Lots of people are suddenly finding themselves working from home, and need to join video conferences from their living room or home office. Here are several tips to improve your virtual meetings and presentations on a budget! I'll start with some things you can do for free to improve your Zoom meetings. If you're recording virtual conference talks from home, or hosting live webinars, you'll definitely want to upgrade to a nicer camera, so take a look at my recommendations for the best video kits under $500 and under $1000!
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First, here are some things you can do to improve your meetings and presentations without spending any money.
Mute yourself when you're not talking. This is probably the #1 recommendation especially for people who are new to working remotely. You would be surprised how much of a difference this makes for everyone else on the call. It can be hard to recognize this since you don't hear your own audio on the call, you can't really tell how much your background noise is spilling into the call for everyone else. This costs nothing, so there's really no excuse not to.
Sit inside your closet. Really the goal here is to reduce the number of flat surfaces around you. Flat surfaces will lead to more echoes, so whatever you can do to reduce the number of large flat surfaces the better. Sitting inside your closet will surround you with the soft non-reflective surfaces of your clothes and you will sound much better! Even the professional radio hosts are recording from their closets right now. If you can't fit in your closet, then you can hang blankets up on your walls to reduce the number of flat surfaces in your room.
Here's a recording comparing the audio quality between recording in a room with flat walls and recording in a closet. This was recorded from the built-in microphone on my laptop. Listen to these with headphones so you can hear the differences better!
Here are some tips for improving your video quality without spending any money. And it turns out that these tips also apply even if you have fancy cameras!
Use a window as a light source. Sit with your face towards a window so that it illuminates your face, or sit parallel to a window. The goal here is to use the light from the window to get some light on your face.
Whatever you do, don't sit with your back to a window, because you'll be horribly backlit and will look like a silhouette.
Avoid bright lights in the background of your video. Bright lights in the background like ceiling lights or windows will make the camera struggle to get a good exposure on your face.
Set your camera at eye level, not below. Set your computer or phone so the camera is at approximately eye level so that we're not staring at a view of the underside of your chin.
Avoid a cluttered background. This one can be a trick to balance with the idea of avoiding bright lights in the background depending on the layout of your room. And my photos above are not a good example of this at all. But if you can find a place where the background of your video is relatively plain, like a flat wall or closet doors, the camera will have a better time focusing on your face, and people won't be distracted by looking around your room.
If you're ready to spend a bit of money, here's what you can do for under $100.
Disclaimer: Many of the links in this post are affiliate links which means I get a small commission if you buy items from these links. I am very selective about products I recommend, and I have not been paid to endorse any of these products.
Use headphones. Using headphones, even ones without a microphone, will significantly improve your calls, since it will make sure the sound coming from your computer can't be picked up by the microphone. A classic problem with video conferences is if your computer sound can be picked up by your microphone, other people in the call will hear an echo of themselves, which is incredibly distracting.
Again, you won't be able to tell that it's your fault this is happening, because you don't hear your own audio on the call. Literally any headphones will do, in fact you probably already have some sort of headphones so this may not cost you anything additional anyway. I'm not going to give you a specific recommendation on headphones because anything is better than nothing.
Use a headset microphone. The next best thing you can do is to use a separate microphone other than the built in computer microphone. Moving the microphone closer to your face will pick up more of your voice and less background noise. Anything is better than nothing in this category, plus a headset microphone will usually come built in to headphones, so you get the previously mentioned benefits as well.
This $30 pair of headphones with built in microphone is a pretty affordable option! By no means are these the highest quality headphones or microphone, but again it's better than not having it! Generally headsets around this price range will be best for cutting out background noise on your end, even though the audio may sound "tinny" compared to a better microphone. Remember, when you're on a call, it's more important that your voice comes across cleanly without background noise rather than sounding like podcast-quality audio.
Your iPhone EarPods will work too. Of course if you already have AirPods or fancier noise cancelling headphones, those are fantastic options too, but since they're more than $100 they aren't my top recommendation in this category.
Upgrade to a studio microphone. The Rode NT-USB Mini is a $99 studio-quality USB microphone. Plug this into your computer and you'll instantly be able to use it in recording apps like Garage Band, or use it as an audio source in Zoom, or even use it as a microphone in browser-based video conferencing software. This microphone sounds fantastic, and is a huge upgrade compared to headphone microphones. You'll want to make sure you sit a few inches away from the microphone to get the best sound out of it.
Here's an audio sample from the Rode NT-USB Mini microphone. For $99 this is hard to beat.
Get a good webcam. The best you can do at this price is upgrade to an external webcam instead of the built in laptop webcam. This will give you a significant boost in quality, but only if you have also followed the advice in the "free" section above to make sure you have good lighting! Two solid options for external webcams are the Logitech C920 and C922, they're roughly equivalent, so get whichever one happens to be in stock, since they're both pretty popular right now. There's a handful of other cameras in this category, ranging from $50 to $300, but frankly you won't get that much better video out of the more expensive ones, so if you're interested in spending more, I'd recommend saving up for a more significant upgrade.
I have noticed that the Logitech camera tends to overexpose my face when there's a bright light on my face, but regardless, the image is much sharper and has less noise than the built-in webcam. Plus it's easier to avoid staring up your nose with an external webcam that can sit on top of a separate monitor.
Use your DSLR or mirrorless camera as a webcam. If you already have a DSLR or mirrorless camera with clean HDMI out, then you can use it as a webcam by buying an HDMI capture device. The best option at this price range is the Elgato CamLink 4K, if you can find it in stock anywhere. You can usually find it for between $99-$129. This of course assumes you already have a nice camera, but if you don't yet, that takes us to the next section.
So, what does $500 get you? Now we can upgrade a few different parts, and add some lighting as well!
The next upgrade from a webcam is the camcorder style cameras. A Canon Vixia R800 ($210) will get you a much better picture than a webcam, but you'll also need to spend money on an HDMI capture device to get the video into your computer.
You'll notice a sharp increase in the image quality with a camcorder compared to a webcam. It does a much better job with the exposure, and there is a lot less noise in the picture as well.
If Sony is more your thing, then you might check out the Sony CX405 Camcorder, a similarly sized and priced camcorder to this Canon, however the CX405 doesn't have a microphone jack so you'll have to use a microphone connected to your computer instead.
You can also attach external microphones to the Canon Vixia to get good audio without having to wear a headset. You'll want to get the microphone as close to your face as possible, and a great way to do that is to mount the microphone on a scissor arm so that it floats just above your head out of the frame.
We can even throw in some LED lighting and still come in under $500! Adding an LED panel will give your video a boost when you don't have good natural light from a window.
You might notice the harsh shadows on the backdrop now, but that's because I'm sitting only a few feet away from it. The farther away you are from the backdrop the less shadows you'll see. However, this is one of the drawbacks to these kinds of small LED panels compared to using a large window or larger LED light.
You'll be able to go a long way with this kit! You can even use this for doing pre-recorded conference talks, or high quality streaming on Twitch.
The nice thing about using camcorder-style cameras is they're optimized for long-running recordings and being plugged in to a power outlet. While you can definitely get better quality video out of a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you'll need to add an external power supply, and make sure there's no issues with the camera overheating when being in video mode constantly.
Keep in mind that using the Elgato Cam Link (or really any HDMI capture card) requires a pretty fast CPU. The Cam Link specifically requires at least a quad-core i5 processor.
The Movo shotgun microphone is a very different kind of microphone compared to the Rode NT-USB Mini. For one, this has an 1/8" output and is made to connect to cameras rather than computers. It's a shotgun style microphone, so it will capture your voice even if you're farther than a few inches away, although it's extremely directional so if you turn your head away from it the sound will drop off sharply.
If you need a slightly taller and more stable tripod, I would go with this 54" Selfie Stick Tripod, although it's big enough it's really not practical to use as a selfie stick anymore. The 40" tripod holds up the camera fine if extended only about half way, but starts to get a bit unstable once it's at its full height. The 54" one will hold it up no problem at the full height.
Why do I not recommend GoPros? GoPros are optimized for being action cameras, which includes things like being waterproof, shooting high frame rates and slow motion, and downloading footage into smart phones. These are not features you need in a camera for live video, so it doesn't make sense to pay the premium for them. Also, while they do have an HDMI output, it's not necessarily realtime, and will be delayed anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 a second, plus you'll still need an HDMI capture card to get the video into your computer.
If you're willing to spend another $500, the next things I would upgrade are the camera and the lighting.
Cameras can quickly eat up a huge chunk of any budget, it's just a matter of how much you want to spend on them. In order to stay under our $1000 target, I would go with the Lumix G7 camera for $500 with the kit 14-42mm lens.
This is a fantastic entry-level mirrorless camera, and hard to beat at that price. You will notice a huge difference in the image quality with this compared to all our previous cameras.
You'll notice another sharp step up in quality between these cameras. There is again much less noise in the picture from the Lumix, and it's a lot sharper as well. It also tends to do better at worse lighting conditions. Both of these photos were lit with the 1'x2' LED panel linked below.
Once you start getting into this range of cameras, there will be some other things that we'll need to upgrade as well. For example we're going to need a stronger tripod, and also will need an external power supply for the camera so that we don't have to rely on its batteries.
This light is a 1x2-foot LED panel that rolls up into a small case for travel. Using a large light like this placed relatively close to your face will give you much softer light than a small light source. It's also of course far brighter than the small LED panel we looked at before as well.
With this kit, you'll be the best-looking participant on your remote meetings, you'll have fantastic quality livestreams on Twitch and YouTube, and you'll have a high-quality setup for recording videos that you edit on a computer later.
This is already a fantastic upgrade to your home office video rig. If you already had some of these items and have some extra money to spend, here are the next things I would recommend upgrading if you can afford it:
If you want to take your home studio to the next level, check out my video on YouTube for a complete behind the scenes tour of how I host remote workshops from home!
I hope this post has given you some ideas on how to make better videos from home! Follow me on YouTube for more tips and tricks for getting the most out of a home office studio!
I've been helping Donut.js record their meetup talks for about 3 years now. It's been a fun way to experiment with various video recording setups, and the talks are always great so it's nice to have those recorded.
I've always used a smaller kit compared to the rig I bring to large multi-day conferences. But lately I've had to hand off some camera gear to their volunteers since I've been out of town on work trips for most of the meetups this year.
I've been looking for smaller and smaller gear to make this easy to transport, cut down on setup time, but also so that it can be operated by someone without a lot of experience with the gear. I've tried a few iterations of kits for them, but so far the most reliable way to record the meetup is using a camcorder, a separate device to capture the presenter's slides, and a separate audio recorder, then sync up everything in post.
In an ideal world, I'd be able to hand them a small box and a video camera, they could plug everything in, and it would record a single stream mixing in the presenter's slides, the video camera, and the audio. Here's a little diagram showing what I'd like in an ideal world.
The video camera and presenter's laptop connect to the "magic box" via HDMI. We use a PA in the venue, which has an XLR output, and that needs to connect to the magic box to get audio into the mix. Lastly, I want the presenter's laptop HDMI to pass through to an output so that we can feed the venue's projector from the box. The box should be able to record the video output to an SD card or hard drive. I don't need it to be able to livestream, but bonus points if it can.
Part of the goal is also to cut down on post-production time. Right now I have to sync the audio and video (automatically) in Final Cut or Premiere, then line up the recording of the slides manually. It ultimately isn't that bad, but does mean the whole process takes around an hour for the three talks. Ideally I could record a mix of the video and slides already combined into a single video so that the only work is trimming the start and end, and adding the title slides. Here's a snapshot of the kind of layout I'd like to make.
This means scaling the slides and scaling and cropping the video. I would settle for a side-by-side layout like the below, where both are scaled but not cropped.
My last requirement, and one that rules out a few otherwise great devices, is that I need the device to be simple enough to operate to explain in a single page of instructions. I need it to be plug the HDMI and audio inputs in, then turn on the device, and hit record. Once I've set it up once, it can't require any configuration on site.
So far, I haven't been able to find a device that can do all of these things at the same time. Here's a list of all my requirements:
Here are a few setups that I've tried or investigated.
This device is so close to being perfect. It has only one HDMI input, but you can also plug in a USB webcam as a second camera. While that's obviously not going to be as good quality as a real camera, I would consider it good enough for this use case. The Webcaster X2 is the device that made the screenshot above with the text "My Great Presentation", so you can see that it's able to scale both the HDMI input as well as the USB webcam. Here's where it fails:
I'm also not a huge fan of the fact that it's actually an Android device, but it is pretty well done anyway, and mostly you can ignore that fact while using it.
Total cost: $300 for the Webcaster, but this doesn't really apply because it can't record locally at all so it's not really an option.
At a recent conference I recorded, I hacked together a DIY version of the box using a few components.
The inputs are connected with short HDMI extenders to expose them to the outside of the box.
This makes setup super easy, since you just plug in the three HDMI connectors and you're good to go. In this conference we were using a lav mic that fed into the camera, so the audio was coming in via that HDMI.
The scaler handles taking whatever resolution peoples' laptops throw at it and convert it to 1080p, plus outputs that back out for the projector. The multiviewer then takes the scaled computer output and the HDMI camera and creates an image with two smaller windows of each video. It's also able to select which one to use audio from. The output of the multiviewer goes into the Atomos recorder to record the final output.
This worked well, but is kind of a clunky solution, plus wouldn't work for Donut.js where the audio needs to get fed in separately from an XLR cable. That'd require a few more pieces of hardware such as an HDMI audio injector or such.
Total cost: $300 scaler, $300 multiviewer, $100 cross-converter, $500 HDMI recorder: $1200 plus some cables and maybe also an audio injector.
I haven't actually used this device yet, but it comes very very close to being a perfect solution based on all the videos and reviews I've seen.
It has three HDMI inputs, and one pass-through port which is perfect for feeding the projector.
It even has an XLR input on the side which we can use to input the feed from the PA.
But here's what it's missing:
Switching between picture-in-picture and one of the HDMI sources can be done with the physical buttons on top, and would be easy enough to instruct people how to do.
I suppose I could live with picture-in-picture instead of side by side, but I would feel better about that if it also had built-in recording to an SD card.
By the time you add an external recorder, you're spending $1500 on the VR-1HD and $500 on the recorder, for a total of $2000.
The Tricaster is definitely an all-in-one solution, but I'm ruling it out immediately since it requires quite a lot of configuration to get running and isn't something I would consider handing off to a volunteer. It's also quite expensive at a baseline price of $6000.
The Blackmagic ATEM is my goto for larger events, and I do really like it. However, it's still a bit too complicated to hand off to someone to use. It doesn't have built-in recording, so you have to pair it with an external recorder. It also doesn't have a built-in scaler so you need that for the slides too.
It also can only do picture-in-picture, not side by side video. In order to do that you need to step up to the much larger and more expensive devices.
I haven't actually put together a complete parts list for what it would cost for this option because I don't think it's viable at all. The ATEM TVS is $1000, the recorder is $600, and the scaler is $300, so the base cost before all the other accessories you'd need is $1900.
I'm including this option in the list just so people don't tell me I forgot it. It turns out this isn't actually a very good solution, because it won't be an all-in-one box, and also is kind of complicated to operate, requiring a monitor and keyboard and mouse.
Trying to do this on a laptop isn't really feasible since it requires two HDMI capture cards plus a USB audio interface. I wouldn't trust Windows to do this since it's very easy for a Windows computer to accidentally start running auto-updates at inopportune times. Running Linux is an option, but would then likely require more explanation to people using it.
I would want to be able to configure the computer to launch OBS on boot and restore a saved configuration, so that there is no fiddling with software to get it running.
Overall I feel like there are too many moving parts and different ways this can fail, and also would require a lot of plugging wires in so the setup time would actually be pretty long.
I've actually used the SlingStudio at Donut.js quite a bit myself, and it is again almost perfect.
The total cost of this setup is:
The Epiphan Pearl Mini sure looks like a fantastic device. I haven't tried it out myself, but I've looked at a bunch of reviews of it. It actually seems like it's the only thing that actually ticks all of the feature boxes.
The only thing I am not clear on is what happens when you first boot it up. I am hoping that it would restore the last used configuration and be ready to go immediately.
Really the only downside to this is the cost. It's a $3500 device, which is good for what it can do, but also still quite a lot of money. After this much research though, I'm coming around to the idea that maybe it's worth it.
So I think out of all of these options, the best is the Pearl Mini ($3500), and second best is the Roland VR-1HD with external recorder ($2000).
I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this! Did I forget about any options? Is there a new device that's come out that I don't know about yet?
Write a blog post response or ping me on Twitter to get in touch!
If I ever do find the perfect solution, I will be sure to post a review video on my YouTube channel!
I've been looking for ways to slim down the amount of equipment I need to bring to record conferences talks, both to make it easier to travel to other cities, as well as to speed up the setup time during an event.
This post outlines my current favorite set of hardware for recording and livestreaming conference talks and meetups. I'm able to fit all of this into a backpack and carry it on my bicycle to local events, or take it on planes to events in another country.
The SlingStudio system has been a total game changer, packing an unbelievable amount of power into a tiny box.
At the core of the system is the SlingStudio Hub. This is the brains of the operation: a video switcher, encoder, and recorder. This device broadcasts its own wifi hotspot, which you can then connect your cameras and controllers to. You can use any HDMI camera as a video source by using a CameraLink to wirelessly connect the HDMI device, or you can use any iOS or Android device as a camera as well. This provides a great opportunity to have a super compact rig, since iPhone cameras are actually pretty good now.
For small productions, I will bring one iPhone camera, and one camcorder connected via HDMI. The iPhone provides a good enough picture for a wide shot of the room, and the camcorder provides good optical zoom and low light capability for a close-up of the presenter.
The rear of the device provides a few ports, most importantly an HDMI input and audio input, which means you have a built-in way to grab the slides from the presenter as well as a good audio feed.
I usually plug in an HDMI 1x2 splitter into the input, so that I can send the presenter's computer to the house projector as well as this device. This makes the computer show up as a camera angle in the switcher. The hub can accept a huge variety of HDMI resolutions as the input and it handles scaling itself. I haven't yet found a computer that this device couldn't handle.
The Hub is controlled via an iPad or Mac app. I usually use an iPad since it's nice having a dedicated device with a touch screen for this, plus it's easier to walk around with the iPad.
You start by connecting the iPad to the Hub's wifi hotspot that it broadcasts, then when you launch the SlingStudio Console app, it will connect to the Hub and provide you with a controller interface to see all the camera angles and switch between them.
Since my goal is to have this pack up entirely in a backpack, I wanted to find the smallest options for cameras, even if it comes somewhat at the expense of quality. I typically use one or two iPhone SEs ($100 used), and a Canon Vixia HF R500 ($200). (The R500s are discontinued, replaced by the Canon Vixia HF R800, which is only a minor upgrade).
I use the Canon for a close-up shot of the presenter, since it has optical zoom and is pretty good at low light. The camera itself doesn't weigh much, so it can fit on a small tripod. I use a short tripod with a monopod extension, which has the benefit of having a pretty small footprint. This wouldn't hold up a DSLR when fully extended, but handles the Canon just fine.
The Canon camera also has an audio input, so I can connect a wireless microphone receiver to this such as the super compact Sony ECMAW4 Bluetooth microphone.
The Canon provides a mini HDMI output, which connects to the micro HDMI input on the SlingStudio CameraLink transmitter. The CameraLink connects wirelessly to the Hub, so I can place the camera wherever. The battery in the CameraLink lasts a couple hours, long enough that I don't need to worry about it for a short talk, but if I'm going to be filming for a whole evening I'll make sure to connect it to micro USB power or at least an external battery pack.
With one good close-up view of the presenter, I just need a wide view as a secondary or fallback camera angle. I usually place this camera in the back of the room so that the audience as well as the projector are visible. Since I have both a close-up of the presenter as well as their slides brought in directly, I can get away with using an iPhone as this camera angle despite its slightly reduced quality.
The iPhone SE has a pretty decent camera. It's the same cameras as in the iPhone 6s line, but you can get a used iPhone SE for about $100 now, making this the cheapest way to get another camera angle into the mix.
To use the iPhone as a camera, you first connect the iPhone to the Hub's wifi hotspot that it broadcasts. Then you launch the SlingStudio Capture app and it will instantly show up as a camera angle in the Hub. You can long-press on the iPhone screen to lock the focus and exposure as well, which is useful when your presenters have slides that switch between white and black backgrounds, which would otherwise confuse the auto-focus and auto-exposure that the phone does.
Running the camera and wifi on the iPhones the whole event would drain the battery in about a half hour, so I always make sure to plug in the phone during the event. The stock charger cable is usually too short to do anything with, so I bring a 10' lightning cable which gives me enough length to run it to a power outlet somewhere nearby.
Audio is of course a huge part of getting a good quality recording of a presentation. The camera mics built in to camcorders or the iPhone will not get good results at all, since they aren't that good to begin with plus the devices will be typically 10+ feet from the presenter. Instead, you need a microphone super close to the presenter, like a lav mic or handheld mic.
Depending on the situation, I have a few different setups I use for capturing audio. If the venue is providing amplification for the presenter, then I first try to find a way to tap into the house audio. The Hub has an 1/8" input, so I just need to make sure to place the Hub close enough to the house mixing board to run an audio cable to it.
If I need to bring my own microphones and audio gear, or if I'm recording a discussion around a table, then I'll bring either a wireless mic or wired stage or boundary microphones.
The smallest wireless mic I've found is the Sony ECMAW4 Bluetooth microphone. The transmitter and receiver are both the same shape, both only slightly larger than the AAA battery that powers them. It's relatively inexpensive too, at $150. There is a microphone built in, but it also has an 1/8" jack to connect a lav mic. You definitely get better audio using a lav mic, so if you can manage asking the presenters to wear that I highly recommend it.
You can connect the receiver to either the SlingStudio Hub or the Canon camera using a 1/8" cable.
If you need to capture audio around a whole table, or if you can't get your presenters to wear a microphone, then the best option is to place a boundary microphone on the podium.
Audio Technica makes a fantastic wireless mic system that runs on 2.4ghz rather than a dedicated wireless mic frequency. There are some new FCC regulations coming that will re-allocate the frequencies that many wireless mics use, so it will no longer be legal to operate many of those. This system uses 2.4ghz, the same frequencies that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi use, so will always be safe to use.
Pair the ATW-T1006 Boundary Mic with the ATW-R1700 Receiver and connect the receiver to the Hub. The benefit of using a wireless mic for this, of course, is you don't need to worry about placing the Hub nearby the stage or podium. This also cuts down on the amount of wires you need to bring, which can save a lot of packing space.
For one reason or another, you may find it better to use a wired microphone. A wired microphone will usually provide better audio quality and be more stable than wireless mics, though it does come at the cost of more wires to carry and more setup time to connect them.
The Saramonic SmartRig+ 2-Channel Mixer is a small mixer that provides phantom power so you can use nice microphones with it. It plugs into the 1/8" jack on the SlingStudio hub. It does run on a 9V battery with no external power option, although I haven't been able to drain the battery during a normal one-day event yet.
I have two microphones I usually use depending on the situation.
Once all the audio and video sources are connected to the hub, you can press record and everything gets recorded as both the mixed track as well as individually. If you make a mistake while live cutting between camera angles, you can always recover by grabbing the original footage from the camera angle you need.
The other amazing thing is the SlingStudio Hub also has built-in streaming capabilities. It can connect to the venue's wifi, and then connect to Facebook or YouTube to broadcast a livestream. This makes it super easy to both stream an event live, while also recording the raw video for later editing.
There's not much more to say other than that, pretty much you just connect to a wifi hotspot and press stream. I've had good luck even streaming from an iPhone's wifi hotspot. You can choose the bitrate to stream at, anything from 2-5 mbps will give you a good result.
I'm super impressed that this device lets me pack so much into a single package instead of using separate devices for each. This all fits into a backpack, along with my computer and other electronics I normally bring.
Here are some videos I've produced with this rig so you can see the final results!