Image: iStock/romankosolapov

Early in my days of full-time working from home, it became apparent that my home office could use some upgrades. A thorough cleaning, several rounds of rearranging and reorganizing, and figuring out how to refill the ink on the disused printer got things most of the way there, but like many, I was plagued by being “shadow man” during my marathon days of video conferences.

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It may seem a bit vain, but when dealing with clients or leaders inside my company, a crisp, well-lit video feed from an organized and interesting room in the background is the in-person equivalent of a well-tailored and thoughtful outfit or reassuring handshake. I’ve noticed in my own interactions that it’s harder to focus on someone who appears to be in the witness protection program, their face deep in shadow, and it’s obviously difficult to have a productive conversation with someone who is dropping in and out, or getting the “bad internet remix” in which their voice sounds like an over-engineered pop singer as it chops in and out.

I searched for tips and tricks to improve my video conference setup, and once I got beyond the basics of not sitting with a window at your back or removing any clutter from your camera’s field of view, tips became rather scarce. Then a colleague clued me in to a group that’s largely figured out in-home video streaming: Video gaming streamers.

Learn from the pros

I’ve never quite understood the fascination with watching someone else play a video game, but it’s become big business with famous streamers garnering multi-million-dollar contracts. While it’s unlikely Twitch will hire any of us to livestream our next presentation, we’re essentially doing the exact same thing as the streamers: Presenting live content from home that’s a mix of digital and live video. Take away the colorful hair and replace Call of Duty with Microsoft Teams, and streaming celebrity Ninja is doing the same thing thousands of us are each day. If you search for “video camera setup for conferencing” you might find a few superficial reviews, but Google “video camera setup for streaming” and you’ll find detailed articles and videos with reviews, comparisons, and tips for getting the most from your equipment. Here are the tips I’ve found useful from the streamers:

1. Move (your camera) on up

An external monitor with a camera is an obvious office improvement and a huge productivity booster; however, most of us have our monitors too low. This promotes slouching and back problems, but it also creates sub-standard video. Try an experiment with your phone and take a “selfie” from below eye level, and one above eye level. Streamers and “selfie pros” usually use a higher angle as it’s more flattering, and moving your monitor up is not only free, but beneficial to your back and video quality.

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2. Fix your lighting

The key difference between someone who has good quality video and someone with great video is usually lighting. Once you get beyond using the terrible webcam embedded in most laptops, camera upgrades are certainly an improvement, but an investment in lighting will do way more than going from a decent $50 webcam to even a $10,000 professional video camera. While it takes some adjustment, the most effective lighting should be at eye level, and projecting at your face from either side. Another streaming trick is the use of ring lights, which, as the name implies, are circular lights that go around your webcam. This will give you the effect you’ve likely seen in music videos or fashion shoots, where your eyes are accented with a “halo” of light and the center of your face glows in an appealing manner. Like all things, you can spend from reasonable to ludicrous amounts on lighting, but you can create significant improvements in your video quality for less than $100.

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3. Have some fun

One of the more interesting video tools, employed by many streamers, can also be effective for video conferencing. OBS, short for Open Broadcaster Software, is a free open source application that allows you to perform basic broadcast studio effects on live video. You can do everything from green screen processing, to adding titles, animations, or embedded video to your stream and, when combined with the free OBS-VirtualCam driver, allow applications like Zoom and Teams to see your OBS feed as a normal webcam that can be selected from the list of available webcams on your computer.

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There are obvious fun applications, like adding animations and sound to your video, but there are also several practical applications. You can apply filters to your video feed to improve contrast or brightness, or add a title with your name and position. I have one colleague who even created a “meeting countdown” that appears in his video feed and reminds the team how much time is left in the meeting. The tool is free and only limited by your creativity.

As you get more advanced, the streamers can guide you on everything from connecting a digital camera to your computer for enhanced video quality, to employing additional tools ranging from external microphones to neat gadgets like the Stream Deck that allows you to automate various streaming or general productivity tasks. While high-quality video won’t fix bad content or poor presentation skills, it will help make a positive first impression and keep viewers engaged.