We've been advising a client on the equipment they need to deliver training in a socially distant way. Along the way it occurred to us that you might want to build your own Zoom Room too. This will also be relevant to Facebook Live, YouTube, Vloggers and anyone inviting family and friends onto a video call. There is no better way to see your friends in Lockdown!
Let's talk about Zoom. It remains by far the easiest and most effective video conferencing software available. I know that there have been concerns about security and the company are addressing these concerns. Much of the fuss about security breaches stems from a vulnerability that requires a hacker to have access to your computer. It is a real vulnerability but not one that is likely to be significant for home or small business users. The much publicised incidents of hackers breaking into a live call are addressed via a security setting you can switch on in the setup panel.
If it's not a bookshelf in the background then somebody usually has a lightstand growing out of their head. If you can't get a good looking frame in your house, then why not use a virtual background? Zoom have some really cool ones out of the box - I particularly like the trendy loft space. Some of them are really good fun. Broadcast from the beach in the Bahamas? No problem with virtual backgrounds!
This is how Virtual Backgrounds work. You've heard of Green Screen? When it's switched on, the Zoom software selects a colour range (green) and renders it transparent. You stand in front of a green paper roll or stand. This lets you add a photograph behind. With Zoom you can supply your own photograph.
You can buy a roll of paper or an assembled screen. We prefer the roll of paper method because we can get this wide enough to stand in front of and move around. Try the Colorama Paper Roll in Chromagreen (2.18x11m) £60.50 from The Flash Centre in Birmingham. You'll need a stand to hold it. The TFC Background Support System is excellent and robust at £160 from the same supplier.
Looking Good on Camera
You really don't need professional help to look half decent on camera. Make sure that you're well lit, preferably with natural light, that you're not looming over the camera like a Gollum and that you know roughly what you want to say. Here's a professional tip - if you want to appear natural, don't learn a script. Unless you are an actual actor you will appear wooden and self conscious. I prefer to use a method I learned as a Club DJ playing live sets to crowds at the Electric Ballroom in London during the 90's. It's called Stepping Stones and trust me, it works!
I would have a list of about five records that I knew I wanted to play during the hour I would be on stage. Navigation between those records would be calibrated by the behaviour of the crowd on the dance floor. This technique combined the best of both worlds, I could improvise to my hearts content and my set would have a structure, a beginning , middle and end that I designed to make memorable. Similarly with presentation, a skill I gained while working as a lecturer in Multimedia Computing and taught to others while working at IBM. The trick is to know where you are going in the next five minutes and improvise the links. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes.
Lastly - please don't stand in front of a window - I've seen this so many times, a dark silhouette in front of an over exposed backlight. It's not a good look!
You can start by raising your laptop up to the level of your face. Stick it on a pile of books, they can't be seen on camera and you'll look 100% better. Built in laptop cameras aren't usually the best, but they work and they integrate with Zoom automatically.
Your problem here is that the camera needs to be compatible with Zoom. That excludes GoPro. If you want HD quality, be prepared to splash some cash. Two months ago these things were affordable; now, the good ones are expensive. We think that anything that doesn't support 1080p isn't worth buying. There are lots of cheap webcams out there and they all look diabolical. We like the Logitech C930e 1080P 90-Degree Extended View HD Video Webcam. For a few reasons, it's got decent built in microphones, good lowlight performance and a 90˚ field of view. A decent alternative is the previous model, the C920. At the moment these cost nearly £300. For that, you get the control you'd expect - white balance, contrast, shadows and highlights.
Whatever you buy, make sure it's compatible with Zoom. Not GoPro, nor DJI Osmo. Both great cameras, neither work with Zoom.
Caveat - any webcam supporting 1080p will need substantial processing power to work to its potential. You're old computer will reduce the quality. But if you're buying a new computer then you may not need to buy a dedicated webcam.
If the webcam doesn't clip to the screen, then why not buy a tripod to support it? The Gorillapod from Joby is excellent.
The Webcams we've mentioned have decent microphones if you're sitting in front of them. If you want to start wandering about then you'll need a separate microphone.
I’d recommend the Rode Wireless GO at £177 from Amazon with (optionally, because the built in mic is not so discreet) a Rode Lavelier mic at £59.
You may need an adapter to attach the mic receiver to your computer if you don’t have a mic 'in' socket.
This is swiftly turning into a pro level discussion, but if the light is horrible then no amount of processing will make it good. It might be worth digging out the credit card and investing in some lights. You can get by with one, pointed at the ceiling, better with two, perfect with three.
Here's a pro recommendation. Light the background separately from the subject. This will eliminate shadows and give your composition some depth. So minimum two lights. I'd recommend LED lights, they're colour balanced so won't introduce any weird tones into the picture and they don't heat up significantly.
Check out Neewer for a good balance between price and quality. Buy panels with barn doors so that you can angle the light. Use one to light the background and one the subject. Take care not to light too much from the side otherwise they'll look like they have a black eye! Shadows are to be avoided. If you can afford three lights then light the subject from both sides, evenly.
Your Own Zoom Room
You should now be in a position to look like a pro. Good luck and share this page if you think you know anyone who would appreciate it. Stay safe and keep socially distant!