Recently I was on a Teams call with a friend in the industry, and they commented on the quality of my video chat. I explained a few of the steps I was taking to improve my work from home setup, and he asked if I’d send over a few specifics about my layout. I normally would email over some bullets, but a few others have mentioned it lately. So why not write a post about it, right? Actually, as I was building out my AV collection, it was a little hard to find the information I wanted in a single stop. Amazingly there isn’t much out there yet about the variety of work from home configurations. So what started as a few bullets became an extended post about my (albeit premium) work from home setup. Understand that this process isn’t a one and done thing. The more complex your setup, the more potential for failure, which generally results in more restarting of your laptop. If that’s an OK trade off, then read on. Hopefully, you’ll pick up a tip or two while we all work to bridge the virtual meeting shortcomings our new reality has brought.
Can’t wait to see how everyone attends #DynamicsCon around the globe. Post a snap of your virtual conference setup with #DesksOfDynamicsCon so we can share our experience together. https://t.co/aUiOcit1A9 pic.twitter.com/ZuwGbXCFaK
— Jon Stypula (@stypulation) March 16, 2021
Some research on a work from home setup
To start with, I should explain that I have a basic understanding of audio and video equipment and am whatever you would consider is less advanced than an amateur photographer. Basically, I like to play with gadgets. And that includes cameras. I got into it from flying Drones first and then wandered into aerial photography. After some time learning about f-stops and ISOs, I realized I needed a better camera at home and broke down. From there, it didn’t take long for me to want to get a better image from my webcam. Knowing it was possible, I wondered what was wrong with all the webcams I had bought during the start of the pandemic and began researching.
I did as much research as I could about vlogging and tried to reverse engineer some popular channel setups. After a few interesting distractions, I found Caleb Pike and his DSLR video shooter YouTube channel. When you think about working from home, many aspects of a vlogger will correlate to what we want to do on our Teams and Zoom calls. We both want a clear picture, nice audio, balanced lighting, and, overall, a clean setup. Streamers want to crank out their content quickly, so they need a robust platform that is not too far from what I needed when I want to jump on a video call at a moment’s notice. Maybe one of the best videos I referred to several times was the Entire Youtube Studio Setup ON ONE DESK! – YouTube. Give it a watch, and let me know what you think. If you are like me, you’ll be ordering Caleb’s parts list in no time.
Clearly, I wasn’t alone in this personal progression of broadcast quality. I had noticed friends in the space upgrading their streaming rigs and started asking questions. Steve Endow unknowingly had a big influence on me. Aside from the fact that he has always inspired me (in life) to do more, noticing what Steve was working on with his video output intrigued me. I credit my desire to take the plunge, in part, to his ceaseless ability to stay curious and push for discovery. I really respect that about Steve, and I guess wanted to emulate that a bit.
— Steve Endow (@steveendow) August 20, 2020
All told, I spent about 20 hours looking around at different tutorials and picking the bits and pieces that made sense for what I wanted with a work from home video calling configuration. Below are the best parts I found and the setup I’m using, which is a mashup of everything I’ve learned to date.
Get yourself dual monitors already!
Before you go too far down the AV rabbit hole and drop a fortune at B&H, why not take an easy first step? Assuming you already know the value of a quality task chair next, you need to grab yourself a docking station, an external keyboard, and a mouse and add a monitor or two. That’s the best bang for your buck in improving your work from home situation that I could suggest. You will enjoy working at the home office so much more, and it’s really not a lot of extra money. Ask your employer to split it with you or even see if they have extra equipment at the office which you could borrow. Several companies let their employees take gear home to get them up and running quickly and cheaply.
Video on everybody
Ok, assuming your main workstation is ready to go, you’re going to have to upgrade your webcam. I’m sure the $50 Logitech you scored when everything was sold out felt like a victory, but notice the title – premium work from home setup. I haven’t found a webcam that checks that mark for me just yet. I would think there’s a market for it, but I guess I’m the only one. It seems like webcams are built to manage a range of lighting situations and various depths of field. They’re building these things for the masses, after all. But because they are designing the hardware for general purposes, it’s hard to get as focused of an image as I wanted out of one. Even the higher-end HD webcams still couldn’t handle the look I was going for. Que the DSLR…
Our mobile recording studio is hitting the road tomorrow to up the ante on our video content ahead of #DynamicsCon. Can’t wait to share with all of you the surprises in store! #MSDyn365FO #MSDyn365BC #MSDyne365CE #MSDyn365 #PowerPlatform #MSDynGP pic.twitter.com/4wWzJJwQYq
— sa.global (@DynCon365) February 9, 2021
Luckily I already owned a Canon M50 Mirrorless camera. This thing was perfect for what I wanted to do. If you too have a nice digital camera, you might save yourself the cost of buying something new. I have noticed that some cameras (including some GoPros) need an adaptor to turn the signal into a webcam. Having the extra adaptor adds some complexity and was a real downside for me in thinking through what to buy. Aside from GoPros and iPhones, I know many people think a Sony is the best choice for vlogging. But I find that the Canon hardware combo and the EOS webcam utility software made for the perfect plug-and-play configuration. One add-on I did purchase was a power supply kit to keep the camera on all day without changing out batteries.
Aside from the camera, you might also look at upgrading your lens. I went with a Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 lens for this application. This ultra-sharp lens, bundled with Canon’s facial recognition and autofocus features, makes for a very crisp picture even while I move about during a video call. The minimal focal distance and bright aperture make for a perfect webcam alternative. With a lens like this, you natively get the shallow depth of field popular in photography right now. This is what Apple’s “portrait mode” is emulating and gives a stunningly focused image.
Another benefit of investing so much in the camera and lens is that I don’t feel the need to have an artificial background or green screen. The picture quality works, and the frosted background almost looks fake to a point. This arrangement is much easier to manage and requires less effort than selecting custom backgrounds for each call, regardless of how fun that can be to do sometimes.
Can you hear me now?
So you’re looking sharp now, but can anyone hear you? First, check to see if you’re on mute. After that, maybe you’ll realize it’s time for a better microphone. For my setup, I have 2 mics for 2 different purposes. Originally I bought a USB condenser mic, a popular style for podcasting. I had figured Teams and Zoom calls were very much like a podcast in a way. I put it on a boom and worked it into my setup. Many people swear by the Blue Yeti, and others pledge allegiance to Shure or Rode. For this mic, I tried the lesser-known Thornmax MDrill One. It had all the features I wanted and more while still looking the part. Man, does this thing perform! The only downside was that it needs to be near you when you’re talking to get the best audio recorded. This works great for me when I’m being interviewed on podcasts or recording voiceovers for training videos or YouTube tricks.
Because I tend to move around a bit when I’m on calls, I’ve added a second mic to the mix. For this, I went with a Rode mini shotgun mic on a small boom. The shotgun style helps with the echoing in my office, while the directional sound pickup handles my bouncing around perfectly for those back-to-back-to-back video calls. By switching between the two mics, I get the best of both worlds. You certainly would be fine with picking just one, as I know most people don’t want to mess with the extra gear.
Once you improve your mic, you have a few more options. You might think about improving your external speaker. I went with the Dell Stereo Soundbar because it can be attached to the bottom of my monitor and made for a clean setup. This was a huge improvement over my laptop speakers and actually, reduce the overall noise of my calls because the sound is more directed towards me. If noise is a real problem for the people you share your home office with, you could also look at getting a pair of noise cancelation headphones like the Surface 2 Headphones. These work great, connect easily, and have amazing battery life. I’ll use these for podcasts, and other times I want to listen to music and don’t want to bother the neighbors. It’s great having this option, and I recommend you try them yourself.
Lighting that flatters matters
The best video equipment in the world will not help if you aren’t lit properly. In my case, my office had windows all around and great overhead lighting. Generally, the lighting I had would work, but I needed some help combatting the southernly setting sun behind me as the day progressed. You should always consider your room layout, and especially how strongly you’re backlight, or else your face will be engulfed in shadows. I’d expect that nearly all premium work from home setups would benefit from additional front lighting. Though some people are heavy on the ring light craze, it wasn’t for me. Aside from being difficult to maneuver, the ring light often left a round glare in my eye or on my glasses. (Yes, the camera is so good it will catch that ring shape in the reflection on your eye!) My choice was to go with lights popular by video game streamers. I bought 2 Elgato Key lights powered by an Elgato Stream Deck. These lights give me all the power I need and adjust the hue to create whatever tone I’m looking for in my lighting. And with the proper configuration, I can adjust both the strength and hue of the lights at the press of a button.
— Jon Stypula (@stypulation) March 3, 2021
Extra Details for a Top-Notch Work From Home Setup
So you’ve got your desk set up with monitors and cameras and lights, now what? A few extra things to think about might be some décor in the background. I opted for 2 lights in the background just off of my shoulders on both sides of me. Over one, I put up a downward facing reading lamp, and over the other, I mounted an “On Air” lightbox. These can come on with the click of a button and help with some background filler light if the room gets too dark. The nerd I am, and just for extra credit, I connected the lightbox to my Teams status so that way the rest of the family knows when I’m on a call.
Family interruptions during #MSBizAppsSummit forced me to innovate a #StayHome solution. @MicrosoftTeams presence with some @MSPowerAutomate magic playing with a little #IoT and some old school signage… Now “busy” might mean something in my house. pic.twitter.com/8oVQFVtBfu
— Jon Stypula (@stypulation) May 6, 2020
Alternatively, you can go for something with a bit more “wow.” When I went into the office regularly, I mounted some Nanoleaf color-changing titles. These things are amazing, and the options are endless. See below where I mocked up our company logo and let it slowly scroll through the rainbow whenever I was on a video call. If I was boring someone to death with some Dynamics 365 detail, at least they could enjoy the pretty colors…
— Jon Stypula (@stypulation) February 20, 2020
Beyond hardware, you might also consider trying out OBS Studio. This increases your complexity factor by a bit and gives you so much more control over the final product being broadcast from your newly created home studio. After landing on OBS, I watched Murray Fife’s tutorial on how he uses it, which did the trick for what I wanted. It works so well that some even wondered if Microsoft might buy OBS because of its popularity and direct benefit for video calling. However, recent announcements of more updates in Microsoft Teams might make some of these perks obsolete, to be honest.
Fewer words, more numbers.
Ok, so TLDR: here’s the list of stuff I currently have, where to buy it
|Equipment||Brand||Where to buy||Estimated Cost|
|Camera||Canon EOS M50||B&H||$650|
|Lens||Canon EF-M 22mm||B&H||$250|
|Power Supply||Canon CA-PS700||B&H||$50|
|Podcasting mic||Thronmax MDrill One||B&H||$100|
|Conference mic||Rode VideoMicro||B&H||$60|
|Lights||Elgato Key Light Air||Amazon||$130 each|
|Shortcut keypad||Elgato Stream Deck||B&H||$150|
|Headset||Surface Pro 2||Microsoft||$250|
|Mounts and hardware||Various||Amazon||$100|
Have any questions or comments on a premium work from home setup? Please don’t hesitate to Contact Us and feel free to connect on LinkedIn and Twitter! If you’re interested in more articles on how to better work from home, check out our blog on How Microsoft 365 can help you work with your remote team.