How to Make Your Video Camera Look Amazing

During the height of the pandemic, I decided to pour some time and energy into my home office. My goal was to improve the quality of my video camera setup such that I could record YouTube videos and share a clean, crisp image of my face when talking to people over video conferencing applications such as Zoom.

I posted a small screenshot showing results from 7 months ago on LinkedIn. It was well received. Since then, I get asked about my setup a lot whenever I join a video call. It’s a nice compliment but difficult to verbalize in a short period of time.

This post contains information on my setup and shopping links so that you can snag what you like.

Design Overview

I have a dedicated home office that contains my computers, laptops, and other equipment. My primary computer, an NZXT multimedia machine, drives all of my video, light, and sound equipment. Behind my primary monitor is a ring light for my face with a Sony alpha camera attached in the ring. A nice pair of headphones, along with some earbuds, provide audio output while my trusty Rode Podcaster handles audio input.

Things have changed a bit since this photo, but the fundamentals that I describe in this post remain the same.

I’ve been told that there are three important parts to capturing a great experience:

  1. Audio, the most important
  2. Lights
  3. Video

Audio

I always use a headset and microphone. This is a hard requirement. Do not use the built-in microphone from a laptop because it is cheap and picks up vibrational noise, including fans, from the enclosure and surface. Without a headset, you’re always going to produce feedback that is annoying or painful for the audience. It doesn’t matter how good your noise filtering software is.

I suggest Rode for audio input. The Podcaster and NT-USB-Mini are great choices. I’ve had my Podcaster for NINE YEARS and it still works like new. Getting a shock mount and boom arm to hold the microphone and avoid vibration is a must if you go the Podcaster route.

Audio output is entirely up to you. I have a cheap set of earbuds for casual usage, which is nice for video calls where I want to avoid a big bulky headset. For the rest of the time, I enjoy my Logitech G Pro X. As an added bonus, it has an audio input microphone built-in that isn’t that bad. I removed it from mine.

I use colored foam pads to dampen echo. The pads are behind my computer and in the direction of my voice. I used spray glue to adhere the pads to a foam board that I snagged from Hobby Lobby. This makes handy panels out of the foam pads. Below shows the idea – these 6 foam pads are glued to the board and are much easier to handle and hang versus dealing with each pad individually.

I’ve crafted a set of 4 panels using a total of 24 foam pads while using command strips to adhere the panels to the wall. This process avoids using fasteners or harming the wall and paint and the strips can be repositioned in the future if the office design mutates. Make as many as needed to reduce or eliminate echoes.

Lighting

Great lighting is tough. Many people I know opt for very fancy and expensive solutions that are way too much for my taste.

I bought this Neewer ring light on a recommendation from a friend in the know. It’s cheap, has an adjustment slider, and holds any phone or camera with a standard mount screw. It comes with clear and soft tan diffuser panels that snap into the ring.

For convenience, this is plugged into a 3-prong outlet with a short range remote control. This gives me push-button access to lights without having to waste money on expensive “connected” lights or manually dial in the correct light levels each time.

Video Camera

I had an old Sony alpha 5100 with a very nice 1.8f lens sitting in the closet because, well, I had nowhere to go! I figured there must be a way to connect it to my computer and started digging. Turns out that yes, there are lots of ways!

The first challenge is connectivity to the camera. I use this AVerMedia device to capture the video signal from the camera over an HDMI cable. For my Sony, this required getting a Mini DisplayPort (Mini DP) to HDMI cable to connect to the AVerMedia. From there, the signal is sent over high speed USB from the AVerMedia to my NZXT computer.

Sony also provides Imaging Edge software to remotely control the camera settings, such as autofocus, focal length, aperture, ISO, white balance, and so forth. I used a different USB cable to connect the camera directly to my computer to control the camera settings.

My Sony had one drawback – power. It was not possible to charge the device while it’s on, which seems crazy. To remedy this, I snagged a “dummy” battery. This is device that is shaped exactly like the camera battery and inserts like normal, except that there is no battery inside. Instead, a cable leads from the “dummy” battery down to a power plug. This means the camera runs directly off my home office power instead of an internal battery.

Multimedia Software

You can stop at this point and just use the direct feed from the camera. It will show up as a video device for most programs. However, I also wanted to do some live streaming and other fun things. Thus, I installed Streamlabs OBS and setup some different camera angles while also adjusting the video settings, such as gamma, tones, and lighting.

I won’t go further into Streamlabs as their documentation is fairly intuitive. Just remember that when using Streamlabs, the only way to get your video over to a conference application, such as Zoom, is to start a virtual webcam.

This is done in Settings > Virtual Webcam > Start Virtual Webcam. It works great and I’ve had zero problems with it.

Summary

It’s been half a year since I set this up and added a Stream Deck to the mix. Everything works great, no issues to report, and I’ve classified the project as “finished” with nothing more I need to invest.

I like this setup because it’s relatively easy on the wallet, requires minimal effort to setup and configure, and provides the functionality that I need. I think folks have a tendency to copy the “extreme setups” from recording studios or popular live streamers. That’s not necessary when starting out!

Try a setup and see what you like or don’t like, then tweak. So long as you get the desired results and it doesn’t take an on-call tech staff to operate your gear, consider it a success. :-)