Here's the gear you need to have Thanksgiving via Zoom
You can have a great video call setup on any budget.
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Some Thanksgiving traditions are universal: football, overeating, and uncomfortable political debates. But there's another, unspoken ritual we all go through: the yearly act of scrambling to fit around a shrinking table. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will be relegated to a quarantined dinner of our immediate family. The act of Zooming your traditional get-together may sound cheesier than grandma's mashed potatoes, but Thanksgiving without the whole family might as well be Thanksgiving without turkey.
If you just plop your laptop on the dining room table and call it a day, your video call probably won't go as well as you'd like. Not only will you likely be shrouded in shadow, but your voice will almost certainly sound shrill and echoed—all while you run the risk of spilling gravy on your new laptop. Take the photo below, for example—it's fine, but it's not exactly a picture-perfect family dinner, is it?
We're here to help. With a few tweaks to your setup and some relatively affordable gear, you can make things look and sound a whole lot better.
The free setup: make the best of what you've got
There's a good chance you already have some things around the house that can help improve the experience, even if you don't have an extra dime to spend.
Good lighting can make even the wimpiest webcams provide a decent image. If the overhead lights of your dining room are draping shadows over everyone's face, putting a bit of light behind your laptop might help shine a few extra lumens in the right direction. If you have a desk lamp with an adjustable arm, that's the best option—play with the angles (pointed at your face, pointed up, reflecting off the wall, etc.) to see what looks best. I sadly didn't have one of these handy, but a standard bedside lamp with the shade removed still improved things somewhat, as you can see above.
Similarly, your laptop's built-in webcam is probably not the best. Even if you can't afford something better, though, you can improve the camera's positioning for a better shot of your face. If you have a laptop stand like the Rain Design mStand, try to elevate the laptop so you aren't getting an up-the-nose view from the dining room table. If you don't have a laptop stand, a cardboard box or stack of books will work just as well.
If you have a large laptop with up-firing speakers, you may be able to get by with them—but you'll almost certainly cause an echo on the other end as Grandma's voice comes out of your laptop speakers and flows right back into the microphone. And if you have a smaller 13-inch laptop, forget about it—those down-firing speakers are probably not loud enough for you to hear your family from across the table. If you have a Bluetooth speaker lying around—I'm a big fan of my JBL Flip 5—try connecting it to your computer for better sound. This also allows you to bring the speaker closer to you (and away from the laptop's microphone), which could eliminate echo issues.
The affordable setup: big improvements on a budget
If you're willing to spend a few bucks to make things look a bit better—and hey, all this stuff can go toward work-related Zoom calls later on—there are a few upgrades that can make a big difference.
At this point in the pandemic, you've probably heard more about ring lights than you ever wanted to, but there's a good reason: they're a fantastic, inexpensive way to light your face in less-than-ideal conditions, whether you're sitting at a desk or at the dining room table. For a larger group, I recommend a larger ring light on a tripod like this 10-inch Emart model—it has three different color temperatures and 11 brightness levels so you can find the best-looking one in your space. You can see the difference it made in the photo above.
The webcam baked into your laptop might be decent, or it could be utter trash. If you want something a bit better, a USB webcam could provide a clearer image, though in order to step above your laptop's webcam you'd probably want something like the Logitech C615—not cheap by any means, but still well below Logitech's best offerings. I found that my (very) old USB webcam didn't provide a better picture than my wife's MacBook Air, but your mileage may vary depending on the laptop you have. Oh, and the USB cable also allows you to put the webcam wherever you want—and hook your laptop up to a TV with an HDMI adapter for a bigger, better view of Mom and Dad.
Your laptop and webcam have built-in microphones, but if they're too far away—like in our TV scenario above—you might do well with a conference call microphone/speaker combo with noise reduction and echo cancellation. These tend to be on the pricier side, but there are affordable models out there like this one from Atpot that will do the trick on a budget. Like the webcam, though, do a test with and without it to see if it's actually better than what your laptop already provides.
The all-out setup: pro-quality production at a price
If money is no object—or if you're in the market for some photography gear anyway—these higher-end products will give your Zoom calls a much clearer, more high-end look.
While bulkier than a ring light, professional photo lighting can make an enormous difference in the way your shot looks. In the photo above, I'm using these Mountdog softboxes, which are fairly easy to use—though if you're willing to sacrifice the quality of the lighting just a tad, umbrella lights might be quicker to set up and tear down. Ideally, grab a pack of two and place them on either side of your camera. A two-point lighting setup will do a better job of framing the whole scene with light and get rid of unsightly shadows.
There's no substitute for a real DSLR camera, and if you have one on hand—or are considering buying one anyway—many newer models can double as streaming webcams. Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Sony all have webcam utilities that work with their cameras, though you'll want to check each company's compatibility before you buy. For most folks, I recommend a mirrorless camera like the Sony a5100 for its versatility and portability. I have an older Sony a5000 that isn't compatible with the webcam tool, but the screenshot above—grabbed from a video I took with the a5000—should give you an idea of what a good camera can stream.
Finally, for higher quality video chat audio (with better noise canceling), you'll want to spring for a brand-name conference call speakerphone. Jabra is one of the biggest names in the space, with its Speak 410 being one of the more affordable options—though you can climb the product stack higher for better quality and more features.