As a professional speaker, in 2019 I had set myself up for a winning year in 2020, with a full lineup of business, including in-person workshops, conferences, and multiple international paid gigs. But the pandemic effectively canceled, postponed, or moved my gigs to the digital space.
I had two choices: either blame and complain, or get creative and scrappy. I decided to get scrappy and channel my inner MacGyver. During the pandemic, for close to 18 months now, I have built a simple setup, then vamped up its quality, and ultimately figured out how to rig a professional quality, multi-camera setup including a retractable green screen (and a fog machine).
In addition to speaking, I am a consultant, work in a communications role at the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). And like many people, I have been working remotely for some time now. That means lots of Zoom meetings. From the very beginning of lockdown, I was interested in upping my work-from-home setup not only for paid speaking gigs, but also to increase my remote-working skills and professionalism for my clients and at UCI.
I want to share with you what I have learned, so that you don’t have to spend the time and waste your money on things that don’t get you the setup you want. Also I’ve gathered a shopping list with links to where you can buy all the gear you need.
Disclaimer: This is my unique setup, and my own opinions. Everyone’s setup will surely be custom to them. And that’s half the fun. I’m not saying what I have rigged is the best there is, but it’s the best I have been able to come up with under $5,000. Here is a stick figure version of my pro setup.
Don’t be overwhelmed. I’ll show you how I built it in steps, and you can grow your setup step by step.
I am giving you a behind the scenes look at my setup (as of the summer of 2021). It has evolved, and will continue to evolve. That is why I have dedicated a page on my website to keep you updated with what I am using, including links of where to get everything I have.
Why investing in your setup is an investment in yourself
Having great lights, a crisp image, awesome audio, and the ability to share multiple angles from multiple cameras in real time allows me to do my jobs better. These components can allow you to do your job(s) better, too. If you have ever been on a work Zoom call, and the other person is not well lit, has a grainy image, or poor audio, you know how distracting that can be.
Let this serve as a tell-all guide to allow you to build the right at home setup for you. And if you don’t want the explanation and just want to see my gear list, you can access my always updated gear shopping list. For everyone else, let’s go.
The Only 3 Things You Need To Worry About
If you know me, you have likely heard of my 3-1-3® Method, and my 3-1-3 Challenge Podcast. If you don’t know me (yet), I do really like the number three. So, here are the three main components of your setup: lights, cameras, and audio.
Remember that all of the upgrades I discuss below are tied to these three components. If you aren’t tech savvy, don’t worry! I have translated all of the tech jargon into eight easy steps that you can easily understand the various equipment and setup options. If you are only interested in a basic or intermediate setup, then follow steps one through four.
A Professional Home Setup in 8 Steps (Or Less)
Step 1: Jazz up your desk setup
In the move to a remote setup, you can likely use what you already have for a desk, or find something in your home to function as a home-based setup. What is important regardless of your setup is your ability to have it adjusted to act as a standing desk in addition to one you can sit at. When you stand up, it gives your presentations a whole different type of energy. Also, it’s an ergonomic solution to all-day desk sitting, which can place stress on your body.
Get a music stand + laptop stand
I needed an adjustable desk, but I didn’t want to pay thousands of dollars for one. So I bought a basic, narrow desk at a local consignment store that was wide enough to fit my keyboard and mouse but not much else. Then I purchased a music stand to hold my laptop instead of placing it on a motorized standing desk. I saved hundreds, if not thousands of dollars with this one simple hack. I also purchased a Keynamic Laptop stand for my laptop to rest on, which props it up nicely on my music stand, and it also allows airflow under the laptop to help it stay cooler when I work. The stand is great and I bring it with me when I travel.
Invest in a USB wired keyboard + Wireless mouse
With my laptop on the computer stand, I needed to purchase an auxiliary keyboard and mouse. The biggest reason is that I wanted to raise and lower my laptop if I wanted to stand and present a keynote, or stand during a client or internal team Zoom meeting. There are tons of options, and after buying three different keyboards and returning them, I found and fell in love with the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic wired keyboard. The reason I like the wired model for my keyboard is that I own one fewer piece of equipment with batteries.
I also have issues with my right arm. The doctors say it is tennis elbow, but I am convinced it is from all of the lobster diving I do, so I call it “lobster elbow.” I am sure it does not help that I type all the time and so many draw stick figures, so I did a lot of research on the most ergonomic mouses available. I bought three and returned them, and eventually found the Delux M618 Plus Optical Ergonomic Vertical Wireless Mouse. I love it because the angle of your hand engages different muscles, so my forearm does not hurt when I use it. I suggest you check it out. Having a wireless mouse is important for my professional setup because it gives me freedom.
Step 2: Start with upgrading your lighting
No matter what kind of setup you are shooting for, lighting is the first investment you should make. If you can rearrange your desk to take advantage of natural light, thatis the best. But you will run into issues at certain times of the day since the sun is always on the move. Also, only relying on natural light causes problems for early morning and evening meetings if you do a lot of international business.
I bought a variety of lights, and returned all but two. I have found that using two main lights works well. I also have lights behind me, but I’ll get to that soon. The two main lights I have settled on are the VILTROX L116T Key Light LED Video Light Kit and feature 3300k-5600k color temperature adjustments which allows you to fine tune a temperature that works for you. I found that a setting of 5,500k at 40% strength is the closest I was able to get to simulate natural sunlight . I still use sunlight when possible, pulling my drapes between one to three feet, to let in light, but not too much. When I use my green screen, I will usually adjust the light temperatures to get the lighting just right.
You may find with lights, that they create hot spots. If that happens to you, then you should try to diffuse the light. I bought diffuser light covers, and have them on mine, which gives me a more even lighting. Based on the lights you get, also search for “diffusers” that will fit. And in a pinch, I have found that using regular sheets of white paper can have the same effect.
For all levels of setups, I suggest starting with two lights, and you should place them at head level, approximately four feet away from you, with positions at 10 and 2 o’clock (if the way you are facing is 12 noon). To give me the flexibility in raising and lowering the lights, I mounted my VILTROX lights using FOSOTO tripod light stands and I positioned them 3-4 feet away at ten and two, if where I am sitting is the center of the clock..
Lessons I Learned:
The lights I purchased only came with batteries, and after months of swapping them out, to recharge them, I realized that I could purchase ac adapter cords. Now I have one less thing to worry about. Whatever lights you get, make sure they can plug into the wall.
The lights in your room may be working against you. I found that the light in my room was competing with the natural light, making me look too warm. So when I’m online, I turn off all lights in my room except the two VILTROX lights. I still position my desk facing a large window so that when the sun is at ideal angles, I can use natural light, and when it goes away, I draw my blackout curtains and flick on my VILTROX lights.
The lights should be at head level, which means when you raise your music stand to stand up for your meeting, presentation, or speech, you should also adjust the lights accordingly.
When you’re digitally onstage, lighting is everything. To help create depth, you can use backlighting. For my backlighting, I grabbed two TORCHSTAR metal swinging lamps and installed smart WiFi Alexa light bulbs. They’re great because the bulbs offer a wide variety of colors, and it creates depth in the image your viewers see. While giving a keynote, with one tap on my phone I can transition colors behind me to change the mood. Backlighting can add a whole other dimension to a digital presentation. And if you have a nice camera, it really helps to make your image have depth.
With lights, you might have shiny spots on your face where you get oily. If you use a 1080 webcam or upgrade to a Sony ZV-1 or other professional camera, you might want to get oil blotting tissues and even some pressed powder. And if you are bald or going bald, I have a trick that I learned from my friend and video mentor, Dan Bennett. You can use Blot Out Offensive Shine + Oil Control Cream. These will help you to remove unsightly shiny spots from the oil on your face!
Step 3: Camera upgrade
Once you have good lighting, then improve your setup by upgrading your webcam or invest in a camera that can act as a webcam. For beginner setups, I suggest a 1080 webcam, and my favorite is the Logitech 1080. It’s got a clear, crisp image, does really well with a small amount of natural light, and features a microphone that is likely better than the one on your computer.
Lessons I Learned:
A disadvantage of the 1080 webcam is that you don’t have the ability to zoom in and out. This feature is valuable so that you can properly frame yourself to your preferences. The 1080 webcam just gives you a wide angle. It is higher quality, sharper, and does better in lower light, but you are limited to the one angle it captures.
Even if you decide to go right to the more professional multi-cam setup with a Sony ZV-1 or DSLR, it is always important to have a backup. So I suggest that you invest in a basic 1080 webcam to serve as a backup. I have experienced glitches during presentations, and I am always thankful that I can switch cameras and not miss a beat.
I will dive into the intermediate and advanced camera setups later on. Let’s move to the next upgrade you should consider: audio.
Step 4: Intermediate and Advanced upgrade to your audio game
Second to video quality, audio quality is the next upgrade you should focus on. If you want to focus on an intermediate setup, there are a million options for mics, which are low-cost and high quality. If you are looking for an advanced setup, I recommend the Yeti brand, as well as a wireless mic setup (which can only be used if you upgrade to the ATEM Mini Pro setup explained later).
Blue Yeti mic and wireless
For the Blue Yeti mic, I adjusted my setup so I could roam hands-free with the extendable mic arm. Now my at-home office can serve as my stage. If you opt for a multi camera setup, it allows you to have both wide and close-up angles. For professional presentations I will connect my wireless mic setup into my ATEM Mini Pro, giving me the ability to use a lapel mic and not be tied to my stationary Yeti mic. More on this setup below.
Lessons I Learned:
Do not place your Yeti on a desk (or other type of USB microphone). I learned the hard way that when you have a microphone on your desk, all of your movements and typing sounds pick up on the mic, which is why you need a mic arm, attached to something other than your main desk.
Make sure your microphone is set up correctly, and have a trusted friend give some feedback on how it sounds. Also make sure that you are talking into the right place for optimal quality sound. I was on a podcast, and the host informed me that my microphone was turned backwards. I have not made that mistake twice! And now you won’t make it the first time!
If you stop here, with a music stand, laptop stand, separate keyboard and mouse, 1080 webcam, and upgraded mic, you officially have a beginner setup.
But if you want to level up more, it’s time to invest in a better camera.
Step 5: Intermediate and advanced camera setups
The challenge is that when you want to use a DSLR or other professional camera and not just a 1080 webcam, you can’t just plug it into your computer directly as a webcam. I researched how to make it work and learned that you need a capture card to transmit the image from the camera to the computer so that it recognizes the feed as a webcam input. I found the capture card had too much of a lag, which didn’t sync video and audio well. Plus the ones I bought were lower end units, and they felt cheap. I didn’t trust that they would hold up for how much I would be using it.
Sony ZV-1 camera(s) for intermediate and advanced setups
The Sony ZV-1 is known for its sharp image, field of depth, as well as an intelligent and very fast-moving auto-focus. You will need an HDMI cable to connect your Sony ZV-1 to your ATEM Mini Pro. I set up both of my cameras to the ATEM Mini Pro because I wanted a wide shot and then a closeup shot that I could switch between in real time. If you wanted to start with one camera, that can work. You only need one camera to full take advantage of the green screen options and capabilities that come with the ATEM Mini Pro. You can always start with one camera, and get a second one later.
I’ve rigged my Sony cameras onto a standard extension pole stand and bought a shoe mount and a dual camera mount bracket so that they can sit side by side. I have found that I can angle the mount bracket sideways which allows the cameras to get closer together to make for better angles to switch between.
The nice thing about this is that with two cameras and the switcher, I can make real time cuts with no latency between a wide and a close up angle. This allows for my to punch in and out to make my presentation more engaging. When people see this for the first time, they are usually really intrigued on how you did it. And it is worth noting that the ATEM edits before it sends the signal to your computer, so all your computer is processing is the video input via USB-C. That way, control your camera. And this means that you don’t have to use the “share screen” feature in Zoom (or other digital video platforms).
This is a game changer, and the reason why having a switcher is so powerful as a presenter. It enables you to have control over 4 HDMI inputs, including cameras, another laptop feed, an iPad (or your phone) that you can have your presentation on. Then add that to having green screen processing abilities, and an upstream and downstream key, real time transitions, and a build in picture and picture feature, your head will pop with all the options.
We all have access to the same camera input. But not everyone is taking full advantage of how to use that single video input.
Green Screen Setup inspired by my sailboat
Get a green screen and hang it 2-3 feet behind you. Based on your space and setup, the most basic could be using push pins to pin it directly to your ceiling. Or if your ceiling is too high, you can just attach strings to the corners and hand it down so that there is a full backdrop for your camera one angle.
Since everyone sets up in their own unique room. Your setup can look different.
Whatever you do, get creative.
I had purchased my green screen and it was months before I did anything with it. I wanted to hang it but didn’t know how. Then one day when sailing, when I was pulling my my main sail, I had an idea of how to rig my green screen like a sail! I sketched out a plan.
Then with my sketch in hand, I went to West Marine to get blocks, shackles, two little cleats, and line.
Then I went to Home Depot to get some eyehole bolts, then I created my green screen sail setup. I put the eye holes in four spots in my ceiling and attached the pulleys to the eye holes and connected it all with the line. So now, when I need my green screen I simply pull on one line (on the right side of my desk) and it brings it out, then when I pull another line (on the left side of my desk) it goes back and gathers in the corner, out of the way.
See my tweet when I first rigged it up.
When you get your green screen, it will come folded. I spent a long time trying to iron it flat and used a steamer to try to smoothen it out. I learned that with the processing power of the ATEM Mini Pro’s green screen function, it does not matter how wrinkly it is, it still is awesome! So don’t worry about getting the wrinkles out of your green screen. When my mine is retracted, it’s all folded on itself, when I pull it tight, it flattens out nicely. If your lighting is good, and the creases are not creating any shadows, then it should work well.
The same light setup that you have without a green screen should also accompany the green screen. I use the natural light from my window (if it’s daytime and the sun is out) and my two lights at 10 and 2 o’clock positions and it works great. If I am filming at night, I use a third light to replace the natural light I normally use.
The bottom line
Even if you are not a speaker, these upgrades will make you stand out in regular Zoom, or other digital based video platforms. It will show that you are adapting to the new normal, and creating a professional quality stream of yourself. People will take you more seriously and will respect your investment in making their experience online with you a better one. And with all the new options of how to present through digital platforms, you will be able to have a lot more fun. I know I do. And I’ve learned that when I have fun, the audience usually does too.
Being able to have control over your audio, video, and lighting makes your meetings, your presentations, and yourself look more dynamic, which actually will make you more dynamic. If you want to land paid speaking gigs with digital delivery, if you are a startup pitching for millions of dollars, if you are a student attending class digitally, or if you are a professional who wants to advance in your career, you’ve got to step up your game from your own home. And it all starts with three things. Your lighting, video, and audio.
What questions do you have? What other things have you done that I can learn about? I’d love to hear your experiences using any of this tech, and I’m happy to point you in the direction of some good resources if you need them! Tweet at me, ping me on LinkedIn, or send me an email at [email protected].
If you want to experience how the advanced setup translates into a one of a kind, and super dynamic presentation, learn more about hiring me for your next event.