Stream Like a Designer: Democratizing Beautiful Video Calls

Conference video calls have always been a big part of our flows here at Automattic. We all work from home, all over the world, so these calls are an opportunity to see the faces of colleagues — when we do weekly check-ins,  connect on projects, review and critique designs from other teams, and occasionally engage in deeper discussions.

These check-ins are now even more essential because the pandemic has forced us to redefine how we work together. For example, what would have been a real-life meetup where all of us would fly somewhere on the planet to see each other and work on projects for a few days, has been replaced by virtual meetups where we hop on a video call to emulate that same work environment.

So if you’re in the same boat (and let’s be honest: who isn’t?) and are hoping to look and sound a bit more professional on your calls, then you’ve come to the right place.

Improving video quality

With a bit of luck, the only thing you’ll need to improve video quality is a mirrorless/DSLR camera that outputs a clean HDMI signal. I understand this is the most expensive piece and a blocker for many people, but check if you have an old camera lying around — you could give it a second life!

Most camera manufacturers now offer some sort of webcam utility for their latest devices, which means you can simply connect a camera to your computer via a USB cable and have it working in Zoom, Slack, Google Meet, Skype, Teams, or even live streaming over YouTube and Twitch using OBS Studio, in a matter of minutes. Here are the links to the most popular brands’ webcam utilities:

As an alternative, you can also get an inexpensive video capture card and a HDMI cable that is compatible with your camera.

These can only output a 1080p/30fps signal as opposed to the 4K/60fps that’s possible with more expensive video capture devices like the Elgato Cam Link 4K, but 1080p/30fps is plenty for Zoom video calls.

Improving audio quality

Most of us, if asked, would say we value video quality over sound quality, but we would be wrong! . Here’s a study that shows good quality audio directly impacts how we perceive the overall quality of a call. For instance, when was the last time you heard yourself or tested your microphone’s quality? Keep in mind you never hear how you sound over the web, but everyone else does.

You want to broadcast your message loud and clear, so if you’re still using your laptop’s built-in microphone, please consider getting a good quality external one. These can make you sound present and full-bodied, while also getting rid of annoying echo and ambient noise. Trust me when I say everyone will thank you for it.

Fortunately, you have a lot more options in the audio department when compared to video, and all of them are cheaper than buying a mirrorless camera. Unfortunately, there are a LOT of options indeed and everyone has a different preference, so I’ll leave a broader list of recommendations:

Adjusting your settings

Below, we’ll give you a brief overview of how to set up Zoom to make use of your external camera and microphone. Even though these instructions are specific to Zoom, you should be able to easily replicate in whatever software you use.

  • Using a camera that supports a webcam utility: Install the corresponding webcam utility that is compatible with your camera. Plug your camera into your computer via the provided USB cable. Some cameras require you to set their USB protocol in different ways, so please refer to your manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Using a camera via an HDMI video capture card: Plug the video capture card into your computer and connect it to the camera via the HDMI cable.
  • Using an external microphone: Plug the microphone into your computer via the provided USB cable or using the Bluetooth protocol, depending on what you get.
  • Zoom preferences: Open Zoom and click on the little chevron next to your audio and video options on the menu at the bottom. You should see your new devices listed and ready to be used; select them and you’re good to go!

Zooming out

Working from home presents a unique set of challenges and with video calls becoming more and more popular it’s increasingly important that we make them flow as smoothly as possible.

Elevating the quality of your audio and video is a good way to eliminate all possible distractions, and present yourself and your work in a more polished way. Plus, it can be pretty inexpensive to vastly improve the quality of video calls for everyone involved.

Please share your setup down below and let us know if you’re doing anything interesting or using any additional equipment such as external light sources or lenses.

By Filipe Varela

Designer at @Automattic. Avid photographer and videographer. Likes donuts and cheesecake. Yes, I have a sweet tooth.