August 12, 2020
8 Tips to Improve Your Home Video Studio
🚦 Getting started
At Tella, we're trying to make it easy for people to share their ideas, expertise, and stories using video.
So while Tella takes care of the video creation, what happens off-camera is also really important to recording something great. In this post I'll share a few tips to help you optimise your home recording setup for looking sharp and sounding great.
Before we start, I think the best general advice for creating a great home recording setup is to follow the streamers. For years gaming streamers have been perfecting the art of recording video behind a computer in a dark bedroom. Whereas you and I have spent a few lockdowns cobbling together home offices and makeshift studios to look pretty on Zoom.
On YouTube you can find endless gear reviews and setup tips by the gaming community. Here's a few channels that I've found handy for learning about recording/streaming/podcasting/YouTubing setups:
Stock webcams don't have a great reputation. So, if you've got the budget, then you should consider upgrading to an external webcam.
If you don't have the budget the best thing you can do with a stock webcam is to set it at eye-level. This means the camera isn't looking up or down at you, but rather straight-on. Elevate your laptop by putting it on a box or a stack of books (I use an empty flowerpot sometimes — perfect height 🌷). But given we're all going to be working from home for a lot longer, it's probably worth making the budget for a better camera.
Even if you're only making videos occasionally, a good camera will improve all those Zooms, Hangouts, and BlueJeans (What. A. Name.) that you'll be doing in years to come.
When upgrading your camera, there are two categories to consider:
An external webcam, designed solely to be used as a webcam, or...
A digital camera, adapted for use as a webcam
For a quick and cheap upgrade, go for the webcam. You can find plenty decent options for less than 100 dollars. Here's a decent list to start with. But if you want a picture that viewers will admire, with that blurred background look and brilliant colours, then you'll want to get a proper digital camera.
You can find decent digital cameras for webcam use starting at 300 or 400 dollars (I use the Sony a5100 — it's been great). At the other end of the spectrum you can buy serious professional camera gear and hook it up to your computer too. A lot of popular YouTubers and streamers use top of the line Canon and Sony DSLRs as their "webcams".
Before you go and buy a digital camera for a webcam, you should know that you're not going to be able to use it right away. There's a couple of extra accessories you'll need before it can be used as a webcam — more on those later.
Also, if you've got an old digital camera lying around from that street photography phase you went through in the mid-2000s, try that out (mid-2000s might be too old actually 🤔). If your old camera is on this list, then there's a pretty good chance it can be used as a webcam.
Finally, one could argue that a mobile phone can be used as a webcam. But that means you can't use your phone while recording and the apps required to enable such a setup aren't great (yet). No doubt this will become a better option in the not too distant future though.
Good audio is one of those things that just makes a video better. Avoid the small, tinny sound of headphone mics or laptop mics and you're already on the right track. The world is much less forgiving of bad audio compared to bad video. So all the fancy camera gear in the world won't save your video if the audio sounds shit. There's probably some science to this. 🤷🏻♂️
So sure, you can stick with the default mic on your computer or your headphones, but I'd highly recommend upgrading to a proper external mic. A new mic was the first piece of equipment I ever bought. And just like a webcam upgrade, a good mic will serve you in other facets of working from home, far beyond recording in Tella.
For good sound, the prices do start quite high though. I use the Blue Yeti, it's a high quality, entry level mic which retails for 150 dollars. This is a pretty comprehensive and up-to-date list of mics for streaming and podcasting.
Lighting is fun. You can get away with an average camera if you can arrange a nice lighting setup. In the end, what makes a good camera a good camera is its ability to manipulate light. So without a good camera it's on you to do the manipulating of light.
Some lighting tips that will cost you nothing (usually...?):
Record in a well lit room. If you can't record during the day, make sure there's enough light to see the room's contents clearly. If you can't find a well lit spot, then you'll have to rely on some kind of key light (this is fine, but it's just more work that being in a well lit spot to begin with).
Don't record with a light source behind you (e.g. a window in the middle of the day). This will create a silhouette effect and no one will see you. Even if there's decent lighting in front of you, it's not easy competing against glaring beams of sunlight.
Record with a light source in front of you — something that illuminates your face nicely. But not something so bright that you're squinting. For a long time I recorded in my living room, facing the main window, in the middle of the day: the light was nice and looked natural.
Don't be afraid to grab a few lamps from around the house and use them to hack a custom lighting setup together. The tips shared in this video can be applied to your own DIY lighting setup.
As for gear, the only thing that I'd really recommend purchasing is a ring light. You can get cheap ones and they'll do just the trick. It won't matter what time of day it is, or how bad the lighting is, with a ring light set up the camera will be capturing your face fully illuminated (something along these lines). If you get a smaller one, then you can travel with it or move it around your house easily.
If you do want to get more serious with lighting, then this is a good video to start with. It covers the gear and the techniques that should help you get started.
Set up somewhere that doesn't have a busy background. The focus of the video is you, not your home, and messy shelves will distract viewers.
Find a spot that has a decent amount of clean wall in it. If you can get a spot with a corner, where two walls meet, that's even better. Having corner behind you will create depth, which always looks more appealing than a one dimensional surface.
But if you take this too far — by searching for the only blank corner in your house — it'll look like you're sat in a box. Sitting with a wall right behind you can create harsh shadows. So keep some distance between whatever is behind you.
Don't be afraid to show some personality in your frame. Viewers know that you're at home, so there's no point trying to completely block out where you live and work. Pictures, plants, and tidy furniture will make your space more human and friendly, without being distracting.
1. Cam Link
This is an HDMI to USB adaptor. These are essential if you want to use a digital camera as a webcam. Without it, your computer won't be able to receive the video feed from your camera. They've been in hot demand recently; sold out in many locations. But it looks like stock is catching up.
Again, if you're using a digital camera, this is essential. Digital cameras can't be slapped on top of a laptop or monitor unfortunately, so a tripod is probably the way to go.
Before you pick one of these up, plan your home first and use that to determine what kind of tripod you need. If you don't have a lot of space on your desk, then might want something compact. If you want your camera above a large external monitor then you'll want something with long, sturdy legs and a narrow base.
Get a portable tripod to use your nice camera from your Airbnb. 🏝
3. Boom arm
With this you can attach an external mic, move it all around, and pretend you're Joe Rogan (actually no, don't pretend you're Joe Rogan). You could go even further and get a full rig to attach your camera and lighting. Not necessary, but it definitely looks cool. 😎
4. Camera lenses
If you're dead-set on the best quality and aren't constrained by a budget, then the next step from using a digital camera as a webcam is to upgrade its lens. Most of the entry level digital cameras have okayish lenses. If you want a great lens then you're going to need to buy it separately.
For my Sony a5100 I use a Sigma 16mm F1.4 lens. It works great in low light, has a really wide angle, amazing depth of field (for getting natural looking blurring backgrounds), and its autofocus is awesome (so you can move around on camera and always look sharp). It's also really good value for money considering how much lenses can cost.
When looking for a new lens, always make sure it'll be compatible with your camera. This is a great video to learn more about camera lenses.