How is it possible that people who go to great lengths to create an attractive image in public end up doing so little to improve the way they look in Zoom calls?
I don’t consider myself vain in any way, but the moment I saw my face on screen during my first Zoom conference I knew that something had to be done to, well, just look a bit more like the way I do in real life. My pre-pandemic life.
No doubt, it’s easy to blame our deteriorating looks on the binge-eating at home or the lack of access to a salon or gym during the lockdown. But that’s only partly true because the real culprit behind that unappealing image on screen is none other than the built-in camera of your computer or mobile phone.
In a previous article I detailed the many ways to make an impression in Zoom by applying a few simple tips involving the use of microphones, artificial lights, camera angles and background scenery. But as much of an improvement these tweaks may have on your on-screen image, the quality of the video produced by your device’s built-in camera (or an external webcam) will always look, well, like something out of a miniature computer camera.
A computer’s built-in camera have many limitations; with its tiny sensor and small lens aperture, it performs poorly in low light and shows extreme sensitivity to background light flare. These cameras are also notorious for producing flat colors and cold skin tones which make the subject look pale and lifeless.
And because webcams don’t allow you to control the depth of field or manipulate background blur, it’s impossible to isolate the subject from the background and soften unnecessary details in the scene. Neither does the fixed focal length of a webcam give the user the option to change the frame size by zooming in or out or using interchangeable lenses. These cameras employ a fixed wide-angle lens installed inside or above the display where its close position to your face produces an unflattering fish eye effect.
In short: webcams produce images acceptable perhaps only for private conversations, meetings and presentations, but not quite good enough for professional work such as job interviews, public webinars, paid online tutorials, or, in my case every week, television interviews.
For these more demanding applications, hooking up an HD mirrorless camera or a DSLR to your computer could be the most affordable alternative to booking a professional broadcast studio for streaming your videos online. The difference in the result is like comparing an instant ID photo with a professional portrait of yourself. So, if you’re serious about getting that coveted “film look”, here are some basic steps to turn your webcam image into something out of the big screen without the cost of a Hollywood film.
The hardware you need to start
• The most critical (and costly) piece of hardware is a DSLR or a digital mirrorless camera. Chances are you already have one anyway so just be sure that the model you own has an HDMI or USB port that allows the camera to stream high definition video to your computer. Obviously, an HDMI or USB cable is also necessary. And a sturdy tripod to set up the camera above the computer screen.
• The only other piece of hardware to invest in is what’s called a video capture device (a.k.a. dongle) that transports the audio-video signal from the camera’s HDMI port to the computer via its USB slot. There are many brands available in the market but you need to pick the device that’s compatible with your camera model and computer operating system. With a video capture device hooked up, apps like Zoom or Skype will recognize the camera without any additional software required.
And because both the camera’s audio and video signals are streamed directly to the videoconferencing application, you can bypass the computer’s built-in microphone and attach an external microphone like a shotgun or lavalier (lapel) microphone to the camera input jack to improve the audio quality of your voice.
• If you aren’t willing to invest in a video capture device, you can download free third-party software for OSX, Windows and Linux. The compatible software will allow the computer and apps like Zoom to recognize the digital camera plugged into the USB port. In my case, I use freeware called Camera Live to get my MacBook to recognize my Nikon mirrorless digital camera. Camera Live works in tandem with another freeware app called Cam Twist in order to take the camera’s signal and stream it directly to Zoom (or other compatible videoconferencing applications). Although this works for my Nikon model, I suggest doing research online for compatibility with your own system first.
Just a note: unlike with using a digital capture device, in the software-only set-up I tried, the audio signal from the camera wasn’t recognized so I had to connect a separate microphone to the computer. If you encounter the same issue, you can always use your computer’s built-in microphone or an external microphone plugged in to the headphone port of your device as your source of audio.
Setting up the shot for the “film look”
• If you’ve found a way to get Zoom to recognize the digital camera, then congratulations, you’re done with the most difficult part – the technical set-up. The rest is about using your creativity to achieve the image you want to portray on screen.
One of the main reasons for using an external DSLR or mirrorless camera as your default webcam is to be able to control the field of view through a corresponding lens’s focal length (i.e. 28mm focal length creates a wide shot; 85mm for a tight one) and setting the aperture to produce the desired depth of field (a large aperture to produce a softer background; a smaller one for capturing more detail throughout the scene).
Personally, I prefer a 35mm or 50mm lens with the aperture set between f1.8 and f2.8; a small lens opening range which I find ideal for isolating the subject by rendering the background out of focus. Thus, a messy background or a bland wall can be transformed into a compelling backdrop of abstract patterns of light and color by simply picking the appropriate lens and aperture combination.
• The next technique to consider is getting the optimal camera position: set too high on the tripod and you capture an unflattering shot of the top of your head; too low and you risk having a portion of the computer’s display appear in the frame. Another useful tip to achieve the ideal line of sight, or the effect of direct eye contact with your audience, is to look at the camera lens when talking and not at yourself or the others on screen.
• The final step to achieving the “film look” is lighting the subject and scene properly. Because of its comparatively larger sensor, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is far more sensitive to light than webcams, and, as such, won’t require as much available light to illuminate the subject’s face and background scenery without producing visible grain.
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For most DSLR cameras, light coming in from a nearby window should be sufficient enough. Nevertheless, I suggest adding a video light (or lights) in order to soften any harsh shadows or fill in the dark areas of a scene when needed. A LED video light attached to a soft box or a ring light positioned around the camera lens will provide a soft and evenly distributed light which, when combined with the rich colors and high-definition image produced by the DSLR, will no doubt elevate your videoconferencing experience into a professional film shoot.
• Apart from the investment involved, the other downside to using a DSLR as a webcam is that it takes much more time to set up and dismantle the additional audio and video equipment compared to using a standalone computer or mobile device. Which is why it probably makes sense to assign a dedicated room or corner in the house for video calls. While you’re at it, upgrade your broadband plan to one offering 50mbps and above. After all, what’s the point of using a separate digital camera as your webcam if your internet can’t handle the required speed for streaming high definition video online.
I should warn the reader, however, that this is by no means a step-by-step tutorial; rather, a general overview of how an external DSLR or mirrorless camera can up your videoconferencing game and make you look more polished and professional in the process. For a more technically detailed explanation, I suggest visiting the many YouTube videos that have mushroomed online since the pandemic began.
Photographs by David Celdran