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How to Improve Your Cheapo Webcam's Picture Quality

We're taking a little detour today to talk lighting in a context other than still photos.

Each day, untold bandwidth is being used to transmit really bad webcam image quality. Which is such a shame, really, when you consider how easy this is to fix.

We're talking basic, low-end-theory off-camera lighting, folks. The same thing we talk about every day. And the webcam is an easy way to play around with lighting and see instant results. That said, here are five common webcam problems and their easy fixes.

1. For Pete's Sake, Don't Use Your Monitor as a Light Source

I think we have all been here. Or worse, on the receiving end of here. This is worst possible case, IMO, and exactly how the majority of webcam'ers operate.

As seen here, we have the computer monitor acting as our light source. Can you guess what color my desktop is? Did you guess blue?

Compounding that is the fact that the background light is brighter than the foreground light. Let's correct that first.

Solution: Turn on your flippin' desk lamp. Mine happens to be one of those adjustable engineering lamps, with a CFL bulb. But for these purposes it doesn't really matter what kind of bulb you have. As you'll see in a minute, your webcam will auto-magically adjust for it when you help out a little.

So now our color is getting closer. And you'll notice that the bright front light causes the webcam to lower the overall exposure, dropping the background down a tad.

But the bright, harsh light of the engineer's lamp is not doing me any favors. And I need me some favors.

2. Soften the Light

Solution: Diffuse the light with typing paper. Just two cents worth of office supplies gets you a softer light source. I just taped the paper to the open front of the lamp and the harsh light is now softened.

Some differences: The shiny highlight in my forehead thankfully lessens in intensity, which is due to the larger apparent size of the light source.

Also, the typing paper knocks down the brightness of the lamp, which means that the auto exposure adjustment causes (a) the background and (b) the computer reflection to come up some.

Variation: Turn the bare lamp around and bounce it off of the wall, if there is one. This makes for a bigger, softer and dimmer light source. I killed the background lights because the dimmer front source made them appear too bright in the back.

Your call on whether to diffuse the light or bounce it. I usually prefer diffused for extra control and the fact that it retains more light intensity.

3. Kill the Computer's Reflection in Your Eyes

Have you been noticing how the room lights appear to rise and fall based on the intensity of our front light?

Just adding light (other then that from the monitor) has partially solved the computer glare problem. Now let's finish it off.

Solution: Adjust the monitor brightness and/or contrast down to the threshold at which you can just barely see comfortably (just while you are using your webcam.)

That, along with the lamp acting as a dominant frontal light source, will kill the reflection.

If you do not wear glasses, this is not a critical step. But if you do wear glasses, it might be nice if people could actually see your eyes.

4. Give Your Webcam What it Wants

Here's a little secret: Sometimes, when I am using my webcam, I like to clinch my buttocks tightly together and see how red I can make my face.

(Just kidding. Mostly.)

What is really going on here is that the camera's auto exposure/white balance is going all screwy, trying to lock onto a color balance. The two pictures immediately above were taken about a second apart, in the same lighting conditions. Ever had that happen to you?

You know: Noooormal....Green...Bluish...WAY-Red...NormalForJustASecond... Weird again...

I hate that. But when it happens it is all my fault. You see, the webcam is just trying to give me good color and exposure. And it only needs one thing to work: A patch of white.

That's how auto white balance/auto-exposure works. It takes the brightest thing in the frame, assumes you want it to be white, tries to make adjustments until that happens.

If you do not give it some white right up front in the frontal light zone, no nice balance for you.

Solution: Wear a white shirt and you'll get good color and exposure when you webcam.

Pick any style. Makes no difference.

It can be a nice, crisp white oxford, as I am sporting. (I only point that out because I tend to dress far more casual than even this.) Or it can be one of those "wife beater" undershirts that the guys in the trailer parks always seem to be wearing when they get busted on Cops.

Whatever works for you is fine.

The webcam is gonna try to make something white whether it actually white or not. Give it some real whiteness, and your exposure/color problems are solved. And no more meandering through the rainbow spectrum while you are talking, either.

I turned on the lights in the background of this pic to prove a point, too: You give the webcam white in the foreground, and it'll even disregard various light source colors in the background.

And you thought white clothing was just for innocence and purity.

5. Clean Up Your Background

No, no. Stay with me. I am talking about "visually clean," not "actually clean." Your basement may remain trashed.

If you do any reasonable amount of webcam'ing, you can do yourself a lot of favors by getting a collapsible background. Sources are listed at the end of the post.

They are just like those auto windshield screenshade things that pop open in half a second and collapse back down in just 23 easy tries.

(Actually, they are a snap when you get the hang of it.)

This is the only one of the five tips that would make you go for your wallet. And granted, I am a tightwad pretty darn frugal by nature. But dropping $150 on a background and light stand pays big dividends here. If you are a photographer, this'll also give you a very portable studio backdrop to shoot (or video) the kids, dog or whatever.

You want 5x6' (or 5x7') because webcams have super-wideangle lenses, and see the edges of any backdrops smaller than 5x6'. Even when they are placed up close behind you.

The wideangle lenses, BTW, are why I look so goofy in these pics and not more like Brad Pitt, as in real life. You can minimize this bulbous-head distortion by not getting too close to the webcam. Just a hint.

The neutral grey variety is most useful because it makes your auto white balance even happier. But as long as you are giving your webcam some white on which to balance, you can go for, say, the mottled brown background if you'd rather. And those mottled backgrounds make wonderful portrait backdrops for still and video photographers.

Most important thing: You do not have to clean up the basement whenever you webcam.

Schwing. (And laziness edges out frugality for the win...)

So, whether you're talking to the grandkids, remote interviewing for a job or slooowly removing your clothing for $2.99 a minute, nothing gets you from "toy-bomb-damaged basement" to "semi-pro video booth" faster than a backdrop, sprung open and clamped to a stand.

Just remember to turn off the lights behind it, or they'll sneak through in your picture.

What Did I Miss?

So, there you have it. Further improvements for my webcam'ing images will require (a) lots of diet and exercise, and/or (b) a visit to a plastic surgeon. So we're gonna wait on those.

Do you have any other easy tips for getting better webcam image quality?

Sound off in the comments.

Gear sources:

1. Collapsible backdrop: (Amazon) Grey | Brown ($115)

2. Inexpensive 7' light stand: (<$30) Amazon | MPEX

3. Cheap clamp: Home Depot, or many other places ($0.99)


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