as larger optics, fisheye lenses for wide angle coverage (more gets shown on screen), remote control for panning (moving the camera up or down), tilting (left to right) and even zooming (make sure this is optical zoom, not digital zoom to ensure no video degradation.) A good conference camera that is affordable which we recommend is Logitech’s BCC950 – its usually around $500 and is integrated with a microphone and speaker, which is great for grab and go setups or small rooms.
Now, here’s where things get fun – you can get even better quality by using a digital SLR or video camera and then encoding its video (using something like a Elgato Camlink) to effectively build a high quality conference camera of your own.
If budget is of no concern, we recommend using Blackmagic Pocket 6K cameras fed into an ATEM Pro ISO switcher plugged into the computer you’re using to run a conference (it shows up as a webcam on PCs and Macs.) This gives you amazing video quality and the ability to switch lenses on the camera using Canon’s industry standard EF lens mount (we usually put a fish eye giving us 167 degree field of view – i.e. the whole room in front of the presentation screen.). Plus, if you have more cameras than one you can plug their HDMI outputs into multiple channels on the ATEM switcher, letting your team simply press buttons to switch camera angles… imagine, showing Hollywood grade closeups of your CEO extolling wisdom to the room and virtual attendees 🙂
Remember, if your team decides to go pro and buy quality SLR cameras or cinema-grade video cameras for important video conferences then you can also use them for content creation – to run a video podcast series and more, helping your marketing needs.
In small rooms, the mic built into a good conference camera will suffice – for larger setups people get crazy with wires and mixing boards and crazy things that make meetings stressful, like a televised broadcast from the United Nations.
We recommend simply getting a great omnidirectional microphone which you can place in the middle of the action. At StartWell, our weapon of choice is a Blue Yeti screwed into a floor based mic stand – add it to a USB extension cable and you can move the mic around the room if needed. This mic offers a cool 360 degree field of capture – so everyone around it will be heard through your call even if they are speaking normally (i.e. not shouting), adding to the magic that happens with virtual attendees feel part of the physical room in your workplace.
We mentioned a microphone but didn’t talk about how in-room attendees hear the folks joining remotely – you’re going to need a sound system of some kind and recommend self-powered bookshelf speakers – like these from Edifier.
With great speakers you have the added advantage of being able to break out music in between video conferencing sessions, and with a set of bluetooth enabled speakers anyone in the room with a mobile phone can play DJ, making your room more interactive and opening up potential for that sense of ownership to make people feel comfortable.
With most of the peripherals together you’re almost there. Instead of tossing equipment onto a conference table and leaving people to figure out the connectivity we recommend:
- Getting a powerful computer to connect everything to – like a Mac Mini M1, which is low profile, affordable and offers tons of ports (plus multi HDMI-out)
- Hard wiring connections :
- An HDMI (instead of Airplay) out to a presentation screen,
- An 1/8″ headphone TRS cable for audio output from the computer to speakers, an extension cabled connection to your mic (taped at the junction to ensure they don’t get mistakenly disconnected),
- Fixing the camera position so that people don’t move it and mess up how you’ve configured its distance to capture enough room space with appropriate lighting conditions etc…