Homecasting tips: Gear suggestions and things to consider

Homecasting tips: Gear suggestions and things to consider

Camera lens

It’s hard for me to believe that it has now been a decade since I first looked at the idea of building a newsroom in a backpack. At the time, it was mostly a fun way to think about spending money I didn’t have. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a thing we’re all actually doing.

Whether you’re a broadcaster who’s locked out of the studio in support of social distancing or a businessperson trying to land a new client over Zoom, I hope these tips can help improve the quality of your video presentation.

(If I link to a specific product below, it is because I have used it or because it was specifically recommended to me)

Tip 1: Camera (and angle)

Image quality isn’t everything, but it is important.

If you have a smudge of makeup or grime on your device or a low-resolution camera built into your laptop, that blur can taint your presentation — and I do believe that presentation has a great deal to do with perception.

The other basic move is to ensure the camera is at eye-level. We’ve all looked up someone’s nose during a digital meeting and you know it isn’t flattering for anyone.

But if you can up the quality even more, you can really impress.

At work, I’ve used this line of webcams quite successfully on commercial projects. They’re affordable and the picture is HD with one caveat: They don’t handle low light very well.

If lighting is a concern, you could also try the model that the IT department purchased for members of our newsroom. It has a built-in ring light.

But more about lighting in the next section.

Finally, you can use many pro cameras as fantastic webcams. The quality is wonderful, they’re much more forgiving about low-light situations and the lens options let you really prepare the shot in a professional manner.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to have the gear to provide external power to your device and find software or hardware, like a video capture card, to ingest the video.

Lastly, think not just about how you look but about the room around you. Do you have distractions behind you? Is there a bright light source that could throw off your camera’s balance?

Just like when we set up a studio, it is fine to have something like a piece of artwork or a clean and orderly bookshelf behind you, but I recommend leaving several feet of distance between you and that object so it stays just out of focus. If you sit too close, and the spines of the books on your shelf or the brushstrokes of a painting are in focus, it could become a distraction to your audience.

In fact, anything you can do to avoid distractions can be a benefit…


Tip 2: Lighting

Lighting, especially on your face, should be even. We want to ensure you are brighter than your surroundings without creating the harsh shadows that turn you into a movie monster.

One way to achieve this is with a ring light. They often have adjustable brightness and their shape means the light comes from a variety of angles.

But even with a ring light, all of the light comes from one direction. If you want to make things really complicated, you could use overlapping lights from a variety of directions like this Denver meteorologist:

For most of us though, that’s just too complicated.

Odds are you will be able to improve your lighting by moving some lamps, or turning off the one that’s throwing shadows. Opening a window can also be good, but beware of what could change as the sun begins to set.

Here’s one last crazy idea: Grab a spare cardboard box and cut a hole in one side. Insert a flashlight or lantern (preferably one with a variable power level) and tape it in place. Cut off the opposite side. Line the box with shiny tin foil and tape some tracing paper or wax paper over the open side. Boom, you’ve made a lightbox. One or two of these might help to diffuse the light and avoid harsh shadows.

Tip 3: Audio

Like built-in cameras, the microphone built into your laptop or tablet may be of dubious quality. But if your audience cannot hear you clearly, that can be as much a distraction as bad video.

The easiest option for upgrading your audio may be with headphones, or repurposing that bluetooth headset you wear in the car (you’re not commuting right now anyway, right?).

Wireless earbuds are popular right now, and while I own a pair, I won’t endorse them because I’ve personally had trouble with the charging case. On the positive side, however, they tend to be small and less distracting.

I do have a pair of wireless stereo headphones with a built-in mic that are a good alternative solution. Through bluetooth they can connect to a phone, tablet or computer. The downside is that they are rather large.

Both kinds of headphones have the benefit of returning audio to you without any risk of echo to your audience.

If you’re willing to look a bit like Larry King, a USB mic could be the way to go. I’ve had success with two podcasting microphones, both of which are affordable and offer good quality.

One is the microphone we’ve used to create streaming and podcasting studios at work. The other is what I recently purchased for use at home, which offers control of the pickup pattern, and has earned me several compliments during the morning meeting.

Despite my Larry King joke above, either of those can be kept just out of view of the camera and still have good results. But quality does improve with proximity.

More tips & tricks:

Improving your connection:

Connecting your device(s) over ethernet directly to your router or modem is one way to help ensure the stability of your connection, especially if you’re in a home where others are also trying to use the internet.

Rule of thirds:

Frame your video in the same way a professional photographer would (or should). Imagine a pair of lines dividing the image into three equal horizontal frames and another pair dividing it into equal vertical frames. Use those lines to frame your shot. For example, you probably want to keep your eyes at the top horizontal line and your head between the two vertical lines.

Teleprompter or video return:

Some newsrooms are also using screen sharing to transmit teleprompter or video previews to reporters working at home. But why stop there? How about using that box and a piece of glass to create a teleprompter like this Wisconsin reporter:

If all else fails, embrace it

While I think we want to make ourselves look as good as possible, we know the audience will be more accepting during this extraordinary time. In the two examples below, pros have controlled what they can control and embraced the quirks they cannot control. That acknowledgment can be endearing.