Monday, July 20, 2020

Tips to Up Your Webcast / Distance Learning Game (Part 1)

Humanity hit a bit of a road bump in 2020 (we’re looking at you, SARS-CoV-2…) and many people found themselves now working, teaching, learning, and worshiping from home all using remote video. It didn’t matter if you were a network anchor, corporate associate, talk show pundit, or a third-grade teacher: we’re all “broadcasting” from improvised spaces.  Some of these chosen spaces were fortunate enough to be naturally well suited with lots of light, but more often than not they were found spaces in the home with absolutely no lighting help whatsoever, save that one lamp on your desk – you probably know which side of the pendulum you are on that one.

As time progresses – and we’re seeing thousands of employers change to this model every day – some employers decided it was acceptable for some employees to work remotely indefinitely, while others, especially educators, are uncertain about what their daily routine will look like when classes resume.  Currently, our cities are in a constant back-and-forth transition of lockdown recommendations and half-openings, and every spike in virus cases we see means more of an uncertain timeframe as to when we may see some normality.  What we can count on is that right now we’re going to have to be able to quickly pivot from working in-person to remote work, and when working remotely, it’s time to up our remote production quality to make the best of a potentially awkward appearance on camera.

Lights, Camera, Action!

As painful as it is to have to say, it’s best to think of your on-camera space as professionally as you take your in-person interactions with colleagues and coworkers.  So many jokes are made about the person who opened up their video window while less than clothed, the hilarious antics of somebody’s children giving extra help to mommy’s presentation, or just the accidental forgetful standing up at your desk while wearing your button-down shirt with your ¡Áy, Carumba! pajama pants.  Do your best to keep your interface place as free from distraction as humanly possible.  What’s inside the frame and within earshot of your mic is not just your world anymore.

The Remote Office

Ostensibly, your home location is your Remote Office – your phone, computer, lighting, internet connection are all things you would rely on at work.  Everyone is using a laptop or smartphone to record and/or participate in meetings, so in many cases, you don’t have or get to have a choice of a camera – it is what it is, we can improve lighting.  If an additional camera is an option, find something newer that features H.264 hardware encoding and ensures a faster, smoother web video experience.  There is a new generation of cameras that feature something called “HDR” on the market now – HDR means High Dynamic Range.  That ‘DR’ in HDR is the difference of brightness between the lightest and darkest areas of your camera’s picture.  These HDR cameras process the picture with algorithms that give more color, contrast, and luminance to the camera picture – in basic terms this means the image looks better and will forgive your improvised studio for some lighting inconsistencies.

Consider though the age of your laptop or computer before running out to buy the nicest HDR webcam that there is because older computers can have issues with actually making these cameras run.  Some older machines might have issues processing the data from these cameras, and slower processing means choppier video and sound if the older computer will run the camera at all.  Make sure to always check the camera’s minimum requirements against your computer’s current hardware to assure you’re not going to need two trips out of the house.

For example, here’s a really new webcam, 1920 x 1080 pixels at 60 frames a second, versus a 1280 x 720-pixel webcam at 30 frames a second.  All of those numbers are just size and detail – these two cameras in a far-fetched reference are like comparing the iPhone 8 with the camera on the left and the Nokia 3310 on the right, right now in today’s technological growth.  Both are fine cameras, but the camera on the left is up-to-date tech.  The 720-pixel camera was hot tech at the top of its time; time has passed.

When you’re shopping online for the camera, if you’re not using the existing laptop or monitor camera, look for something that sits on your monitor, or has a clip/mount that allows that to happen.  In 98% of your Remote Offices, the monitor-based camera is all you’re going to need.  They come in all price ranges from normal income to abnormal income, and in most cases, are going to work in your computer.  And remember, if you or a loved one needs something other than a monitor-mounted camera, there are options.  We’ll come back to that topic.

Placing the camera in your Remote Office isn’t a very difficult task if you remember the Selfie Constant, a very modern theory we just made up, observed in our modern times, that requires a little know-how into the world “of being cool.”  Think back on any time that you or anyone that you’ve seen anywhere at any time in history where phones had cameras, or even just cameras themselves, as crazy as that is now.  Have you ever seen anyone instinctively taking a selfie photo from under their chin, or at any angle other than directly at the face or higher?  Our human vanity is a good quality here because we are (mostly) good as a species at correcting the view we see in the phone by raising the camera up in relation to our face.  What we need to do in the Remote Office is to apply that Selfie Constant to make our camera position a little more forgiving to less than optimal lighting conditions.

The real party trick here is just to place the camera at least at your eye level, maybe with a margin of one to two inches higher than directly at your eyes, and really no higher than that.  Frankly, many of you reading this will realize (or may have already realized) that elevating the camera slightly may give you perceived aesthetic improvement – the issue with elevating the camera higher than that eye-level margin is that you begin to skew the quality of your attention that everyone uses to gauge how invested in the meeting you are:  your eyes.  You also make it more difficult for the camera shot to see you in the improved lighting you’ll try to implement, and the only thing that matters is what the camera sees and how well you can be heard.

Amplifying and Broadcasting Your Voice

For others to properly hear and understand your voice, you’ll need a way of speaking through the computer clearly and with as little background noise as possible.  Laptops will often have a built-in microphone with varying levels of quality depending on the model and price of your laptop.  Desktops will typically require some kind of microphone input and headphone output, but regardless of the kind of computer, it’s best to decide on what is best depending on your Remote Office’s acoustics.  Just as a general rule, it’s not great to have speakers as your audio output with an open microphone as the input source. 

Consider also what you look like on camera with your chosen audio gear.  A pair of iPhone or Android phone headphones that work for calls work great in your computer as well for your video conferencing needs.  They do look like a pair of buds that came with your phone, though.  However, a pair of lightweight conference headset with a higher quality microphone attached would do a better job of allowing you high-quality output while boosting the level and quality of your voice.  A conference call style headset and mic will give better results than a stock set of earbuds.  

If headsets are not your style, you may want to consider a lavalier microphone that clips onto your shirt (sort of like television newscasters).  If you're the type of presenter that moves around a lot you may we ant to consider a wireless system that can be surprisingly affordable.  There is a wide range of these available from ones that plug directly into your computer or smartphone to versions that plug into an interface where you can directly control the audio level. 

All of this, however, as long as you can be heard, will come down to lighting.

There is an expression in the world of Theatre: “If the audience can’t see you, they can’t hear you.” 

This is especially pertinent in the new settings of having to be your own audio engineer, lighting designer and video director. Assume that if you have poor lighting in your Remote Office, your audience – whether it be a classroom, team members on a sales call, or a Director’s Meeting – if the lighting is poor, there is a very good chance that your message or other important details could be missed, even if you can be heard well.
Nostril shot
No one needs to see this.

Oh, and the Selfies Constant’s actual text:  Thou shall not point thy camera up thine nostrils.

What is “Good” Lighting?

Remember what happens if “they can’t see you?”

The main goal of adding lighting to your video conferencing setup is to improve your presence.  We need to see the presenter, you, clearly, and as the most prominent subject in the frame.  There can be some challenges here, as when you’re at your workstation with no lighting, you appear as a two-dimensional object against a flat wall with no detail.  Our goal is to separate or “pop-out” the presenter from the background.  Modern webcams help with this by utilizing all of the available light and making the image as dynamically high quality as possible. 

Image courtesy Videssence Lighting.
Take a look at the three groups of images.  You’re looking at three “before and after” examples of optimizing the lighting for the camera, which will appear obviously on people’s screens.  

In the top left image, there is simply not enough light in the room.  Can you instantly see how hard it would be to pay attention in that presentation?  But, in the photo on the top right, that issue was resolved by adding a couple of lights from the front to “pop” the presenter away from the wall.  She has dimension through detail, and with that detail, she has your attention.

The middle left image is an example of poor placement.  There’s a light in the room, but it is very high above the subject, causing a “blossom” or a really intense spot of light on the subject’s forehead, and spilling onto the background.  By moving that light source forward, and getting some distance between the speaker and the background, we now see a presenter in front of a wall, and we’re ready to hear and pay attention.

The bottom row of photos shows an intense amount of ambient light in the room that is killing the room’s overall contrast and making the presenter flat.  There is a lot of natural, high color temperature light in that room!  It’s a good example of how a lot of sunlight will overpower a picture.  To rectify this and bring more attention to the presenter, lighting was placed in front of the speaker to pull her away from the background, and the overall intensity of light in the room was lowered to allow for some depth of field in this shot.

Getting Good Lighting

At this point you’re probably wondering “where, what, and how in the world am I going to light my own studio?!”  In reality, it’s not much harder than remembering “45 degrees.”

“I’m sorry?”

It’s a simple concept that is executed very easily, and it is very effective at lighting all of the shapes and surfaces on the human face.  A brilliant man named Stanley McCandless, some call him ‘The Father of Modern Lighting Design” and some called him “the fastest photon slinger of his time.”  Both ways, he invented a method of lighting the face for the stage that not only gave detail but depth.  McCandless’ method called for a light to be placed at a 45-degree angle to the left and right of a person, at a 45-degree angle straight from the face.   In other words, stand in place and draw a 45-degree line straight forward from your nose, and then 45 degrees to the left and right, put a light.  Those two fixtures would be 90 degrees apart from your face.

McCandless also employed the use of a backlight as well to separate the person from the background.  There is a color component to McCandless’ theory, but since we’re not lighting for the stage, we needn’t worry about color, only something called Color Temperature.  We’re trying to maximize the quality of light for the camera.

With most modern “studio” lighting, whose market is both video and photography, you’re going to find a huge variety of equipment that ranges from desktop size luminaire with a little desktop tripod to a more floor-based tripod system that gives you some actual height.  The price tag for a couple of studio lighting fixtures and all of the associated accessories you will need can run upwards of $1000+ or more but does not have to – If if you have the space available, you could consider using soft lights which can be very affordable.

Below is a simple softbox lighting setup for someone who teaches students online from her home studio.  Each of these tents is just a reflector that houses a simple LED A-Lamp and has a diffuser on the outside that is removable for different qualities of light.  Without the soft diffuser on the front, the light has a harsher, more crisp quality.  Each of these functions has its place, but in this particular arrangement the softer light produces better quality light on camera – the fixtures were purchased with the intent on using them without the diffuser, but once set up, the diffuse light looked better on the camera feed. 

Most fixtures do come with a diffusion accessory of some sort, and you’re really only going to know what’s going to work by employing the fixtures and checking your camera feed.

These softbox reflectors have tripods that hold them up and allow you to place the fixtures at different heights.  Some of these fixtures are a panel of LEDs with diffusion accessories instead of a light socket and a reflector.  The models are endless, the choices are infinite, and the confusion level can run into the high percentile.  What’s most important to know with respect to this is that the thing you get is going to make light, and you will end up adjusting the fixture and the output to give you the look you want.  “It’s not rocket surgery,” as a wise man once said.

Here’s a shot of the inside of the softbox, which again is ostensibly a big reflector:

The light source inside this unit is just a 60W-equivalent LED lamp and has a silver dappled surface to make the most diffuse reflection. 

You’ll see reflectors like this colored silver, and you’ll see some that are colored gold.  The silver reflectors make a crisp, white light while the gold reflectors cast a strong warm reflection onto the person sitting.

Something you will notice in the photo from the last page is that the face location and the height of the light sources in the reflectors is about 45 degrees, both from the center and from the horizon line.  Regardless of the quality or any other factor, those sources are about in that McCandless Zone of 45-degree angles, and the result makes an even, modeled look on the face of the person, who in this case is Teacher Rachel:
Notice the balance of the frame above – this is the camera’s view.  Notice how the picture is balanced elementally, and how the face is bright but not overpowering, and structured around the lips, nose, and eyes is to not make Teacher Rachel look flat and two-dimensional.  As she speaks, the mouth and lips are structural and illuminated so that the students learning English from her can see how she is pronouncing the words.  Also notice the camera is right at her eye level, giving natural conversational height to the subject.  All of these things are as important for video quality as they are for compositional effectiveness.  The better her form looks and the more detail there is to make her multi-dimensional, the better her message and lessons will be for her students.

This is a shot of the rear of the lighting setup, with reflectors on their tripods and the camera mounted to the top center rear of the monitor.  Remember when we discussed the important view being that which the camera sees?  Teacher Rachel’s camera view does not pick up her teaching and visual aids strewn across her desk ready for action, they only see magic when she picks one up.  The takeaway here is that the magic that we share in the meeting and work environment is that of a well-framed camera shot, clean and well-lit.

For the sake of brevity, let’s look at a quad shot of Teacher Rachel’s setup with and without some of the light sources on.  In the photo below, we have nothing but the sunlight coming through the window in the top-left frame; top right shows a lamp from across the room that was being used as fill.  Bottom left, the sun lighting the wall and the left-hand reflector are on; bottom right, all elements are used, which includes both reflector boxes and the sun from the window lighting the wall.  What do you notice here?

The Direction of the light and intensity is a very proportional relationship; you want the direction to be perfect, and the intensity to be just enough.  By removing the mystery of the face, you allow the audience to pay closer attention to the content rather than being lost in the shadows.

In Part Two, we’ll talk about color temperature, different kinds of lighting fixtures and how they look on camera, and some tricks to make your background cooler than the coolest Zoom background.  Stay tuned!

We've curated some options for our customers in a mini-store for you to check out at the link below, or call your local Barbizon Lighting office at 866-502-2724 to discuss your situation and we'll be glad to help you with the right solution for your needs!