Ask Bob: What’s The Secret To Improving Video Conferencing At Home?

By: Julie Loffredi, National Lifestyle Content Desk

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of workers have found themselves tethered to a computer for online meetings and conferences. In this week’s Q&A, Bob Caniglia, Director of Sales Operations for Blackmagic Design answers questions about how to improve video conferencing at home and offers tips for purchasing a new camera — whether you are a newbie or a pro.

Q: Many of us are doing remote video conferencing at home, any tips for making the shoot look better? Tips for beginners?

Bob: The good news is that if you have a computer with a webcam, a smartphone or a tablet, you can stream and videoconference. You’ll need good content to gain viewership and some good equipment will help you improve your overall quality.

For getting started doing a professional live stream, look at getting a good camera or two, a 2-4 input video switcher that can act as the interface into whatever service you want to use. And a couple of good lights and a mic. 

But the first thing to consider is that preparation and planning are key. It does not take a lot to make a stream look and sound good, but it is incredibly easy to ruin what you are trying to do with bad audio and lighting. 

Q: How can we avoid those dreaded bad lighting mistakes?

Bob: With lighting, if you are using only your computer and the webcam, the first step is to make sure you don’t shoot the camera towards a window or a light because that closes the iris and makes the person go-to silhouette. You want the room to be well lit. 

Q: Does audio quality make a big difference?

Bob: For audio, you should use headphones or a mic to plug in so your sound is better. Put towels or foam on the desktop to make everything sound better. It’s important to absorb the sound so it doesn’t sound like a hollow room. 

To shoot, use a camera that brings in a cinematic image and that can be positioned properly. Your webcam will work but usually gives a view looking up at your face and is hard to reposition mid-stream. So, choose a camera that can be placed to give the viewer something good to look at.  

There is nothing wrong with multiple cameras. Good HD and 4K cameras are affordable and many are small enough to fit anywhere, so a multi-camera shoot is something you should consider. To do this, you will need a way to switch the camera feeds, but there are video switchers available now for under $300 that 10 years ago cost $20k. And they are small and easy enough to use that you can switch them yourself while on camera.

Beyond all of this, have patience. We are living in a time where anyone can do a stream that is broadcast quality. But it takes time to perfect a stream. 

A great example is the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini or the ATEM Mini Pro (4 inputs for $295 – $595 and works through USB). A bigger step up would be the ATEM Mini ISO ($895). These also have separate mic inputs, so you can use a better mic. No matter how good you look, if you don’t sound good no one will watch. People are more tolerant of poor video quality than poor sound quality. 

Q: What are some trends for video cameras right now?

Bob: At a high level, quality, ease of use, and affordability is driving what people are looking for with cameras. We are passed the days of having to settle for exorbitant priced cameras or cameras that require months of training to use. 

In terms of features, getting a cinematic look is what people should be looking for. I am sure everyone has been forced to watch streams that have terrible images. There are great cameras that are affordable right now that will give you a film quality look right out of the box. 

Q: When is the best time to buy a camera (or when do new products tend to be released)?

Bob: Now. There is really nothing stopping anyone from buying a high-quality camera anymore. A great example is our Pocket Cinema Camera line. These cameras are used on some of the biggest feature films and TV shows but are at a price point most people can afford. 

For the timing of new products from manufacturers, there really is no longer a set date or time of the year for the digital cameras you would need to stream. At Blackmagic Design, we are constantly innovating and trying to give our customers new features and capabilities all the time. The need for cameras is a 365-day need. 

Q: For professional videographers, what cameras are trending right now?

Bob: Cameras with a higher dynamic range, more choices in resolutions, and the ability to work with a wide range of other gear and formats.  The days of having to work entirely within a single manufacturer’s set of camera products and proprietary formats has to be over. For streaming, any camera that is easy to use is key. 

This is why our Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and 6K cameras have become so popular. They both come with 13 stops of dynamic range, amazing low light performance, are available for $1,295 and $1,995 and can be used anywhere. They include professional features allowing you to create the same “look” as Hollywood feature films. 

Q: Lots of on-air talent are setting up basement studios and doing live shots from home. What gear do they typically need to pull this off?

Bob: The basics of any good stream is a good camera or two, a 2-4 input video switcher that can act as the interface into whatever service you want to use. And a couple of good lights and a mic.

I cannot stress enough the importance of a good mic and lighting. You can get a decent ring light for $50, and a middle of the road lav mic should last you years. You see so many folks affiliated with professional broadcasters that have access to amazing products fail because they sound like they are talking in the dark and sounding like they are alone in an auditorium.

It’s possible to have a very workable home studio in a small space. And there are some very simple tricks to make sure you are properly lit and heard. 

In general, do not pick a spot with high ceilings. The high ceilings will create an echo and will be very difficult to get audio right. And if possible, try to avoid capturing your audio directly from your laptop. There are plenty of good headphones with mics, and these always sound better. 

If you don’t have access to a mic or are capturing audio on top of a hard surface, one of the ways to keep the audio from booming around is to cover the surface with cotton towels. Towels will isolate your sound. 

Not properly lighting yourself and your background is a quick way to get your stream ignored. Find a spot with overhead lighting so the light can come down on you. And find a small shop light and position it pointing at your face. 

Q: Everybody is streaming video on social media these days. Any tools that make this easier? 

Bob: The new generation of cameras and live switchers are making it much easier. Live switchers in particular have made multicam streaming productions incredibly easy. And they are affordable. A 4 input switcher like the ATEM Mini Pro 10 years ago would have cost tens of thousands of dollars and a team of experts to run. We now have 13 year old customers we talk to doing multicam live streams with an ATEM Mini. 

A switcher lets you connect a certain number of inputs from cameras or other devices and switch those feeds coming in. Here is an example: You are doing a streamed cooking show and have 3 cameras. One on the chef, another for a wide shot and one above the chef’s shoulder looking at them chopping vegetables. The switcher lets you move from one camera to the other with just a click of a button. And a good switcher lets you put in graphics and either connects you easily to a streaming service from a computer or lets you stream right from the switcher.

Another tool making streaming easier is post-production software such as DaVinci Resolve. You should always be thinking quality, and if you are not live streaming and can spend a bit of time editing and doing color correction you can really stand out. Davinci Resolve comes with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera line.

With most streams, fast turnarounds will probably be needed. So, make sure you have chosen editing software that is streamlined. When you are starting to plan your editing process you will need to quickly do things like import footage, make basic edits and trims, add transitions, titles, automatically match color and mix audio. 

DaVinci Resolve post-production software is free. So, there is no excuse not to practice, practice practice. Resolve’s cut page is perfect for quick editing, and since it is free and not a monthly subscription, you can learn how to become an organized and efficient editor at your own pace.  

Q: Tell us more about Blackmagic — what is your best selling cameras for beginners and pros?

Bob: Blackmagic Design creates the world’s highest quality video editing products, digital film cameras, color correctors, video converters, video monitoring, routers, live production switchers, disk recorders, waveform monitors, and real-time film scanners for the feature film, post-production and television broadcast industries.

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