Video Conferencing with a Proper Camera

November, 2018

Being a full-time remote employee at Stack Overflow means most of my daily interactions are spent via video conference. This is usually in Google Hangouts Meet or Zoom. These interactions range from giving and receiving design critique, doing general status updates, or coordinating efforts across our teams.

Here’s the thing about webcams. Every webcam is a huge piece of shit that optimizes for the wrong thing. They all suck in low light. They’re all super wide angle that captures way more of your background than… you. Webcams that are built into your display can be even worse than standalone models.

Comparisons

Let’s have a look at the camera built into my Apple Thunderbolt Display. This image is slightly blurry, and is an incredibly wide image. At a distance from my desk that’s appropriate for typing, I take up very little of the actual frame. Too much of my surrounding office is visible. When I look into the black reflection of my display, I don’t see this scene.

I actually see something that looks like this trash:

Built in webcam.

This image is how my eye perceives the world, and how I actually look when looking in a mirror, or the reflection in my display. If you see me in real life, this is how I look:

A proper camera.

Equipment

To actually achieve this look, you’ll need a camera with a lens of about 30mm to 50mm in focal length. I run a Sony a6500 with a Sigma 30mm lens set to 1.4f. This allows for the soft focus background and amazing low light performance. I still look like me even in the very rare evening or early morning meeting.

I run my camera via HDMI to the Elgato Cam Link. This device rules. It allows for true plug and play HDMI in via USB. Don’t mess with the Black Magic or other devices out there. They suck compared to this stick.

Gotchas

  1. You won’t be broadcasting the full resolution of your camera, just its LCD preview. You’ll be able to see every pixel, and it won’t even get close to the actual fidelity of your camera, but the composition of the image will look much better.
  2. Bandwidth is always a consideration. No matter how great your camera image is, it’ll still get compressed over the internet. I have gigabit service, so this is mitigated in some ways.
  3. You’ll need to ditch the batteries for constant power. I bought this adapter to trick my Sony into being plugged into the wall.
  4. You’ll have to turn your camera on and off.
  5. People will lose their minds the first time you conference with them and you look this great.

Takeaway

If you’re looking to upgrade your webcam, the biggest bang for your buck will be spent on a lens that’s around 30mm to 50mm and allows for a wide open aperture. Don’t mess around with wide angle stuff. Find an old dumpy camera and put a nice lens on it. Throw that into Elgato’s Cam Link and you’re ready to party. 🎥


Aaron Shekey

I’m a product designer and musician in Minneapolis, MN. I design and build Hum. I lead a band called The Usual Things. I work at Stack Overflow. I’ve also worked at GitHub and Adobe.