At Home with Tech

It’s time to maximize the potential of all your gadgets.

Tag: Zoom meetings

Why It may be Time to Upgrade your Webcam

If you still look like a shadow of your true self in Zoom meetings, you should consider using a more powerful camera.

It’s fair to say we’ll be needing our webcams, well… forever. If video conference meetings from home weren’t already part of our daily lives before the pandemic, well, now they certainly are. And no matter what the future holds, virtual meetings are here to stay.

We’ve had two years to figure out how to set up a decent Zoom shot. If you’re still not happy with it, the problem may be your computer’s mediocre webcam. If so, it’s time to upgrade and buy a dedicated external USB camera for your computer.

Can Another Camera You Own do the Job?
But before you start shopping for a new webcam, make sure you don’t already own another device that you can repurpose such as a camcorder or DSLR-style camera.

You just need to make sure that your higher-end camera can offer a ‘clean’ video output via a HDMI connector. Then you’ll need a HDMI to USB converter like the ‘Cam Link 4K’ to integrate the video feed into your computer.

My New Lumix GH5 II
Recently, I bought myself a Panasonic Lumix GH5 II
with a Panasonic 12-35 mm/f2.8 II lens.
(“Why Barrett, you shouldn’t have!”)

And of course, I immediately wanted to jack this Micro Four Thirds, mirrorless camera into my iMac to see what would happen.

Sure, using a higher-end camera with a serious lens as a basic webcam is way overkill, but it works just fine. And the look is beautiful. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

The webcam on my iMac is perfectly adequate, but when I changed over to my GH5 II, the visual difference was dramatic.

Don’t Buy More than You Need
Now, I’m not saying you should run out and spend ten times the cost of a typical webcam to upgrade your Zoom look.

But if you’ve already got a more powerful camera that can also be used as a webcam, then why not? (Previously, I had been repurposing my old GoPro as a webcam via my Cam Link 4K.)

Your Desk will get Messy
Now here comes the big disclaimer…

Yes, integrating a ‘real’ camera into your desktop computer or laptop will creating an amazing image, but functionally, the process is not elegant. You’ve got to put a tripod on your desk and position it right next to your computer screen, so you’re not looking too far off camera when you take a peek at the other folks in your Zoom window.

Then, you’ve got the HDMI and power cables coiling in front of your screen to contend with. It’s a mess. (You start to feel like a battery person trapped in “The Matrix,” even though the cables aren’t actually coming out of your body.)

Even attaching a tiny new webcam to your laptop involves an extra cable and a webcam mount, and it takes a couple more steps every time you prepare for a video conference. Plus, you’ve got to adjust your webcam and test your shot to make sure you’re framed correctly.

That’s takes work… sometimes a lot of work. One might say it’s an absurd effort. And for what?

Nothing beats the ease of simply clicking on ‘join’ and letting your integrated webcam do its job. Whatever your viewers see, they see. If you’re only partially in the shot, that’s better than nothing, right?

What’s so bad with that approach? (And if you really feel that way, please continue taking your blue pills. Your next Zoom meeting in the Matrix is in ten minutes!)

Can You See Me Now?
Frankensteining any camera into your computer is a bit messy… sometimes very messy. But the good news is it’s not really that complicated.

Do you still make an effort to put on a nice shirt for your Zoom meetings, and have you spent more than a few minutes trying to adjust the lighting on your face? Are you still unsatisfied with your shot?

If so, then you’re a prime candidate to consider upgrading your webcam. (And if you’re already in the market for a nice camera to handle your photography and video projects, you can free two birds with one key, like I did.)

I expect you will not be disappointed with your decision to improve your Zoom look. It’s actually a great New Year’s resolution, and one that you’ll continue reaping benefits from throughout the entire year!

Be Careful what You Say Around your Tech

When your voice-activated tech misbehaves, the problem may be caused by something you said. Here’s a fix to consider.

I’ve just put my old GoPro to work as a webcam, tethered to my PC laptop that I’m using for my job. Wearing my MacGyver hat, I easily connected the GoPro to my computer with an Elgato Cam Link 4K video converter. This adapter can transform many cameras with a HDMI output into a simple USB webcam.

I prefer my GoPro’s shot to my laptop’s built-in webcam, because the GoPro offers a wider-angle view. That framing gives me more room to use my body language when I talk to colleagues on Zoom. And I’ve found that can help me better connect with people I’ve never met in person.

But there was a problem.

Who’s Controlling your GoPro?
A couple days into its new mission as a webcam, my GoPro inexplicably began glitching out. One day it magically kicked into video mode and began recording my conversation. The next morning, it snapped a burst of pictures during a Zoom meeting. Its little blinking red light was the dead giveaway that there was a gremlin in the system.

Or was there?

I put on my diagnostic lab coat to see if there might be a GoPro setting that was causing the problem. I first upgraded the GoPro’s operating system and then poked around the menu. I eventually came to the voice control option. It was set to ‘on.’

Hmmm….

Is your GoPro Simply Following Orders?
“GoPro, take a photo!”

That’s the fun phrase my eleven-year-old son and I love to blurt out when taking GoPro selfie shots during weekend hikes with friends.

Yes… my GoPro can be voice activated. And it has been reliably obedient for selfie shots during our weekend hiking adventures.

So why wouldn’t its audio parlor trick also be in play during its weekday duties? Of course my GoPro was listening to me during my Zoom meetings! I must have said something that resembled, “GoPro start recording,” or “GoPro shoot burst.”

After my big ‘aha,’ I simply deactivated my GoPro’s voice-control mode, and thankfully, my GoPro started behaving again.

Problem solved.

But my reestablished tech Zen was short lived.

What Did You Say?
Uncovering my mistake brought up a larger question. How much of my tech is always listening to me, and how often is it misinterpreting my words and reacting in ways that it shouldn’t?

My Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker in my home office occasionally interrupts me when I’m on the phone or doing a Zoom meeting, because it thinks it heard me summon it. I usually shrug it off and shake my head, both slightly amused and a tad irritated.

Even Siri on my Apple Watch has awkwardly tried to jump into my conversations.

User Error
I’m not exactly sure what to make of all this, except to accept that voice-activated tech can sometimes react in ways we don’t want. Its skills may be imperfect. But then again, so are humans. That combination can easily lead to unexpected and imperfect results.

As more components of our smart homes begin to possess voice control, it will become increasingly important not to forget what we’ve set up to listen to our lives. (And I’m not talking about the whole privacy question. We’ll leave that topic for another day.)

Sure, it’s cool to control your surroundings with your voice. That said, I hope you talk clearly and remember the right command phrases. It would be a shame if your future tech misinterprets your intent and ruins your day… or worse.

But don’t worry. It’s probably just ‘user error.’

Time for an upgrade?

Desk-Friendly Gear to Create Better Zoom Shots

If you’d like to improve your look during Zoom meetings, here’s my list of support gear I’ve added to my home office during the past year.

I’ve blogged frequently throughout the pandemic about Zoom meetings from home. I’ve found that applying my knowledge of video production best practices has been useful in maximizing my own Zoom shots. However, miniaturizing the standard gear of a TV studio to use in a home office environment can be tricky proposition.

That said, there’s plenty of compact consumer gear out there that can help improve the look of your video conferencing feeds without overwhelming your desk.

Here are five key pieces of relatively affordable gear I’ve put in place to help with my own Zoom shots:

1.
Key Light

Sometimes, there’s not a window nearby to offer illumination for your face. Instead, you need to provide your own front-facing light.

I use this soft LED as my main lighting positioned behind my iMac. It’s been performing great for over a year now.

2.
Fill Light

This battery-driven LED is perfect as a side light or for a more portable lighting solution.

It’s more expensive than other pocket LEDs, but it’s powerful and the light output levels are adjustable.

3.
Desk Stand to Elevate Laptop Webcam

This stand almost magically levitates your laptop, bringing the computer’s webcam closer to eye level.

The resulting height adjustment for your laptop will prevent the dreaded Zoom ceiling shot that looks up your nose!

4.
Tabletop Tripod for your External Webcam

It’s sturdy, but small enough to not take over your desk!

You can pop any webcam onto this baby tripod as long as it uses a standard 1/4” screw mount or GoPro mount.

5.
Smartphone Tripod Adapter

Sometimes, you may have to unexpectedly take your Zoom meeting to another room. A simple way to accomplish that is by using your smartphone.

Mounting your device to a tripod using this grip adaptor will negate the need to hold your phone throughout your meeting.

Zoom Away
Putting in place a few pieces of valuable support gear will go a long way to help improve your image for your next Zoom meeting.

It’s worth the effort.

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