Can you see me? Improve the quality of video during online meetings

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The quality of video is not a key element of online meetings. In most cases, it is enough for us to be able to hear one another in order to communicate effectively. However, this does not mean that we do not have to pay attention to visual aspects. Today, we will focus on lighting, camera and background, the good use of which will enable you to get a better quality and first impression, which are not less important than, for example, in a traditional training room.

The camera is mainly responsible for the quality of video during our meetings, but the software we use and the settings are equally important. Another element that must be mentioned is appropriate lighting, which (especially in the case of low-quality cameras) can do us good or do us wrong. And finally, the background. Although it has the smallest impact on the quality of video, it determines to a large extent how we will be perceived by our interlocutors.

In this article, I want to discuss all these three elements. From the process of selecting an appropriate camera and changing the settings in the software to setting appropriate lighting to discussing the background. In addition, at the end, I will also present a few general tips that will benefit anyone who participates in online meetings.

How to select an appropriate camera for online meetings?

The number of computer cameras on the market is so large that the choice of the right one may be quite challenging. What should we pay attention to if the tables with specification of individual devices mean nothing to us? First of all, think about your needs. Most platforms for meetings offer limited image quality anyway, so parameters above a certain limit will have no influence on the quality. The case is different when, apart from meetings, we will be using the camera, for example, to record materials or to broadcast live.

A short cut, that is cameras recommended by individual platforms

Almost every computer camera should work without any problems with all the most popular platforms for online meetings. Nevertheless, some platforms recommend using specific models, which, at least in theory, should provide us with trouble-free cooperation and the best experience.

Below you will find lists of cameras recommended for the most popular platforms for online meetings:

Choosing a recommended device will certainly be the safest option and I recommend it to any less advanced user.

Tests and independent selection of cameras for online meetings

Comparing mere parameters, such as resolution or frame rate per second, is not relevant, as the final quality of the video is also influenced by other factors. For example, lens aperture (amount of light passed through), which we will not find in most specifications. Therefore, the best solution is to see such comparative tests (or to carry out your own tests).

What should you pay attention to in camera tests? The video smoothness in the case of significant movements (this is visible best when you wave your hand) and the change in the quality of the video depending on the change in lighting conditions (in a dark room and in natural and artificial light). Focus and faithful representation of colors are equally important.

Below you will find an exemplary comparative test of Logitech C922 and Razer Kiyo cameras.

Remember! If you watch the camera test on YouTube, choose the best quality of the video. Otherwise, what you will see will be different than in reality. To change the quality of the film on YouTube, place the cursor over the player and click the icon with the tiny gear (Settings), which is located below the progress bar (bottom right corner). You will find the “Quality” option there, where you should select the highest one. If the Internet connection is poorer, it will be necessary to wait for the film to load.

Apart from the quality of the video itself, you should also pay attention to the angle of the camera. A wide angle allows you to film two people and show the entire group or room effortlessly. Such a camera can also be used when working with a traditional board or a flipchart. A narrower angle, on the other hand, will be a better solution where we do not want to show what is behind us. Nor does it require a big background.

The camera is not only about an image

Although the quality of video is crucial, it is also worth taking a deep dive into other functions, equipment, or software.

Connecting

Make sure that the camera you have chosen has an integrated cable and, if so, what connector it has (USB-A or USB-C). Then, make sure that you have a suitable free port in your computer. Otherwise, it will be necessary to use an adapter. The length of the cable may also be an important matter.

Installing

A clip is a standard handle in webcams, we can use it to attach the camera to the edge of the monitor. However, some of them may also be installed on a 1/4-inch stand.

Additional equipment

Most webcams have an integrated microphone, whereas some also have a loudspeaker or lighting. However, the quality of these functions, especially in the case of low shelf devices, leaves a lot to be desired. Naturally, there are exceptions. An example can be the Razer Kiyo Full HD camera, which thanks an LED ring can provide extra light quite well. Or an all-in-one BCC950 conference camera by Logitech with a good quality microphone and a loudspeaker.

Included software

Although standard cameras operate in Plug and Play mode (connect and use), they often have additional software that allows you to change default settings and take full advantage of their capabilities. For example, the BRIO camera by Logitech, thanks to its optical and infrared sensors can recognize faces for the purposes of Windows Hello (in Windows 10), which allows you to log into the system without entering a password. Less advanced cameras offer functions such as manual image correction (change of brightness, contrast, temperature or sharpness of the image, rotation or use of mirror reflection and other video effects).

Changing default video settings in an online meeting platform

As a rule, video settings in online meeting platforms do not have too many options and we can do more in the software supplied with the camera. Nevertheless, it is good to take a look at them. My favorite communication application is Zoom, which is why I will use it as an example.

Click the icon in the right upper corner of the application, “Settings”, and then go to the “Video” tab. You will find there:

  • list of cameras available;
  • change in image ratio (original or 16:9);
  • HD function (Enable HD);
  • mirror reflection function (Mirror my video) – the effect is visible only to you, regardless of the settings, recipients always see you naturally;
  • appearance enhancing (Touch Up My Appearance) – just like many beauty filters, the effect blurs our face, which is intended to remove imperfections, but in my opinion this option is not worth activating.

In addition, we can go to advanced options (“Advanced”), where we will find:

  • removing noise and improving the quality of the video sent to recipients (Enable de-noise)
  • improving video streams received (Hardware acceleration for receiving video).

These functions can improve the quality of both received and broadcast video, but in the case of weaker computers the effect may be the opposite.

Light – no camera works without it

The most important external parameter affecting the quality of the video is lighting. Under difficult conditions, the camera may reduce the number of frames per second, which will affect the smoothness of the video. Moreover, there may be a lot of noise. Therefore, the more light, the better (almost always).

For instance, this is what the video in a dark room looks like (Creative Live! Cam Sync 720p).

In theory, natural light is the best, but online meetings usually take place in rooms. Windows do not solve the problem, because they do not give the opportunity to provide even lighting (especially in the case of longer meetings, when movements of the sun are noticeable and the angle of rays changes). We are also dependent on weather conditions and a part of a day.

Additionally, many computer cameras do not deal with sharp sunlight, which makes the image overexposed. Therefore, the best solution is to use external lighting. And we have a lot of options.

Basic principles for using light

Although whole books can be written about using light in photography or videos, the matter is much simpler in the case of online meetings. It is sufficient if we ensure uniform and even lighting of our scene. Below you will find some simple tips.

  • The most important thing is to light the person in front of the camera evenly. Do not forget to light the background as well (if any) so that no shadows are visible.
  • If you use several sources of light, they should have the same color temperature (for example, daylight has a temperature of 5500 K). Otherwise, the lens will have problems with receiving it.
  • Halogen lamps produce a large amount of heat and are therefore not suitable for lighting the scene for a long time during online meetings. LED lights will be the perfect solution.
  • If the light is too sharp, you may try to soften with the use of a softbox or an umbrella diffuser.
  • If you use a board or a flipchart, set the light at such an angle that there are no strong reflections on their surface that make it impossible to read what is written on them.
  • The light source should be behind the camera (do not point the light source towards the camera).
  • Use some powder or mattifying cream to eliminate reflections on your skin.

If you are looking for additional knowledge, look it up on YouTube. You will find a lot of tutorials on how to use lighting in blogs, films, and photography. Remember, however, that these are much more advanced applications. Therefore, you do not have to follow all rules or invest in professional equipment.

Choice of lighting

Although light parameters are very important, the space that we have at our disposal is equally important. The lighting kit can take a lot of space, and not every kit is equally handful and convenient when you have to set it up every single time. You should bear it in mind.

The simplest solution will be LED ring lamps (even relatively small ones, 20-30 cm in diameter, which can be placed on the desk), ideally two of them to illuminate your face and silhouette evenly. Their advantage is that they often have power control and color temperature control. Obviously, such a lamp should have a permanent power supply (often USB, which we can connect to a computer or to a charger). Battery lamps will have too little power and will be impractical.

If we have more space, we can choose lamps with a larger diameter that we install on stands. Lamps with a softbox or umbrella diffuser s will also work well (the advantage of umbrellas is that they can be folded quickly and take little space).

You can read more about umbrellas and softboxes here.

On the left, the lighting is incorrect. On the right, I applied correct lighting in accordance with the tips presented above.

Many professional and expensive lamps are available on the market. However, a basic set of lights for online meetings can be completed (or purchased in a set) for less than PLN 200.

Turn around and take care of the background

Many people use the background to create their image. We will be perceived completely differently if we sit with the library full of books behind us or if there is a cluttered room or a sink full of dirty dishes behind our backs. Therefore, we can use this knowledge to arouse specific feelings in our recipients. However, it has a drawback. It distracts the audience from the content. And because we are curious by nature, the side effect will be that instead of listening, our recipient will be analyzing the titles of the books behind our back. Therefore, I am personally in favor of a minimalist and uniform background. Not only does it provide us with privacy, but it can also be applied almost anywhere.

There is one more argument that is worth taking into account. Due to the specificity of webcams, a uniform, immobile, and well-lit background provides better quality and smoothness of the video. This is because the camera has less information to process.

Photography background

A roll of the cheapest photography background costs between a few and several dozen Polish zloty and will be enough to meet our basic needs. We can easily mount it on two stands (the same as for lamps), hang under the ceiling or, as a last resort, stick it to the wall. Regardless of the way, try to avoid creases and folds that may be visible in the camera.

Pay attention to the texture of the material. It is best to choose the background which will generate no reflections. As regards its structure, it is not as important as in photography, because with the quality of the video that we have during online meetings, it will not be very visible anyway. However, you should think about the color. In my opinion, a white or gray background will work the best. It will not only be neutral, but also easy to illuminate. You can read more about the types of photography backgrounds here.

If you use a camera with a wide angle, make sure that the background you have purchased will fit in the frame.

Virtual background

Virtual background is an alternative to photography background. I cannot see any advantages of this solution, though. The effect is very unnatural, whereas when you remove the background, you can sometimes remove fragments of the person standing against the background. Not to mention the horrible effect which is generated even by the slightest movement. The final argument that should discourage you from using it is the additional load on the computer that may affect the quality of the connection (e.g. sound or image received).

Summary and additional tips

When I conduct an online training course and I am equipped with a good camera, effective lighting, and an appropriate background, I feel more confident immediately. However, having experienced such meetings and training courses as a participant, I know that these elements also ensure the comfort of the recipient. Thanks to them, you do not have to strain your eyes to see the expression on the coach’s face and wonder what is in the background. Additionally, they have a positive impact on reception, because the first impression tells us that we are dealing with a professional and well-prepared person.

However, equipment is not everything! It is also good to wipe the lens from time to time (especially if we use a camera in a computer that we often touch with our fingers or cover with various covers). Remember that your image that you see on the monitor is not the same as the one seen by participants. The signal they receive is processed, whereas the video is compressed. If you want to know the real effect, join the meeting from another device and see your image from the perspective of the participant.

Take care of eye contact as well. Do not look participants into their eyes, though! Look at the camera lens (otherwise, your sight will be directed downwards) – it is important that the camera does not stand next to the computer, but it is placed at the height of our eyes. If you are using the laptop, place it on a stand. Initially, looking at the camera lens in such a way may seem difficult and unnatural, but believe me, you can get used to it.

On the left, I am looking at the participants of the training course. On the right, I am looking at the camera lens.

Finally, the last tip and a request at the same time. If you are participating in an online meeting, training, lesson, or lecture – turn the camera on (unless the host’s recommendations are different)! It is very difficult for everyone to speak, without being able to look at the recipients and observe their reactions. By turning the camera on, you will certainly help them, and I am sure that you will also benefit from that.

CONTACT WITH Editor in Chief

Michał Serwiński

+48/ 698 059 620‬
michal.serwinski@frsi.org.pl

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