In Sight

Written on January 29, 2020

7 min. read

Close up of Razer Kiyo and Logitech C920 webcams on top of a computer monitor

In the last decade, while phone cameras have gone from shooting tiny noisy pictures to producing DSLR-level quality shots, webcams have coasted on the mediocre lane. As distributed or remote work became more common, we’ve never relied on webcams more yet they’re just as bad as they were ten years ago. The Logitech C920 (~$50), still The Wirecutter’s top pick in 2020, came out in January 2012 — the year of the chamfered-edged iPhone 5.

I can’t fix lazy hardware design for webcam manufacturers although I do have a long wish list (larger lenses, better sensors, lighting rings, etc.) but I can give you some tips to help your remote co-workers interface with the most important tool next ot your finger tips: your beautifully expressive face.

Point the light toward you

I can’t count the number of meetings I’ve participated in where the main speaker – often someone important – chooses to sit with their back to a window (or several). It’s a recipe for webcam disaster, and easily the most common mistake.

Still image of a webcam recording a man sitting in the dark with his back to two large windows.
With two large windows facing a webcam, you will always be underexposed.

Webcams calculate the average light ouput within a frame to determine how to balance the exposure value. When you sit in front of a bright daylight window, you’re turning yourself into a minority exposure sample because the majority of the frame is much brighter than you. Innevitably, your background washes you out and your face is shrouded in darkness.

Next time this happens to you, try to use your hands to prevent as much light from reaching the webcam lens as possible. Immediately, you’ll see your face brighten on the webcam feed. Since this isn’t really a practical thing to do while having a conversation, please try never to point your webcam toward a window while on a call. Your coworkers will thank you.

Side-by-side comparison of the lighting captured by the Logitech C920 on the left and the Razer Kiyo on the right, showing much better face lighting on the Razer Kiyo.
Logitech C920 (left) vs. Razer Kiyo (right) both at their maximum digital zoom level. Since the Kiyo ships with an adjustable ring light, it can easily compensate for bright backgrounds.

Some days, or inside of dark offices, pointing a window at your face might not be an option. Try to find a bright desk lamp with a lampshade that can diffuse light so it’s not too harsh on your face. I use a simple double-bulb lamp with two 5.5 Watt LED soft white bulbs (2700 Kelvin) as a backup light source. If you can afford a higher webcam budget, the newer Razer Kiyo webcam (~$80) has an adjustable LED light ring around it which provides incredible lighting. I wish more webcams offered this option. The improvement is staggering.

If you can’t zoom in, get closer

Your face matters. I know you might not love your face (therapy is priceless) but if you’re going to represent less than 50% of the total size of the webcam frame, you might as well turn your video off and rely on your voice alone, or just type an email with what you mean to say and send it to your team.

Screenshot of the Zoom call interface with webcam set to its default wide angle mode and no backlighting compensation, causing the author of this diatribte to uncharacteristically gloomy-looking,
compared to the same webcam zoomed in.
Webcams show too much of your surrounding by default and their auto-exposure struggles with bright backgrounds. Using the maximum zoom settings can improve both instantly.

Faces are incredibly detailed interfaces. If I can see your face on a video call, smile, and tell you to go to hell in response to a joke, it’s likely you’d understand that I’m not actually offended nor that I mean to actually insult you. When that situation unfolds with little or no visual context, it can be a lot more tricky to determine if the conversation is in good fun or not. One of the most difficult aspects of remote work is the lack of high bandwidth communication. Unsurpsingly, and despite the many advantages of distributed work, face-to-face conversation tend to prevent ambiguity. But the comparison is often unfair because little to no effort is made to increase the conversational bandwidth of remote discussions.

Screenshot of the interace of the macOS app Webcam Settings which
showing its Advanced Settings where the digital zoom level of an external webcam
can be changed.
Webcam Settings (macOS) can alter the digital zoom level of most external webcams, allowing you to focus on your face but also avoid drawing attention to your messy work area.

I use a macOS Menu Bar app called Webcam Settings to tweak my external webcam’s default setting. It’s not free ($7.99) but worth the cost and compatible with most third-party webcams. It allows you to dig into settings that your operating system or the webcam don’t expose: white balance, brightness, saturation, zoom level and exposure time.

You might be able to find alternative tools for your own OS. If you can’t, perhaps try to find a way to bring your webcam closer to you. Screen-mounted webcams can only get so close, which is why zooming is such a good option in my mind.

Screenshot of a Zoom video meeting in screensharing mode with 6 participants displayed as small thumbnail, with their faces hard to distinguish, except the leftmost face, yours truly smirking
with an of smugh satisfaction at his fancy webcam setup which probably allows his coworkers
to notice how distracted he is in this meeting.
Most webcams default to wide angles which make no sense in many group calls where your webcam video will only be displayed as a tiny thumbnail, so zoom in if you can, or get closer.

Sadly the Webcam Settings app doesn’t work with Apple’s embedded FaceTime webcams on most of the MacBook models I’ve tried it on. Thankfully, webcams like the Riyo and the C920 are easy to carry while traveling – although you’ll need a USB-C to USB-A hub to use them with recent machines. By the way, try to avoid the chin-o-vision distorsion effect that occurs when a laptop is pointed up toward your face. Laptops webcams are rarely very flattering to begin with, and this kind of angle also tends to accentuate lighting issues because ceilings are often brighter than most skintones which once again will make you look too dark. Laptop stands can help with this, but external webcams that can be mounted on top of your monitor are best.

No peeking

It’s unlikely someone’s spying on your via your webcam unless you’ve angered a nation-state or you have exceptionally bad operational security but it doesn’t hurt to cover your bases.

Webcam cover are fine, especially if you get them for free (some new C920 models ship with one). But if you don’t want to bother puting the cap on and off a webcam cover, I’d recommend at least making sure you’re notified when your webcam is active or not. Patrick Wardle from Objective-See makes a little utility called OverSight which does exactly that. It can also let you know when your microphonne is activated.

Don’t talk to webcams

Embedded microphones on webcams are just bad. The reasons are simple:

  • manufacturers have little incentive to improve them.
  • webcams are too far from your mouth to pick up sound properly.
  • embedded microphones are tiny, cheap, and usually terrible.
  • the Larsen effect (proximity to speakers) can cause feedback loops.

I wrote a whole post about microphones but if you want a one liner: just use a standalone microphone with or without headphones attached to it. You’ll avoid nasty feedback loops. But if you (or your employer) can afford it, how your words are transmitted is just as important as the face that gives those words context, emotions, and a human touch.