If you count yourself amongst those educators or demonstrators who typically engage with their audiences in physical settings, the impact of the current health pandemic on this aspect of your role will not be insignificant to you.
When exploring online alternatives - the digital analogues, so to speak - the adoption of prerecorded video and live streaming has rocketed to the extent that worldwide supplies videography equipment has been noticeably affected!
And while current technology makes light work of getting online quickly, the 80-20 rules dictates that marked improvements should be achievable with just a few tweaks and considerations.
There’s a reason most video conferencing software will prioritise good audio over good video. If someone’s face stops moving, but the audio keeps flowing, your brain fills in the gaps. The other way around, and you start getting frustrated.
To a lesser extent, you’ll find it very hard to listen to someone for a long period if they have a tinny voice; and the sound of their laptop fans might start drilling a hole in your head.
In a live stream, you’ll likely be the only one talking, and for half an hour or more. So the number one piece of hardware you can invest in, to make a huge improvement in the overall quality of your videos, is a good microphone.
By placing the microphone closer to your mouth, you don’t need to amplify as much, which results in a cleaner, crisper audio input. You’ll be 80% of the way towards sounding like a radio god!
All but the best cameras will struggle in low light, and even the best will result in a better viewing experience if your scene is illuminated well.
Starting with just one primary or “key light” positioned about 45° to one side, and lifted about 40cm above your eye-line will allow the camera to focus on your face much more easily. Bring the brightness up to the point where your skin doesn’t look washed out and the light is not reflecting off your forehead.
This, by itself, will make a huge difference, but asecond light to the other side can fill in some of the shadows. Typically this would be dimmer than the key light, set to just lift the skin colour a little, making the image a little less dramatic.
Beyond this, you can look at top-down “hair light”. With just two lights pointing at your face, the background can sometimes blend in with your shoulders and hair, making it hard to see the depth in your space. A light just out of frame, pointing top down and slightly forwards onto your head and shoulders will create a soft light that creates a visual delineation.
The Elgato Keylight is a popular solution, but if you’re selecting another model, take care to choose one that allows you to change the warmth or “temperature” of the white light, and is easily dimmed. I use both the Yongnuo YN300 and the Neewer 660.
With a quality external microphone and good lighting, most laptop webcams will give you a pretty decent result. That said, there are a few reasons to consider an external webcam.
Having a webcam that’s not integrated into your laptop can make it much easier to position correctly. Perhaps you have an external primary monitor, and having the webcam placed on top of that will mean you’re almost looking at the camera while writing some code or running a demo. And the external camera won’t suffer the wobbles and shakes caused by typing, or worse, by the moving of the laptop or adjustment of the screen angle.
The higher camera angle is also going to help. It’s a more flattering perspective, and you’ve now changed the background to your video from the curtain rail and cobwebs on the ceiling, to the wall, art, or doorway. Whereas the audience might before have felt psychologically cramped in the confines of your office desk, you’ve opened the view up to create more air.
The ever-popular Logitech C922 will give you high-def on a budget, or for twice the price, go 4K with the Logitech Brio. If you’d like to go more professional, why not hook up a mirrorless camera like the Sony a5100 and connect it to your laptop using an AVerMedia BU110 or Elgato Cam Link 4K HDMI capture device. This will give you that cinematic depth-of-field and better quality image even in lower light conditions.
Ding! Honey, can you pick up some salmon on the way home?
We’ve all seen it, and probably done it. You’re up on stage, or projecting your laptop in a classroom, and a notification pops up. Sometimes it’s not as innocent as a shopping reminder, but whatever the distraction, it’ll derail the audience. If you don’t have a streaming prep checklist, start one now and put “disable notifications” right up at the top!
Monitor your own stream. I was running an online meetup a few months ago, and had a guest presenter on the show. Little did I realise that the entire introduction and first 20 seconds of his presentation were silent. I was grateful that I checked the live stream though, and had the ability to fix up this issue quickly.
Had I not been monitoring, I’d have noticed the audience messages, but it’s best not to rely on that. If you can watch your live stream on another monitor or device, you’ll quickly pick up if the webcam’s disabled, audio’s dead, or even if the stream has stopped altogether.
If you’ve done any amount of streaming, you’ve probably heard of OBS. This free and open-source software allows you to create scenes with different component layouts. Want to show your desktop full-screen with your video in the corner? Done. Switch to just your video while you’re talking about something complex? That scene’s a click of a mouse away.
When you’re in the middle of a stream though, and you don’t want to have to control OBS and also your shared desktop, Elgato’s Stream Deck is a plug-in device that provides a very convenient way to manage your stream with the literal push of a button. Each button can be programmed to change to another scene, play an audio file (canned laughter anyone?) send a tweet, manage your Twitch stream, or even control your Elgato lights. For a zero-cost software equivalent, you can grab the Touch Portal app.
Act the Part
The final tip is more psychological than technological.
We all know that one mechanism to audience engagement is animation. When we talk passionately on stage, or in the classroom, we make eye contact, we move our bodies, we gesture with our hands.
Sitting in your room, at your desk, working on your laptop, talking to a small black hole in a small black case, it’s hard to stay animated. We might start off strong, but our energy will likely drop even just a little as time passes.
If you’re able to reposition yourself and your equipment, try to set yourself up as you would be at a physical event.
If you would stand, stand. Create a bit of distance between you and the camera, or use a wide angle if the camera has one. Not so much that you’re tiny on screen, but enough so the camera can see your torso, so that your hand gestures are picked up.
When you do gesture, consider if you’re gesturing too low. I tend to raise my arms anyway when I present, but if your gestures are more likely to be around hip-height, bring those hands up 30cm. It might feel odd at first, but it will look great on screen!
But what about live demos? If you’re standing, you’ll still need to type. If you have a sit/stand or full-time standing desk, this isn’t an issue. If not, why not grab a few boxes from your latest online shopping delivery and build a mini podium? I don’t recommend including the ripped cardboard containers in the frame of the video, but this solution will bring your laptop or keyboard and mouse to the perfect position to still use your computer.
Ultimately, anything you can do to make your space work for you is fair game. It might look like a pile of junk hacked together by McGyver, but that’s all behind the scenes. No-one will see it, and if they did, I’m sure someone’s been hackier!