My job on a distributed team necessitates that I spend 1–6 hours meeting with folks via videoconference. Google Hangouts, Zoom, Appear.in, and GoToMeeting intermediate my professional interactions with co-workers, vendors, and clients. Initially, I joined these using my Macbook’s standard camera and iPhone earbuds, but spending so much time on the phone, I needed to make some changes. In the intervening six months, I’ve created a setup in my home office that I’m really happy with, at a total cost of about five hundred bucks.
Having a comfortable, flexible videoconferencing setup makes it easier to spend hours in meetings, but it also has improved substantially how I look and sound (and, presumably, how I’m perceived by others). These are the upgrades that I made.
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I am 6’3″ tall, meaning that I loom over my Macbook camera threateningly. I also use a 23″ display with my Macbook, but displaying video on that screen means that I appear to be gazing over the heads of the other folks on the call.
The solution is an external, USB camera. Initially, I used a $30 Logitech standard definition camera (I can’t even find a model number on it). That addressed the matters of comfort and looking folks in the eye, but the video just didn’t look great.
I recently upgraded to a Wirecutter-recommended Logitech HD Pro C920 ($62). The 1080p video is a huge improvement, even at the downscaled quality supported by most videoconferencing clients right now. The images are much sharper, clearly better than the Macbook’s internal camera.
I don’t find EarPods comfortable for hours at a time. I also spend a non-trivial amount of time on voice-only calls. I was not happy with the Bluetooth earbud options out there, and just before I pulled the trigger on a pair of Plantronics, Apple started shipping AirPods ($160). I took a gamble on them, and I’m awfully glad that I did. They move seamlessly between my laptop and phone, they’re so unobtrusive that I often appear to be wearing no headphones at all, and the sound quality is fine for voice. They also have a built-in mic that’s OK, certainly better than that thing with EarPods where you spend half of the call holding the wire-attached mic up to your mouth.
I never realized how much time I spent subconsciously managing my EarPods cables until I switched to AirPods—my first time on a call with EarPods again seemed comparatively oppressive. The short length of EarPods’ cable kept me tethered to my display, keeping me from changing positions often. AirPods have provided freedom of movement while on calls.
My webcam, my laptop, and my headphones all have built-in mics, but the audio quality is pretty low.
After some research, I went with that favorite of podcasters, the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB ($62). I actually sprang for the the extra $17 to get the kit that comes with a boom arm stand and a pop filter. I have it mounted on the side of my desk, where I can keep it swung back toward the wall when I’m not using it, or pull it adjacent to my display when I’m on a call. I used to work in radio, so this setup is particularly comfortable for me.
This is perhaps the least-necessary upgrade for my videoconferencing setup, but I’m really pleased with the improved sound quality.
Poor lighting is the Achilles heel of most people’s videoconferencing setups. That’s because what makes for good work lighting is really different than what makes for good lighting for video. In any call with more than a few people, at least one person looks like they’re recording a proof-of-life video. Window backlighting blows out the exposure, or single-source lighting casts their face in shadows. This is so important to us as a culture that it’s part of our language: we describe unsavory people as “working in the shadows”; if you portray yourself badly, you “aren’t presenting yourself in the best light.”
I bought the Neewer 18″ LED Ring Light ($100), with a Fovitec StudioPRO 18″ Light Stand ($12). An 18″ ring light turns out to be enormous—perhaps a smaller one would do the trick. This has been transformative. It makes it look like I’m being interviewed on broadcast TV. The lighting is just excellent. This was the purchase that I was most dubious about, and the upgrade that I’m happiest with. I’m looking around for a swing arm that I could mount this on, though, so that I can get it off my desk and out of the way when I’m not using it.
This might not seem like it’s an important part of a videoconference setup, but it’s my experience that it makes a big difference. Having a screen-mounted camera means that being positioned properly within the frame requires that you stay in place relative to your monitor. This is uncomfortable and, ultimately, unhealthy.
Again, I went with the Wirecutter-recommended option: the AmazonBasics Display Mount Arm ($100). Throughout a long call, I can move my screen as I change positions at my desk, to ensure that I remain well framed in the video. This has been great.
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By way of comparison, here’s how I look with my old webcam:
Here’s how I look with my new webcam:
And here’s how I look with my new webcam with my ring light on:
The difference is striking.
Obviously, $500 is a lot of money for most people. I justify the expense as both recognizing that the reality of my future employment will involve lots of videoconferencing and that I’m saving a lot of money on commuting and my wardrobe.
If you’re going to acquire these one piece at a time, as I did, I recommend this order of priority: camera, light, monitor arm, microphone, headphones. This is also the order of impact, a good camera providing the most impact, the headphones providing the least.
June 2019 Update: I’ve been using Webcam Settings, the generically-named macOS program, and it’s become an indispensable part of my setup. Being able to adjust lighting settings in software is great, especially compensating for unwanted backlighting. Recommended.