online presentations with a cheap studio

I’m not suggesting I have the best home studio for presenting here… nor the cheapest… but for me it’s the ideal compromise between being good and good enough to work really well for clients but without bankrupting me 😉

Want to take a video tour first? I’ll make comments below.

Why would you want to bother with something other than your bog-standard laptop for your online presentations?

Brutally, because if you don’t you risk looking bad and being left behind by everyone else. And looking good – or at least good enough – on camera is pretty much an essential these days. Imagine things from your audience’s perspective – if you’re badly illuminated so they can’t properly see your face, two things happen:

  1. It’s harder to trust you (just think of why you see baddies in films in the shadow when they first appear! 😉 )
  2. It increases your audience’s cognitive load – they’re having to work harder to figure out what you’re saying.

… and before you say “but my microphone will sort out what I’m saying”, please know three things. The first is that much of what we think we hear we actually lip-read. The second is that body-language and facial expressions are key to emotional contact with your audience. The third and final thing is that your microphone is probably rubbish anyway. (More about that in a bit.)

Costs

Excluding software, my setup breaks down like this:

  • Quite a big Mac computer is about a thousand pounds. You need a computer anyway, so I’m not including this in the costs of my ‘studio’. Obviously you don’t need to spend such a lot on computers but I’ve got other reasons for spending a lot of money on it, to do with videos, speed, live-broadcasts, and environmental issues.
  • Added point here – while it’s true that you need a computer, online presentations need better computers, so maybe the difference between “any old computer” and a “fast, powerful computer” should be included here. That’s a couple of hundred quid if you go all in!
  • Blue Yeti microphone. There are plenty of other mics out there and I sometimes wonder if this one is over-spec’d (it’s annoyingly sensitive!) but for what it’s worth, Amazon stocks them at around £100 for new and quite a bit less for second-hand. (Added note, I’ve just heard the ART2100 recommended by someone who read this blog post which – apparently – is a bit cheaper still than my Yeti and doesn’t have the problem of being too sensitive that the Yeti sometimes has
  • Microphone stand. I didn’t exactly splash out here! Mine’s a Neewer, for a bit over £30 on Amazon (I’m not recommending you buy from Amazon, it’s just a convenient place to show you the stuff I’m talking about.)
  • Lights aren’t necessary if you’re only ever presenting in good natural light. One cloudy night or even a mid-afternoon session in the north of England where the sun goes down at about three pm in the winter should convince you to invest in something that gives you more flexibility. I’m using a pair of lights by Neewer which are powered by USBs from my computer and they cost more than you might expect – a bit under £60 on Amazon.
  • Second monitor. I can’t begin to describe how useful a second monitor is. You can keep a lot more windows open and useful if you’ve got somewhere to put them! Mine was free, because I saved it from being given away when we got a new TV. (There is no truth in the rumour that I agreed to a new TV just because I wanted to grab the old one. Honest. Don’t believe my wife.)
  • My MiFi was £25 to buy and I don’t pay anything unless I need it – which I never have so far (cheers Virgin – so far so good!) (By the way, a MiFi is a ‘mobile WiFi – like having your computer using your phone’s data allowance, but a lot cheaper and not speed-limited.)

So which of those things can you avoid spending money on if you’re not flush?

You can probably improvise the lights if you’ve got lots of spare, bright lights, a bit of time and imagination and an extension cable or two… and the time to set them up. 

You can also probably get away with not spending on the mic. If you’ve got a good bluetooth headset with a mic built in that will probably work. I can’t be sure, of course, because I don’t know your house, but you can certainly give it a try and see what happens.

Software

I must admit I spent a bit on this, because my job involves looking good for online presentations and if I can’t walk the walk I shouldn’t be doing it. I use Ecamm Pro on my Mac as my studio, which allows me jump seamlessly between different cameras, zooms, different presenters, slides, videos, and so on, and allows me to do picture-in-picture stuff that you might have seen in my recordings.

The advantage of that is that with online presentations it’s very easy to lose rapport with your audience when you show slides – they can’t see you easily any longer. Of course, you can get around this a bit by clever use of Zoom to Spotlight yourself and so on, but the flexibility, ease and raw power of Ecamm is worth it for me.

A friend of mine who’s stuck in the Microsoft world tells me that https://try.restream.io/ does the same thing, nicely, for Windows.Your circumstances will vary, of course, but if you want to stand out and do something a bit different from the herd you might want to look into this kind of software.

Stuff I don’t do but could or should

LX at the back

https://s.studiobinder.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Three-Point-Lighting-3-Point-Lighting-Setup-StudioBinder-1.jpg?resolution=1440,2

In an ideal world, I’m make myself ‘pop’ a bit more by having two more different additions to my lighting. Firstly, I’d have something backlighting me. It makes me look a bit less flat and boring. (Ask any theatre lighting designer and they’ll scream “but what about the backlight” at you when they see the set 😉 ) (Check out here for more on three point lighting.)

The other thing I’d do is have the background lit by a different ‘temperature’ of light, to make me stand out from it a bit more. Temperature is a technical term for how light ‘feels’. For an example, think of the different types of ‘white’ you get in your Christmas tree lights – some are warm, others are bright, and some are downright aggressive! Having your background lit warmly when you’re in a harder light (or visa versa), for example, can be very effective.

Generally all you need to do is use a different light source, as they’re all different.

Distance from the background

One of the reasons I don’t light things in the background properly is because I’m too close to it. My office is small (which also gives huge problems with the sound because of the echo off the hard, close, flat walls) and I physically can’t get as far away from the background as would be ideal.

Bit of a side note: I’ve spent about £70 on a huge (1.2M) version of my company logo printed on canvas which I’ve put on the back wall of my office, so it shows behind my head when I’m talking. It makes things look quite a bit more professional without spending a fortune. The shelving behind me is stripped down to one potted plant and my TEDx memorabilia to look clean-but-homely.

Special stuff

I sometimes use my iPhone as a second camera. When it’s popped on a tripod you can use it to give a different way of showing your face, perhaps at a bit of an angle. You can also use it to show things that aren’t in front of your camera – for example, I sometimes use it to show a set of dice that I roll. I have friends who use a camera pointed at a physical whiteboard, rather than try and use whiteboard built into Teams or Zoom.

Personally, I use a tiny app called EpoCamm to do this, but there’s plenty of other stuff around, and you can even consider just doing it by attaching your phone via a cable if your cable is long enough!

A final ‘special thing’ I do that most folks can, is to have my computer cabled to my house’s router box (the bit where your WiFi connects with the outside world). It’s faster and more robust than using your WiFi. To be honest I’ve forgotten the name of the device I use to do this, but basically it magically uses the wiring in my house to send signals to the wall-plug (socket) my computer is connected to. I bought it so long ago I can’t remember the price, but it was peanuts and I’ve never regretted it!

Update

I mentioned I needed a new Mac… and I’ve got one. Pretty much the same size, but with 16 Gig of RAM and the new M1 chip. Fast doesn’t being to describe it! 🙂

Summary

While I can’t claim to have created a professional-level studio here, I’ve got the next best thing, and have done it on the cheap. I’ll post in other places about how to use some easy-as-pie things to make yourself more interesting on camera no matter what toys you’ve got to play with!

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Simon – always useful to have suggestions about decent but affordable gear and software!

    One thing you didn’t mention though is the camera?

    • Simon says...

      My default camera is the HD one built into my Mac computer. (I use my iPhone’s build in camera as a secondary one, sometimes – linked via EpoCam)

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