Rewind half a year: Before a typical in-real-life event, I would take a shower in the morning, shave, put on some clean clothes and spend the day at a conference, trade show, or a meet-up. Without giving it too much thought, I’d create a more likeable version of myself so that others would find it more enjoyable interacting with me. All day, unconsciously, I’d present myself to the physical world being Roman Zenner, the e-commerce guy — red beard, blue glasses, backpack and all.
And then the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, this way of presenting myself to the real-world came to a halt. People just couldn’t get out anymore, be around other people and project their best 3D versions. Instead, they are now spending the days in their home offices, spending their time with video meetings and webinars.
Now that 2D is becoming the new normal, there are also new factors which make a difference: the quality of your video, your audio, the overall lighting, and the setup of your background. Those are the new criteria along which the people you’re interacting with will judge you — either consciously or unconsciously. Are you the one without the good microphone who’s hard to understand because of all the echo? Will you gradually be known as the one looking like a silhouette, because you always sit with your back against the window?
Along with an undeniable thirst for playing around with technology (nerd!), this was the main reason I decided to put some thought into my video and audio setup. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I hope that my description helps others on a similar path.
It all began with a new desk. I knew if I wanted to improve my setup, I needed space. So I got myself a 2m x 1m table top which would give me ample room for monitors, speakers, and everything else. Plus, I wanted to be able to work while standing up from time to time, so the height of the desk is now adjustable. I couldn’t find a single product that worked for me in that regard, so I decided to use separate products from two vendors and put them together — which was easy enough, even for me ;)
During my onboarding session, the friendly folks at Shopify gave me a brand-new Macbook Air 2019 to work with. It’s a beautiful, slim, very lightweight machine, perfect for travelling around with. But then, as we all experienced, the pandemic hit, and travelling was no longer an option. So the greatest benefit of this machine turned into its major flaw: it’s just not made for video streaming at all. So, fortunately, I could convince my team to let me have a different machine which met my new requirements. Right now, I’m using a new 16” Macbook Pro with a Radeon Pro 5300M graphics card, and it makes video streaming a fast, pleasant, and quiet experience.
This is a change I made already at the beginning of the year. I tend to have many windows and applications open at the same time, so I need as much screen real estate as possible. So I went for the Samsung C34H892WJU 34" curved monitor to give me that panoramic view. Frankly, it took about a week for me to get used to the curve (not looking at a flat surface), but now it feels perfectly normal and I’m even considering getting a second one.
I spent a lot of time researching this part of the setup. My ideal scenario would be to have as much influence on the composition of the image as possible, including interchangeable lenses, using different focal lengths, and creating this nice bokeh effect known from DSLR cameras. Initially, I tried to hook up my old Canon EOS 550D to my notebook and played around with some Canon drivers. Somehow I managed to get a live view from this camera onto my machine, however, this was much too slow. It was impossible to get audio and video in sync, so I felt I needed a better solution.
Later on, I spent some time watching Youtube videos of live streamers talking about their camera setup. And the most versatile type of camera, apparently, was the so-called mirrorless variant. Those cameras are much more compact than traditional DSLRs, but have the same flexibility. One model which appeared more than once was the Sony Alpha 5100 which I also ended up buying. It’s lightweight and has a moveable viewfinder screen which lets me monitor what the camera is actually seeing.
The camera is connected to my notebook via the Elgato Cam Link 4K. This is a hardware video processor which grabs the camera video signal in real-time using the HDMI port and transfers it to my computer via USB. This works seamlessly and out-of-the box. Granted, there’s a very slight delay between my audio and my video, but it’s barely noticeable. The last missing piece: a battery dummy. The Sony Alpha 5100 cannot be connected to a charger directly, so if you don’t want to change and recharge your camera battery from time to time, it’s really worth investing a few more Euros here. Plus, you need to make sure to hook up this battery dummy with a powered USB port to give it enough voltage — I’m using this RAVPower power socket USB combo to achieve this.
Finally, I’m using the Joby TelePod Mobile to hold the camera, just above the top rim of my monitor. This is an okay-ish solution for now, but I’m missing some flexibility here. I think in the long run I’ll be thinking about a sort of boom which I can move around the table more freely.
I started my lighting career with the infamous Neewer ring light, which I bought a year ago already. Typically, this product is used in combination with a smartphone, to give your videos and images better light and also to create this nice little ring of light in your eyes. Wearing glasses like I do, this does not really work. On top of that, the ring light comes with a chunky tripod, so it does not fit on my table. Long story short, I needed to have a more lightweight solution and also have more control over light intensity and light temperature. That’s why I decided to get two Elgato Key Light Air panels.Those are fantastic: they are sitting left and right of me, putting enough light onto my face just where I need it. Those panels connect to my computer via WiFi, so I can control the light with a little software tool. And although it took me a while to figure out how to connect the Elgatos with my network, it’s superhandy now.
The ring light is still there, but in my current setup, it only serves to illuminate my background just a little bit.
This is the piece of the setup I’ve actually figured out a few years ago. I’ve been recording podcasts for some time now, and I always wanted my voice to have this high-quality, bassy, radio-like quality. So I spent some time researching and ordered the Beyerdynamic DT797 headset, connected via an Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface. I like the fact that I can move my head around (which I tend to do a lot) and still keep the same distance between my mouth and the microphone. The headphones are high quality too, and it’s a pleasure listening to music through them. Connecting to the Scarlett is very straightforward, and the audio interface goes into yet another USB-A port.
In the future, I might go for a combination of real studio monitor boxes and a subwoofer to listen to some music the way it’s meant to be listened to. Until then, I’m using the Bose Mini II SE to listen to some music without any headphones.
I’d like to experiment with video live streaming as well and achieve this “cut-out” look that those streamers have. So I got the Celexon Mobile Chroma Key Green Screen 150 x 180, which is very easy to set up. Basically, you put the base right behind your chair and pull up the screen to its full height — done! The streaming software (see next paragraph) takes care of separating your head and shoulders from the background, all I need to do now is make sure to have proper illumination of the green screen itself (which I still need to figure out).
Last but not least: software. After having played around with OBS for a while, I tried Ecamm Live because it’s so much easier to use and has some great features. So basically, in my setup, I’m running my camera signal through this software, which allows me to then manipulate the image any way I want to. For example, if I have my green screen in place, I can let the software cut out my image and place a new background image (and even video!) all around me. It’s also possible to share my screen and have a small “me” hover just on top of it, to get that live streaming look. I can also use multiple cameras and switch between them, it’s also possible to hook up Ecamm Live with a streaming server. And, the best thing for my daily work at Shopify, it creates a virtual camera for me to use in our Google hangout meetings
So this was it, a snapshot of my current setup. As you can imagine, this is really a work in progress, and I constantly learn new things and change bits and pieces here and there. It’s good fun for once, but also makes me feel like I’m presenting the best digital version of me.