Webcam 101

In 2020, running a web camera is a life skill. We’re all using video as a conferencing tool, and many of the same techniques we’ll discuss later on as they relate to professional video are very relevant now in your day-to-day life.

So let’s start with some basics.

We’ll start with the camera. There’s not much you can do about the camera in a lot of situations. If it’s a built-in web cam or a cheap external one, about the only control you have is whether or not you plug it in or if you decide to cover it with a sticker. That means you’re better off understanding some of the camera’s tendencies and setting up your environment to accommodate them.

Exposure is our first parameter, just a fancy way of saying how bright or dark is the image. Your webcam is likely going to look at the overall shot and set that exposure level to some sort of average. If it’s too dark, it’ll boost the image electronically and you’ll get a lot of noise. If the background is too bright and the foreground too dark it won’t know what to do. If the exposure level changes, you’ll see the camera adjust to compensate.

Knowing all these things, choose an environment that has plenty of light for the highest possible quality image. Avoid silhouetting your face by standing in front of a window. With more expensive cameras and manual control over exposure this can be a cool shot, but not with your webcam. As you’re considering your environment, decide how much of it you want to see. Even with an autoexposure camera, you can often use your placement to determine how bright you are relative to your room. Cinematographers get pretentious and call this the inverse square law. All you have to know is that as you get closer to your light source, the window, you are going to get significantly brighter. The camera will drop the exposure level a bit on the scene to make you less bright, but the reduced exposure will make your environment much darker relative to you. Again, this is a simple principle but I may have gone over it too quickly. Just look at how bright the room is compared to me. If I want to darken the room I stand close to the window. If I want both me and the room to be about the same brightness I stand farther from it. Also consider this if you’re shooting against a wall that matches your skin tone. Generally speaking, contrast makes for pretty pictures. When I’m standing against this wall it’s all just a blend of caucasian whiteness (not cool in 2020). See how coming away from the wall a bit adds some contrast between me and the background? (the background is darker, I’m brighter, and the overall shot feels more lively).

Let’s move on from brightness to color. Your camera will try to average out the color of the light in the room so that white things appear white like they do to our eye. The thing is, indoor lights are often a very different color (or color temperature as we’ll call it) than the light coming from outside. See how the window looks blue and the light on my face looks orange? Sometimes you can get away with mixing color temperatures, but to start out, I’d suggest avoiding it. Keeping indoor lights off where possible if they don’t match outdoor daylight can make a big difference. Real world examples aren’t always this obvious. Sometimes a subtle color temperature mismatch might not be immediately noticeable, but it does make skin look weird.

Ok, so how about the quality of the light? For our purposes we’ll keep it simple. Big light sources make soft, flattering light. Small light sources not so much. Look at the difference between light from a big broad window and light from a small overhead light fixture. Here in the northern hemisphere, south-facing windows often work great for this because you don’t have direct sunlight coming through them. The soft reflected light of the sky through the window is extremely flattering and used by bridal photographers all the time.

So what if you don’t have a big light source or window? If you’re web conferencing on a laptop, the screen itself can make for a great soft light, just keep as much of the screen as possible filled with white.

But this doesn’t always look the best and that has to do with one final lighting principle: direction. Lighting faces from below is a bit off-putting. It’s just not a natural place to have light in most scenarios we’re used to, it looks a bit like campfire lighting or someone with a flashlight shining on their chin to tell scary stories. Even when done subtly, it just feels a bit off to have the underside of the nose and the upper lip be brighter than we’re used to. So whether laptop or phone, keeping the camera up higher is oftentimes beneficial if you’re using it as a source of light. It also helps flatter you as a subject as well. If you have a broader neck and chin, a low angle camera won’t do you any favors as you’ll be pushing your chin down to see the camera.

Let’s see, what else? Be aware of awkward intersections with the background. Outside in the shade can be an easy option–just be aware of wind.

So the exciting thing about all this is you can put it to use. Practice these tips, where applicable, on your next video conference and as we go throughout the semester. I hope to see some effort to apply these principles on your part in our next Teams meeting.