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Videoconferencing is a part of "work from home" life, and the typical webcam is just not capable of giving you a good picture without some help. Here are 11 different upgrades that will level up your Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, or any other video chat, making you look better and sound better without spending a lot of money! I will also give you some PRO TIPS to help you get the most out of your upgrades!
Please note that while the listed hardware would work for almost any Windows PC or Mac or maybe even Linux, any software listed would be for Windows PC only. If you have suggestions for equivalent ones on a Mac or Linux, please let me know in the comments. The Amazon items are listed mainly for illustration purposes, and no specific endorsement should be inferred.
Any way, let's get started.
Level 1: Free Upgrades
NOTE: these software upgrades are for Windows only. If you know of Mac or Linux equivalents, please let me know in the comments!
Microphone Noise Reduction
If you work from home some noise is almost unavoidable, even if you work from inside your closet. What if there is a way to filter it out? Turns out there are multiple solutions for Windows users!
NVIDIA Broadcast https://www.nvidia.com/en-us/geforce/broadcasting/broadcast-app/
NVidia, using the power of its GPU is able to eliminate most noise from the microphone. Even better, it is simply FREE! The catch is, you need an NVIDIA GPU (any GeForce, Quadro, Titan, or RTX) in your Windows PC. Please follow the guide linked above to download, install, and configure it. I use this myself.
Noise Blocker https://closedlooplabs.com/
Noise Blocker is a similar Windows program that you install and it automatically eliminates noise from the microphone. The free version only works for 1 hour every day. Pay $19.95 for unlimited use.
Finally, we have Krisp, another Windows program that claims to offer superior filtering to even RTX Voice. The free version is limited to 2 hours per week. For unlimited use, you need to pay $60 per year.
NOTE: For Linux users, there are Cadmus and NoiseTorch that do similar things. Not aware of any MacOS equivalents.
Virtual Green Screens
Zoom took a lead in video calls because it was easy to install and it comes with virtual background capability built-in. It is able to add a virtual background behind you even if you do not own a green screen (but it will happily use one if you do have one, which is discussed in Level 3 upgrades)
But what about people who don't use Zoom? What do they do?
Fortunately, there are several Windows software package that addresses this. And both have free versions for you to try out and pay for the full version later.
NVIDIA Broadcast https://www.nvidia.com/en-us/geforce/broadcasting/broadcast-app/
NVIDIA Broadcast, previously mentioned for microphone noise reduction, can also perform greenscreen, for video apps that do not support it! And it is, of course, FREE for NVIDIA video card users. However, it has some flickering problems.
ChromaCam has a Windows version and a Mac version. The Lite version is free but has a permanent logo. If you want the full version (logo free) it is $29.99. It works.
XSplit VCam https://www.xsplit.com/vcam
XSplit VCam only has a Windows version and runs on a subscription model with a monthly cost. The free version does work, but it has a permanent logo. You can pay monthly, buy a multi-month license, or even buy a lifetime license for $49.95. They also offer a bundle subscription that gives you access to their other 3 apps, including a game streaming app and a video editing app.
Both will work for personal use. Try both and see which you prefer.
Level 2: Hardware Upgrades
Hardware upgrades can make your video calls look and sound much better without spending too much. You can add them individually over time.
Swingarm Webcam Mount
A webcam has a VERY weak mount that is designed to perch on top of a monitor. It is either too far or not far enough, and often is too low or too high. This is even more true for those of you on a laptop or notebook using the built-in webcam.
The solution is a swing-arm stand for your webcam (and a separate camera for you laptop and notebook users), so you can position it anywhere you want. You will be surprised how much easier it is to get a better look on your camera when you can move it freely.
Alternatively, a gooseneck mount will work the same way.
PhotographyPro website has a tip about making a good portrait shot:
Have the subject lean slightly towards the camera for a more engaging pose (or shoot slightly from above to get the same effect). Have their body and shoulders turned slightly away from the camera for a natural feel.
Webcam for video conference is basically a video portrait shot, so the same tip applies. Your camera should be just ABOVE your eye level looking slightly down, and slightly offset from directly in front of you. This is generally considered more photogenic than shooting up from below (and possibly looking into your nostrils, a common problem for laptop and notebook users).
An adjustable webcam stand would let you adjust that very easily.
Ring Light with Telescopic Stand
Light with Tripod Telescopic Stand, 2-pack
While most modern webcams have a low-light mode, the result is a bit uneven and makes your skin looks unnatural. Adding light is a far superior way to improve your onscreen look.
Another reason to add light to your face is your monitor also puts out a fair amount of light, but that varies greatly depends on what you are displaying. So if you are displaying something that changes between dark and light, your face will get the same effect. And if you display something of color... your face also gets that hue. The only way to fix it is to add an external light source to "wash out" any light from the monitor.
If you are on a laptop and your laptop is on a desk, your face will be lit from below, giving you a sinister horror-film look (remember Blair Witch Project?). That is good for Halloween, not so good for serious business.
The simplest way to get more light is to face a window, so you get natural outside light, but that is not always possible due to furniture placement, time of day, and so on.
Therefore, you should add lights to your desk that adds more light to your face. If you are on a budget, just start with a regular desk lamp. Put it BEHIND the camera, but facing you. They can be only a few bucks, or really fancy LED lamps.
If you want to buy a light, a ring light with a telescopic stand is very useful, as it gives a more diffused light and minimizes shadows on your face. Ideally, the ring light should be just behind the camera, but practically speaking, it may have to go behind the monitor, and high enough to peek over the monitor. That is why you need one with a telescopic stand so you can adjust the height of the light.
If you don't like the tripod stand, it may be possible to install such a light on a swingarm as well.
Try all the color temperatures or filters available so you can find the best look for you on camera.
Use at least two light sources, with three lights preferred. The ring light, placed behind the camera, will evenly illuminate your face, while a second or even a third light, placed on the left and right front (behind the monitor), and tilted down slightly to face you, will fill in any shadows and give your face more dimension.
BONUS: The extra lights also eliminate any shadow for greenscreen, which is discussed in Level 3 upgrades. You can just start with your desk lamp placed behind the camera toward you for now, and add other lights later.
Similar to the swingarm for the camera, a setup for the microphone gives you the flexibility of moving the microphone out of the way when you are not using it while giving you the flexibility to move it closer to you when you need it.
The pop screen and the foam windscreen are to prevent "pop" sounds like smacking your lips and so on from being heard by the microphone. You will sound much better than from the webcam's microphone further away, or even against the tiny little microphone in your headset.
I don't recommend the simpler tripod desk stand as they limit the placement of the microphone. You can place a swingarm microphone closer to your mouth and achieve better sound fidelity.
A podcast type microphone will record MUCH better sound than any headset microphone.
If you already have a podcast microphone such as the Blue Yeti or similar microphone, then just get an anti-vibration mount and a swingarm stand to upgrade your setup.
Try speaking into the microphone at different angles. From the side, directly on, with the pop filter, with the foam filter, and so on. See which way makes you sound better.
Level 3: Proper Green Screen
While a virtual green screen like that in Zoom is virtually free (and there is software to add it to other video calls as we listed several in Level 1), there are limitations to it. It does not like head movements. If you turn your head your head's outline will shimmer. And if you hold up your hand it will likely disappear unless you put it in front of your face (though a recent update by Zoom seems to have fixed this for the most part).
The alternative is to get a real green screen for not that much money. I bought a stand and the pop-up panel for about $70, and you may be able to find them for even less.
NOTE: The pop-up panel comes in SEVERAL different sizes. Please make sure you compare prices for the same size. At the MINIMUM you need the 3 ft x 5 ft version. Though I recommend the larger 5 ft x 6.5 ft version.
Make sure the stand can go over 7 ft tall as the stand come in many different sizes as well.
The pop-up panel can be used either vertically or horizontally. Mounting it horizontally allows you to put the stand a little further back without needing to move the camera.
We have covered 11 free or cheap upgrades to your video conference setup. They work individually or together (except the stand and the green screen panel which goes together, and software, which you usually only install one, not all of them) They are guaranteed to level up your next video conference. You will look and sound much better on camera. You will have leveled up.
Stay safe out there, and I'll see you next time even with more tips on digital life.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 kschang
Brinafr3sh from West Coast, United States on December 04, 2020:
Hi, this is amazing. Zoom is part of our new normal. People will still use Zoom and it's partners to communicate/meet for entertainment and revenue. Also, Google TV is another new technology for entertainment and news. Thanks