I decided to capture here a bunch of lessons that I took away playing with different cameras, microphones and network settings to improve the quality of video conferences and media recording:
I will start pointing out to the awesome post from Scott Hanselman here: https://www.hanselman.com/blog/GoodBetterBestCreatingTheUltimateRemoteWorkerWebcamSetupOnABudget.aspx He does a fantastic job demystifying how much you actually need to have great quality, even with a pretty low budget.
Here’s my experience:
Lighting: Lighting is the most important thing you can do in order to improve quality. Even a great camera will look terrible without good lighting. Before you decide that your webcam sucks, try better lights and see what happens. Scott talks plenty about that in his post.
There are many options and they vary largely depending on your budget and how much time you would be willing to fiddle with technical settings.
What I am now currently using is a Canon DSLR. Many Canon DSLRs (but not all of them) can be used as webcams with a pretty decent quality. The model I use which is probably one of the best quality/cost combos is the Canon EOS 80D, which you will find around $900 + lenses. I know people at Microsoft using the Canon 1D which would be a massive, and I will repeat, MASSIVE overkill (but great quality).
Above that, you would go with professional studio video cameras and those would be in the 10s of thousands of dollars.
But again, with great lighting, even a Logitech Brio webcam (probably the best webcam) will do great (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N5UOYC4), it has 4K resolution, autofocus and technically it will be much easier to setup and use than the Canon, especially because you will spend zero time having to fiddle with technical settings, so consider how much time you want to invest, not just money.
If you go with the Canon, the next thing you will need is to choose lenses. There are a variety of lenses in the DSLR world and not all of them would work great for video conferencing. It depends on the distance for the camera and the kind of look/feel you would want. Generally, you want something between 50MM and 130MM is my lesson (you can see a quick comparison here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgkJPUhkXNQ).
I broke this rule and I picked a very cheap option, which is 24mm (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00NI3BZ5K/) and still works pretty fine with the camera being 30 to 40 inches away from me.
You could do a little better with a 50mm lenses such as this: https://www.amazon.com/Canon-50mm-1-8-STM-Lens/dp/B00X8MRBCW
A more expensive option should give you a wide variety of settings to fiddle with and see what works best: https://www.amazon.com/Canon-18-135mm-3-5-5-6-Standard-Digital/dp/B002NEGTT2/
Note that the choice of lenses depends on choice of cameras: Not all Canon models work with all lenses, so make sure to check which one works with which before buying them. Also not all Canon DSLRs do a great job at video/web conferences. I would look at this list to make sure before buying: https://www.usa.canon.com/internet/portal/us/home/support/self-help-center/eos-webcam-utility
If you decide to go with a Nikon instead, I’ve heard (not tested myself) that you have plenty of problems with the camera overheating and shutting down after a few minutes. I never had this problem with the Canon. Many people will argue that DSLRs are not meant to be webcams and they are right. By the other hand, DSLRs have been gradually more widely used for professional video recording and boy do they look great.
On Amazon you can find a bunch of arm mounts to assemble these cameras, lights and mics as well. My desk right now has arms coming from all over the place.
Another issue you will face with using a DSLR is that it runs on batteries. You don’t want to be always recharging them or worrying if you will run out during a call. So what you want is to buy this device, which is a dummy battery: https://www.amazon.com/Adapter-Coupler-Charger-Replacement-Cameras/dp/B01D68YXOQ
Connecting a DSLR to the PC:
If you pick a webcam like the Logitech Brio, all you need to do is plug it to the PC. But if you pick a Canon DSLR, things are more complicated. You have two options:
1-Plug the DSLR directly to the PC via a USB cable and then install the EOS Webcam Utility from this link: https://www.usa.canon.com/internet/portal/us/home/support/self-help-center/eos-webcam-utility
The plus side here is that this is straightforward, one cable plus the software and then you are done.
The con is that this is a beta version of a software and my experience is that sometimes it gets a little finnicky, where the camera decides to stop responding and I need to reboot my PC to get back to work (And not all applications support it. I have yet to see any UWP app recognize it, so for example the built in Windows Camera app won’t see it at all, making it more annoying to record videos easily). I still use it and works most of the time for what I need, but there is this issue.
2-Use a good video capture card, so now you plug the video out of your camera into the card, and plug the card into the PC. A great card would be the Elgato Cam Link 4K: https://www.amazon.com/Elgato-Cam-Link-videoc%C3%A1mara-dispositivo/dp/B07K3FN5MR/ I see many people using this one and loving it.
The plus is that it allows plugging any video device and use it as your camera. Let’s say you decide to buy an expensive professional studio quality video camera (which is also an option, if you decide to go down this path), you can still plug it into this the same way. You could even go one step further and have multiple cameras in multiple angles, connected to an edit station, and then to this, and now you can even setup when to go from one camera to the other, etc.
The downside of this is that this card will capture what the camera is showing, and as these DSLRs all do, they show a bunch of boxes and additional info on screen when you are recording the video, so now you have the additional work to go to the camera and change the settings to make all these boxes, numbers and on screen information disappear. And it turns out, not all Canon cameras let you do that fully. For example, the 7D will not (not without hacks), and I found out after having bought one… Which made me “downgrade” to the 80D.
Generally the rule here is that condenser microphones are the best, they are very sensitive and they capture great sound quality. Scott will point out that most likely you don’t need any of that, which is true. I still chose to go with one. They tend to be more expensive.
My advice is do not buy a USB microphone. It will largely limit what you can do. You want a real condenser microphone with an audio cable, which we call XLR.
You can get an expensive one, like the Blue: https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Blackout-Condenser-Recording-Streaming/dp/B074379C7Q
Or you can get a cheaper one, like the Neewer (I’m using this one now): https://www.amazon.com/Neewer-Professional-Broadcasting-Recording-Microphone/dp/B00XBQ8UGG
The condenser microphones have two problems: They capture everything, including a lot of noise, and they need amplification. So what you do is buy a XLR cable: https://www.amazon.com/AmazonBasics-Male-Female-Microphone-Cable/dp/B01JNLTTKS and a USB mix/amp, in my case I went with a very cheap one that does a good job: https://www.amazon.com/Behringer-U-Phoria-Preamp-Recording-Interface/dp/B08BN4KYT8 The Behringer not only gives you physical level controls that are easy to fiddle with, but it also has a nice option to enable the “monitor”, so you can hear yourself with headphones to get a good sense of how your own audio is working out. Yes, Windows also has the option to enable feedback from any microphone and no, it’s not usable in this case because the sound comes with latency, so it can get confusing as hell if you enable it during a call.
So then you plug the microphone into it, and plug it to the PC via USB. You put the microphone as close as possible to the person speaking, because the closer it is and more directionally pointed at the person, the easier it becomes to tune the audio input level to the right spot where it captures all of the voice, but none of the noise.
If noise is still too much, you could try using https://krisp.ai/ It is a service you install on the PC, and it uses AI to remove noise from the audio in real time. The downside is that it also lowers the audio quality, so you only want this if everything else fails and noise is too much. It helps with things like sounds of cars, dogs barking, children, etc. If you have a great NVIDIA RTX card you can also try the NVIDIA RTX voice: https://www.nvidia.com/en-us/geforce/guides/nvidia-rtx-voice-setup-guide/ but I will tell you: Boy it is buggy as hell, and after really trying to use it I just gave up given how much instability and issues I found. In my opinion, it’s just not remotely usable at this point.
There is a lot you can do to improve audio that is physical: The room, what you put on the walls to avoid reverb, etc. Same as you would do with a studio.
I would also recommend either headphones or earbuds, because it eliminates any additional echo or sound issues in a call. Many people use the Airpod Pro but I don’t trust Bluetooth for anything more critical. Eventually you will have one issue or another and the audio quality just doesn’t feel as good as a much cheaper, wired earbuds or headphone.
Because you would be using a device like the Behringer U Phoria that I mentioned above, it has audio out, so you can plug earbuds straight to it and it will work just fine, all the time without having to worry about charging batteries, etc.
There are a few things you want in a PC:
USB 3 / USB C: Many of the devices I listed above require a fast USB connection, so you will need that. This also means that if you use a USB hub (because you need to plug too many things), the hub itself should support USB 3 too.
Fast network: If you use Wi-Fi, you want 802.11ax support, which the newest/fastest you can get. Obviously, this also requires the same kind of Wi-Fi router (I’ll talk about this next).
Fast processor: Faster is better. That’s not a huge requirement, but it does help depending on how much stuff you have going on at the same time on your PC. I prefer an Intel i7 or i9, depending on whether you go with a laptop or a desktop. If mobility is not important, a desktop will be more affordable and you can get the best processing power for less.
Fast GPU: A GPU might be important depending on what you end up doing with video/audio around editing. A Good Nvidia RTX card would help. Any Nvidia RTX 16xx or up (e.g. RTX 1660, RTX 2080, etc) should be plenty.
You want a fast SSD storage. Older computers use physical hard drives and they are several times slower. A fast SSD will help working with recorded videos, editing and also avoid lags because the computer is busy writing things to the disk.
Recently I’ve got the newest Dell XPS 17 laptop. It is a beauty, super-fast, has an enormous 17 inches screen but it feels like a 15 inches device and it has one of the fastest hardware specs one can find in a laptop. It is also on the most expensive end of laptops. And if all you want is video conferencing, it most definitely by far, is an absolute overkill.
Which makes me think of yet another challenge: As you use an external camera for video conferences, positioning is key: You will be looking at the screen but that is not where the camera is. I try my best placing it as close to my monitor but still you can tell the user is not directly looking at the camera. This is where arm mounts are very important. The Logitech webcam has this advantage, because you mount it on the monitor itself, so it as close as it gets.
You could pick the best of all of above and still have a terrible call quality because the network is slow. The computer will compress the video and audio, lowering the quality to squeeze all of that into a bad network at the end of the day. For that, you need to look at a few things:
1-A network provider that gives you both upload and download speeds. Unfortunately, providers like Comcast will give you a “fast network” of 1000 Mbps, but in fact that only applies for download speeds where you will only get 35 Mbps uploads at best (one can argue that 35 Mbps is extremely beyond anything you will ever need for a call that is obviously true, but then I will argue that you also need to think about how much stuff is going on in parallel with your network, how many people are having video calls simultaneously, playing games, uploading files and so on. In our home, our work requires uploading massive amounts of data daily so I had to account for that. More speed and more reliability is always better). That plus data caps that could cause problems as well. I’ve been using Ziply Fiber, they give me 1000 Mbps for both downloads and uploads for $60 a month. That allows us to do anything we need with internet without having to worry if concurrency will cause problems.
2-Now from your internet to your PC, everything needs to support a fast, reliable network. Ideally you want ethernet cables all the way from your internet router to your PC, and make sure that both the router and the PC’s ethernet adapter support gigabit speeds (many only support 100 Mbps, so you end up paying for 1000 Mbps but only being able to use 10% of that). Alternatively, you can use Wi-Fi, and for that you need a router that supports 802.11ax, just as well as a PC that does the same. And you will depend on other factors (how many Wi-Fi routers in the neighborhood, the distance between the router and the PC, etc) so it definitely won’t be as good as a wired ethernet connection. Something in between that I’ve been looking at is reusing the coaxial cables in my house as my network: There are adapters such as this: https://www.amazon.com/goCoax-Adapter-2-5Gbps-Ethernet-WF-803M/dp/B07XYDG7WN They will plug into your existing coaxial cables and use them as a network cable, they can often get a better speed than Wi-Fi, if ethernet wiring isn’t an option. There is also ethernet over powerline and I will save you the research: Not remotely good enough.
So that’s what I’ve got and it has been working great.