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Whether you're a daily Zoom warrior, or you just occasionally need to attend a telemedicine visit, more and more of us are appearing on our webcams on a regular basis. For some, it's a care-free, come-as-you-are affair, with little or no concern about what the other attendees of our digital meetups might spot in our homes.
For others, there's a constant, simmering panic that we'll unknowingly force our co-workers to stare up our nostrils for an entire meeting, or have one of our in-laws walk behind us in a bathrobe while scratching something…unfortunate.
If any of these worries sound a bit too familiar to you, read on and let us help you deal with the most common gripes facing webcam users with simple, inexpensive solutions to the video chat issues and fears plaguing more and more of us every day.
This section is all about where your webcam lives and two important visual factors: how it sees you, and how you see it.
How the camera sees you
Your goal should be a webcam shot that shows your full face, without any portions cut off, from a straight and direct angle. Imagine the orientation the weary DMV worker tried to get you into when taking your driver's license photo, or the position where you tend to look best in selfies for guidance.
Of course, you can move and reorient yourself to a certain extent. But, we all tend to fidget and slouch, especially during long meetings. So, it's even more important that our webcams have the best possible view of us in any position we might adopt in our office chairs or whatever other spot we might be working or communicating from. To that end, choosing the right location for your webcam is vital.
Of course, If you're one of the many, many people using a webcam built into your laptop, you obviously can't move it. You can, however, move your entire laptop.
For a simple, cheap solution, try placing the laptop on top of some large books to raise the eyeline. If you want something more permanent or aesthetically pleasing for repeated use, get yourself an adjustable laptop stand that will raise the webcam to a level even with your eyes, where it's positioned for a shot that achieves the goals mentioned above.
Laptop-based webcams, especially those on smaller models or placed on lower tables, can very easily fall into the "looking up the nostrils" scenario mentioned above. That's easily avoidable with this simple bit of advice. The same also applies if you happen to have one of the few laptops that inexplicably chose to position their webcams below their displays. Owners of Dell XPS models like the one seen above dealt with this issue for several years before the company moved their lenses to a more traditional position.
Standalone webcams offer far greater flexibility than their laptop counterparts, but can also be prone to a few common issues, especially if you work in a setup with poor ergonomics, as many of us unfortunately do.
The traditional placement for these units tends to be centered at the top of the user's monitor. However, as more and more of us expand into multi-monitor setups, or hybrid setups with a laptop screen involved, that placement can be less than perfect. After all, the ideal situation is for you to be looking into, or at least nearly into, your webcam's lens while speaking. That's not going to be possible if you're not even looking at the monitor it's mounted on.
To solve this problem, we recommend a solution that's been in use for decades for another form of A/V input, the microphone. The same flexible arms that so many of us use to mount our mics can also be used to hold our webcams with very little effort and little or no cost, above the price of the arm itself.
Since most webcams are very lightweight devices, you won't even need an expensive model. Something in the range of $15 to $30 should be able to hold more than enough weight to do the job.
The mounting process is dead simple as well. Just make sure your webcam model includes a threaded mounting hole on its bottom. This fastener is typically a 1/4-20 UNC threaded insert, the same type used on most consumer-grade camera tripods. Many arms specifically designed to work with webcams or mics will come with an adapter that can be used for this size, though a few may not.
If your specific model doesn't include a correctly-sized threaded rod, don't fret. A quick trip to the hardware store can net you a 1/4-20 UNC bolt that can easily be placed in the small clamping mechanism that most boom arms use to hold the various threaded rod they came with. Simply remove the included rod and insert the bolt in its place, making sure to snug up the knob once it's in place. With that, you've got a quick, cheap way to place your webcam in a huge variety of new positions, and to move it out of the way completely when not in use.
Not only will this improve your workspace from a flexibility and ergonomics standpoint, it will also improve how you look to your coworkers and those on the other end of your video chats by allowing you to position the webcam directly in your eyeline. This means you'll be able to look directly at your meeting counterparts on screen, while they see you looking directly back at them. This positioning offers a massive benefit to perceived eye contact, and will almost certainly make you seem more engaged to anyone on the other end of that video chat.
How you see the camera
As mentioned above, webcams are most commonly found on top of their owner's PC monitors. This has been true since a good portion of those monitors were of the big, bulky, CRT variety. Since then, monitors have gotten flatter and thinner and while most still had enough depth and bezel size to support a webcam, this has been less reliable in recent years. The race to provide ever-thinner bezels has resulted in some displays, like the one above, that have grown so close to the edge of their physical casing that any webcams overhanging the front with their mounting hardware can actually obscure vital portions of the screen.
This issue can, of course, be solved by mounting your webcam on a flexible arm, as suggested above. However, if you're looking for a cheaper (possibly free) and even simpler solution, consider adding a small block to the top of your monitor for the webcam to clamp onto instead of your display's frame.
If you're lucky enough to have the surface area to work with, this block can be placed directly on top of the display using sturdy double-faced tape. It will give the camera something to grip, while also raising it high enough that its hardware won't obscure your screen.
For monitors with razor-thin top edges, you could accomplish the same goal with a block adhered to the back of the monitor in an orientation that allows it to protrude above the display and serve the same purpose.
Anything from a small piece of wood from the hardware store, to an old device case, to a stack of your kid's (or, no judgement, your own) Legos could work for that mounting block. As long as it is within the range of height and width that your webcam needs to grip to, the options are nearly limitless. It's more than worth the few dollars it'll cost and minutes it will take to solve the issue of having to constantly move your webcam because its foot is blocking your Chrome tabs or Photoshop menus.
Now that we've addressed the potential issues you might come across when mounting and placing your webcam, let's shift the issues of placing you.
Different models of webcam will have different tolerances for things like lighting, distance, focus, and other photographic considerations. But, no matter how adaptable your hardware might be, there's a few simple considerations you should consider when choosing where to set up your backdrop to avoid embarrassing yourself, or annoying the other participants in your video chat.
Avoid strong light sources behind you. These will confuse most webcams, resulting in underexposure of your own appearance and annoyance for those on the video call with you. Instead, try to keep any strong sources of light behind the webcam where they can shine on you to help your camera see you better.
Light yourself up! The lack of this seemingly simple measure can ruin what may have otherwise been an excellent webcam shot. Open some shades, use a nearby desk lamp, or, if that fails, consider just loading a brightly-colored web page on one of your displays to throw some extra light on you. Our sister site CNET even published an article several years ago on a free way to turn your monitor into a ring light. Most webcams can compensate for low light conditions, but the results can often look grainy, strangely colored, and unimpressive.
Try to minimize motion in the background. We've all got kids, pets, relatives, and maybe a few ghosts that find reasons to walk behind us when we're on a call. While this can be unavoidable, the presence of a new person can disrupt a webcam's focus, exposure adjustments, and other automatic settings. If at all possible…just close the door. Of course, we all know that doesn't always keep out persistent toddlers, but it's at least worth a shot. Maybe you won't end up on YouTube…maybe.
We know, we're asking a lot with your backdrop setup, especially for those working from busy homes and rooms that were never meant to be dedicated offices.
Unfortunately, it's just not practical for everyone to have a quiet, private WFH space where they can do their video chatting. For that reason, many of us use virtual backgrounds, blur effects, or other digital trickery to hide everything the camera sees other than ourselves. This can be a great option, but it's often imperfect. Webcams can easily be tricked by things like flesh-colored linens on your bed or a chair that happens to be close to your hair color, resulting in constant, potentially annoying glitches in what would otherwise be a totally believable vision of you on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
Helping cameras and post processing equipment digitally isolate the subject is something Hollywood has been dealing with for decades. In all that time, one thing has remained in constant use: the greenscreen. This backdrop, usually made of fabric or paper, is brightly colored in an almost offensively intense shade of green to make it very easy for the camera to differentiate it from the subject.
You're probably wondering at this point how setting up what's starting to sound like a home studio in your WFH space is a "tip." Luckily, you're far from the only person that could benefit from a quick, easy way of deploying your own green screen for exactly this purpose.
To fill that need, some clever designers have come up with inexpensive greenscreen devices that actually strap onto the back of your office chair. These typically work like a children's pop-up tents, allowing them to be folded and stored in a tiny sack. When unfurled, they provide several square feet of flat, blank, and, most importantly, intensely green backdrop for your webcam to use to apply that virtual background filter much, much more accurately.
Even if you don't want to use a virtual background at all, the same companies also offer these peripherals in a neutral shade of gray, allowing you to simply leave your real visual intact while providing a clean, unobtrusive background that can move with you and be quickly stored away, all for less than $50.
Like it or not, we've become increasingly reliant on webcams to connect us with our loved ones, coworkers, medical professionals, and other very important individuals in our lives. In some of those situations, our mere presence is enough, in others, our appearance, level of engagement, and the general image of ourselves and our homes that we put forward can shape our professional futures in dramatic ways. Hopefully our tips have provided a solid foundation for a few small, quick, and cheap upgrades that you should consider to help you put your best Zoom, Teams, or Skype foot forward.