Like parsley in your teeth or a hole in your pants, a bad video-call setup is something you’ll hear about only from people who care about you. But even if you have the best webcam, there’s a good chance that your lighting, your backdrop, your connection, or even your unconscious habits are making your Web meetings less polished than they could be.
Nearly every meeting at Wirecutter is a Web-video meeting, and over more than five years of talking to one another through tiny cameras, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Here’s the best advice from Wirecutter staff, as well as from a few of our expert sources, for getting good video and audio. Whether you’re occasionally working from home, regularly meeting while working remotely, or preparing for a rare video job interview, these tips will help make your virtual presence pleasing and professional.
Check your settings
- Video: Enable mirror effect. When you raise your left hand, your hand on the left of your screen rises. This effect prevents confusion when you show people things, or when you have to hide something you notice in the video view.
- Audio: Always mute microphone when joining a meeting. It can be annoying to start talking and realize that you have to unmute, but it’s far better than the alternative—everyone hearing you swearing because you can’t figure out why your headphones aren’t working.
- Audio: Automatically adjust microphone or mic level. This setting is usually enabled by default, and fine to leave on, but if you hear complaints from others that your voice is fading in or out or echoing, try disabling this. Other software on your computer, or the microphone itself, maybe be applying changes or effects that are competing with the Web-conference software’s settings.
Minimize network and computer disruptions
Close competing applications: The folks behind Zoom have tips for making the best Zoom calls that really apply to any video-meeting software. Key among them is limiting the applications that use the two resources precious to any Web-conference app: processor power and network bandwidth. As the writer for Zoom’s blog post puts it:
Download software that contains phony backgrounds for your webcam. Examples include Camera Soft, Fake Webcam and Screenshot Magic Camera. As of June 2011, Camera Soft costs $28, Fake Webcam costs $50 and Magic Camera is $40.
Save the software to your desktop. Double-click the file to begin installation. Read and accept the terms of agreement. Save the software to a folder on your computer’s hard drive.
Launch the webcam background software on your computer. Follow the software directions to connect the program with your webcam’s settings. Choose a background you want to use on your webcam. Search by category or by a specific name.
Double-click the background of your choice to run it. Sign into your video chat or instant messaging program. Click “Broadcast” to broadcast your webcam.
Open an image on your computer if you don’t wish to purchase special software. Face your webcam towards the image on your screen. If the webcam is on your laptop, set your webcam’s effects settings to run your background. Broadcast your webcam.
- You may have to go through your video chat or messenger’s webcam settings to run the background. Change the settings under “Webcam Settings” or “Webcam Effects.”
When streaming 30 frames per second, your camera is taking 30 pictures of you each and every second, then sending them to the processor with instructions to forward the images through Zoom. Zoom uses your processor to send the images to your network card, which transmits the data to its destination. This process requires the energy of your CPU. To engage in the smoothest possible meetings, close any applications you don’t need to use for the meeting itself. It’s that simple.
The best way to find the applications that are eating CPU cycles, bandwidth, and (to a slightly lesser extent) memory is to open your system’s task manager. On Windows, hold down Control+Shift and press Esc. On a Mac, open the Activity Monitor app in the Utilities folder. Chromebooks have a task monitor, too: Hold the Search button and press Esc. On each platform, you’ll get a window that lists your apps and background processes, with CPU and Network columns showing the percentages and amounts of each that they’re using. Close any app you’ve launched that’s consuming notable amounts of CPU (consistently more than 25 percent), bandwidth (any sizable chunk of what you know your connection speed to be), or memory (significantly more than other apps), unless you need that app for the meeting. Avoid shutting down anything you can’t identify, especially those items that seem like system processes.
Test Wi-Fi before the call: This is the most important rule, but also the most ignored. Your connection may seem fine for Web browsing, but that task uses a lot less network bandwidth than a video call. Head to Speedtest, the go-to site for seeing how fast your computer can transfer data across the wider Internet. Zoom uses 1.2 Mbps (megabits per second), both upload (from you to the Internet) and download (from the Internet to you), for a group video call, and 1.5 Mbps both ways if you want to see all the participants in a thumbnail video gallery. Skype and Google Hangouts suggest even more bandwidth for group video calls: 1 to 2.5 Mbps up and 2 to 8 Mbps down for a call with three to seven people. (FaceTime doesn’t specify a minimum bandwidth but is generally a lower-bandwidth service than full conference-call apps.)
If Speedtest shows that your connection isn’t fast enough, try some of the following fixes:
- Try to get closer to your router, and try different rooms to see if interference from other Wi-Fi networks or other devices is a problem.
- If your router supports two frequencies, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, try switching between them and running speed tests on each. The 5 GHz channel can be faster but has shorter range; 2.4 GHz generally offers better reception over longer distances, but a lot of devices (and neighboring routers) use 2.4 GHz, so trying both is always worth it.
- If all else fails, use an Ethernet cable instead of Wi-Fi to connect to your router, and see if your connection improves. If you’re at your house and too far away from the router to use even a long Ethernet cable, consider a powerline networking kit for your home office.
Use a good camera and the right lighting
Some computers have a decent built-in camera, but most are mediocre, and the angle from the laptop to your face often produces an inattentive, off-putting look. And if you use a monitor at your desk, with your laptop off to the side, the result is even worse. Buy a webcam, put it on your monitor, and look at the people you’re talking to.
But even with a good webcam, lighting is the trickiest part of setting up a home office or another room for a video chat. As with photography, it’s better to have the light source behind the camera, rather than behind the subject, but nobody wants to put their computer in front of their window. Here are some easy ways to improve your lighting.
- Make use of lamps: You can angle and redirect LED desk lamps, and they have multiple brightness levels and color temperatures. Wirecutter photo editor Michael Hession suggests bouncing the lamp light off a nearby wall rather than pointing it straight at your face. If that doesn’t work, you could try taping diffusion material over your lamp, but you’re better off trying different lighting setups and angles at first.
- Try not to mix light sources: Natural light is great for an office space, but for the light that’s reaching your face, stick to either a lamp setup or a window slightly off to your side—not both.
- Don’t use venetian blinds behind you: The light streaming in through the slats will wreak havoc on many a camera’s automatic light adjustments. Better to use blackout shades or curtains, and to bring in other light (lamps).
- Don’t buy specialty YouTube/vlogger gear: Nobody should buy a softbox just to impress their boss. But you can steal one idea from this Wistia tutorial and this podcast setup guide: Put your lighting at your eye height. Defining your eyes allows you to express more on video, to seem more like yourself. That makes a video call feel more like an in-person meeting, which is as good as a Web meeting can get.
Get good sound
Just as important as being seen is being heard—in our meetings, audio problems are a much bigger obstacle to communication than video issues. Here are some ways to improve how you sound.
- Use an external microphone: Almost any plug-in device—a desktop USB mic, a USB headset or wireless headset, or the built-in microphone on our USB webcam pick—will sound better than the built-in microphone on a laptop. Just make sure your add-on mic is selected in your meeting software’s settings as the input source.
- Place your microphone 5 to 6 inches from your mouth: If you can’t get that close or don’t want to use a separate microphone, try to place your microphone in the path your voice normally projects during a meeting.
- Use headphones whenever possible: Although some laptops and software can automatically mute the microphone when other people are talking, they’re not perfect. Headphones will prevent feedback loops that result from your mic picking up other people speaking.
- Add fabrics to counter echo: If other people are hearing room echo on your calls, the most practical solution is adding fabric to the room to absorb sound. Area rugs, carpeting, drapes, and blinds are reasonable things to try before considering extreme measures like foam soundproofing.
Optimize camera position and backgrounds
- Keep your webcam slightly above your eye level: Assuming you have your monitor set up ergonomically—with your gaze falling about 2 inches below the top edge of the screen—this means you’ll be looking straight ahead at people on the call, which feels more like an in-person meeting. You should also shrink your video window for the call and move it to the top of your screen, near your webcam, to keep your gaze there.
- Not too personal, not too sterile: Dan Roche, a former VP of marketing for webcasting firm TalkPoint, told Liane Cassavoy of PCWorld that you should avoid a Web-call background that is too personal (dishes, dirty clothes, bed sheets), or too sterile and professional (an empty white wall). A bookcase or lightly adorned shelves work, as do houseplants.
Keep it professional
- Minimize or eliminate interference: Avoid dogs, cats, children, spouses, siblings, or anything else moving behind you. Sometimes it’s cute, but it often derails a train of thought or undercuts a moment. To that end, try not to have a door behind you. If your office or room has a door you can close, consider adding a sign, or even a light, announcing when you are in meetings.
- Don’t wear a strapless top or deep V-neck: Besides the potential appearance of being topless when cropped on video, you risk exposure because your video camera is (if you took our advice) positioned above you.
- Avoid reflective or jangling jewelry: Also skip clothing with intricate patterns or notable sheen. This is standard stage and video direction that also applies to being on webcam.
- Don’t spin or roll in your wheeled chair: The effect is disconcerting on video, and the resulting vibrations may sound louder than you realize when your microphone picks them up.