The ultimate video-conferencing setup
In a world of remote working, video conferencing is key. In this post, I’m sharing everything I’ve learned about how to make it as good as possible — on a budget.
I’ve done a fair amount of video work in my time. If you want the highest quality in the world, you need some really expensive equipment. The truth is, though — you can get away with spending a lot less. In a nutshell; if your lighting is good and your audio sounds great, you get a lot of leeway on the video side of things.
The same goes for video conferencing: Make the lighting and the audio great, and the rest will follow. Here’s how I solved my setup.
1. Great Wi-Fi
If you have a crappy internet connection, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that no amount of fancy camera equipment can save you. But even a mediocre internet connection can be made worse by bad Wi-Fi, so start by killing that problem.
I opted for the Orbi routers — Plug one directly into your router, and place the repeater somewhere near your main computer, and you’re on the right track. Bonus points if you run Ethernet directly to your computer. In my case, I have the master Orbi router on the Wi-Fi switch, and the repeater is right next to my computer — plugged in with another Ethernet cable to further increase quality. I’m lucky enough to have really good internet to begin with (300 mbps up and down on a bad day), but not worrying about Wi-Fi is an added bonus.
2. A good camera at a good angle
Laptops these days have really good cameras, but you usually end up with the world’s least flattering angle, with a camera pointing up your nose.
In an ideal world, you want the camera just above eye level, which means you should get an external web cam.
The sky is the limit here. Wirecutter will tell you to get Logitech’s $70 web camera — but I ended up picking the $45 Vitade 960a. The latter shoots full 1080 video and has a built-in ring light, which is helpful in a pinch, especially if you occasionally hold up documents or sketches that people need to see.
3. Good audio
I’d rather have an audio-only call than a video-only call, which makes sense. unless your mime-skills are better than mine, using your voice is a more convenient form of communication.
You have dozens of great choices here. Blue is one of the top choices here (but will set you back $110), and they do a kit that comes with a stand for $150, too. There’s no doubt that that’s a great kit, but if budget is an issue, you can pick up great condenser microphones starting at $30 or so.
Since I do a lot of podcast recording, I decided to go another route — I picked up a Zoom H1n. It’s a fully portable, high-quality recorder that accepts external microphones, headphones, and has an astonishing number of features you’d expect from high-quality field recorders. My favorite feature, though, is that when you plug it in via USB, it is recognized as a microphone — and so you can use it for your video recording setup. Perfect!
I invested $20 in a microphone stand so I can position it perfectly without nudging it.
The sound is crystal clear, and if I need to head out into the field, I can add some AAA batteries and a Micro SD card, and keep recording.
4a. Lighting was everything
My home office is pretty weird. Right behind me is a small hydroponic garden:
… which I think makes for a pretty cool backdrop. The most commonly asked questions when someone jumps on a video conference with me are “Where are you?” and “What is that behind you?”
The answer is that I am growing tomatoes (because… why not), but the downside is that the grow lights have some extraordinarily funky colors:
It’s a cool background and it adds personality, but in order to appear clearly in my video conferencing, my video lights have to be brighter than my grow lights — otherwise you get all sorts of weird color casts and other issues.
The real secret to a fantastic video isn’t the camera itself — it is good lighting.
On top of the monopod, I added my Spekular video lights. Those things are awesome, and they are made for professional video production — so they clock in at $600. I happened to have a monopod laying around, which I zip-tied to my monitor stand.
Would I have used these lights if I didn’t have them anyway? Probably not. Am I super excited that I have them? Hell yes — they make a huge difference.
A cheaper way to go would be to pick up a couple of lighting stands and a couple of LED video lights — or improvise with whatever lights you have in your house. You can also use LED work lamps if you want — the color balance will be slightly off, but they put out plenty of light.
As a general rule, you want the light to be diffused — so adding a diffuser to your setup works well, too — the softer the light, the nicer it looks — and it increases the odds that your webcam is able to figure out the light balance etc, too.
4b. Lighting is still everything
Since I wrote this blog post I moved my video conferencing to another room. I’m using the same camera and video lights as before, but the grow lights are gone. It looked… Terrible:
But it turns out that that’s very easily fixable. I bought a couple of really cheap ($15 each) LED spotlights from Amazon. I also hooked them up to a $10 smart plug so I can turn them on and off with Google / Siri / Alexa. I set one of the lights to red, and one to blue. The difference is night and day:
… It looks much better this way, and you may as well have a bit of fun with it! Of course, the lights can be set to any color, so for St Patricks’ Day, my background was green.
Personally I like to use light, in-ear headphones with silicone inserts — they are comfortable all day long, and my ears don’t get warm when I’m using them long stretches at the time. I swear by my Bose QuietComfort 20i headphones — but they are definitely overkill, and I don’t use the noise-canceling when I’m in my office, so the non-noise-canceling versions of the same headphones would have worked just as well. I also have a pair of the sports version of the same headphones; they are lighter, but the cable is much shorter, which is inconvenient.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Use whatever you think it’s comfortable.
6. What conferencing platform?
The great thing about this setup is that it’s platform agnostic. I tend to use Google Meet for most of the meetings I book with my clients, but I also regularly use Zoom, Bluejeans, and others — the quality always comes out top-notch.
Edit: I’m now exclusively using Zoom, because the screen sharing and cloud recording features are superior to Google Meet’s.