How To Set Up Your WFH Office
Remote working brings a new level of work flexibility, but it does mean a lot of communication by video call.
Video calling introduces challenges that are not present in trad face-to-face communication. Research shows that a huge proportion of the information exchange in a verbal conversation is non-verbal, including body language. Video calling either eliminates or reduces the fidelity of much of this ‘out of band’ information. If you talk with your hands, like I do, this can be left out of the video entirely if you’re not careful. Bad quality audio and video also reduces the reliability of audible and facial expressions.
We are wired to be most comfortable and at ease in a conversation when the other person (hereafter “you” for the sake of chattiness) is within a certain distance range, and again, when we can see their head and shoulders and maybe a certain amount of their chest.
Eye contact is an important component of the nonverbal part of a conversation. This is difficult to achieve over video. You are looking at me through my camera, and I am looking at you on my screen. Depending on the setup, you may:
Be looking down at my forehead or the top of my head (typical webcam placement, exacerbated on big screens)
Be looking up at me, at my chin (Some laptops have the webcam down by the laptop hinge)
Be looking at me from the side (When I attempt to position the camera at eye level). This looks particularly rude because it looks like I am looking away from you and at my computer screen, a sure sign of lack of attention in a face-to-face conversation.
All in all, my wishlist for a video call setup is:
Video quality is as good as possible
Eye contact occurs naturally and is perceived correctly
You can see enough of me that feels natural, and you can see my hands move
You can see as little as possible of my desk and the room behind me
My room is a mess, and even if it wasn’t, it will be an unnecessary distraction during the call.
You can see whether I am looking at you or at my computer screen
Your picture is a comfortable size and distance from me.
This is subjective, some people may in fact want to conceal this, but I personally prefer an authentic and transparent approach.
There is no curving distortion of the picture
What people typically get is a low-to-middle quality webcam, often their laptop’s built-in one, mounted on top of their screen. This leads to a close-up headshot, far from ideal. My idea of a better setup follows.
Disclaimer: I haven’t had the space or the equipment to try everything in this setup, so some of it remains untested and theoretical.
It would seem that points (3) and (4) are a contradiction, but in fact they are not. The key lies in the “camera angle”, often known as “field of view” or “focal length”1. To cut through the jargon, when the camera is close by, you can only show a lot of foreground by showing a lot of background. In order to get the most context, your camera’s lens may even need to be set up to give a curved distortion.
However, if the camera is placed at a distance and zoomed in, you can far more easily show context of your body while only showing the part of the room directly behind you.
As such, my ideal setup would be: A high-quality webcam (point 1) with a narrow focal length (“zoomed in”), mounted on top of a large-screen TV, placed slightly off to the side and a few feet across the room.
This provides the best balance between context of my body (3) and the room (4), without needing distortion (7). It also puts you in a place which is comfortable for me (6). Because of the distance, the angle between camera and display is reduced, leading to more natural eye contact (2).
In fact, if you’ve ever seen a newsroom, they use cameras set right back from the newscaster, giving that head/shoulder/body shot that feels most natural to viewers.
The next step then, is choosing a camera. We’re looking for a camera with a narrow focal angle. Unfortunately, narrow focal-angle webcams are too niche to exist. The next best we can do is adjustable focal length - also known as “optical zoom” (digital zoom just crops the image, not changing the focal length), but it needs to go narrower than standard. The webcam market seems to focus on broader angle, getting more context from a traditional closeup mount point - leading to the curved distortion I mentioned earlier.
There is a cheap webcam on Amazon with a manually adjustable focal length, but I didn’t want to take a risk on quality. Luckily, The Logitech Brio models have a field of view that adjusts down to 65 degrees, which works very well in practice. There are two models available - The BRIO 500 with 1080p resolution and the 4K Pro (also known as the BRIO Stream) with 4K and other advanced features. I have the BRIO Stream and am very happy with it. (Be aware that may video-conferencing platforms limit the streaming resolution, canceling some of the benefits of a better camera.) Once you have your camera positioned as you like, you change the focal length in the Logitech LogiTune app.
One thing I’d love to understand better is lighting. As far as I understand so far, The right lighting makes a big difference to video quality, and the best place for the lights is behind the camera, with as much lighting as possible. Obviously right behind doesn’t work, so probably you need lights up and to the sides. This jives with what I’ve seen of photo studios.
I credit a chapter in Randall Munroe’s book “How To” for helping me understand this concept. ↩
The author of this article is currently open to work at a dev role. Read my CV and be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.