Chris Kranky

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Proper lighting for WebRTC Video

A little cheap lighting and a bit of planning can 10x the quality of a WebRTC video session. (Scroll down for article.)

Chris KoehnckeChris Koehncke

With several million miles of airline flying. I have reached the status where airline staff no longer spit on me when I board. Sadly, the thrill of airline travel is gone. This raises the question, “Why aren’t we using video more?”.


The answer is simple. Look at the above photo. Do you really want to spend an hour looking at this guy’s knuckles on a video call? It’s not on my bucket list. I have no interest in the ceiling tiles of your office. Too often with a webcam, you’re looking at the screen and not the camera. It’s sends the message to me (the viewer) that you’re not paying attention.

Indeed, the “expert” engineers at Dell put my friend’s camera on the far bottom left-hand side of their hottest new XPS laptop series. You have to wonder what other “genius” they engineered with this sort of oversight.


The first problem with most video sessions is the background. It shouldn’t be interesting. It became a running joke as we prep’d for the Kranky Geek event (using Hangouts) poor Chad Hart seemed to have a different cleaning product on the shelf behind him on every video meeting (he’s quite tidy). Hint: Don’t distract your audience with your background. You are, after all, the star of the show!

What our laptop webcams have been lacking is any sense of polish and preparation. Visit any TV studio and you’re immediately struck by the careful attention to lighting & background. There are numerous great articles on webcam lighting (I must have read 50 of them). Let me save you some time.

Video7_backgroundFirst, have a clean background. I spent the grand total of $15 at Amazon for a white backdrop that I easily can hang up and take down. A photographer’s blog told me there was no need to iron it and simply keep it balled up when not in use. The creases actually add an interesting element. Even an old sheet works. I do have my heart set on this $54 Collapsible background from Amazon with a cool cloudy blue background (my heart flutters).

So here’s me (you’re gonna see a lot of me in this post) using an elderly Dell laptop webcam with my normal home office lighting. At least you don’t see any cleaning products (photo 1). A simple cheap background cleaned up the frame and put me as the central focus point (of course). 10% improvement!


Second, get your webcam up to eye level. The angle of most built-in webcams is just plain awful. So here, I elevated my laptop on top of a small box (5 inches). It looks just a tad better (photo 2). Another few inches would have been better. Another 10% improvement.


Third, consider a better webcam. All webcams are not created equal. I switched to my fancy Logitech ConferenceCam with a Carl Zeiss lens (it’s $500 and worth every penny).  What you immediately notice is that I’m sharper (I am pretty sharp after all) and my skin tone is more natural. You don’t have to spend $500 though, Logitech has great webcams (the C920 is $69). Here I am in Photo 3. Sharper, but a bit dark. A webcam can’t really fix ‘dark’. Note: Yes, I did zoom in a bit (the camera has an optical zoom). The better to see you my dear!


Fourth and most importantly – fix the lighting.

Sit down for this one! Introducing ChatLight, this is a super cool product designed by a photographer who thought laptop lighting could be better.ChatLight is a portable webcam light. Initially, a KickStarter project you can order this for $29 on Amazon. Battery powered and USB rechargeable, Chatlight clips to your laptop with a smart design (obviously no Dell engineers work at ChatLight). The light is specifically color balanced for webcams. The battery lasts ~50 minutes and comes in a few colors (black, silver, white). It’s a plastic housing but doesn’t look cheap an lightweight as a result.


So much for the slick YouTube video. Let’s put ChatLight to a Kranky Test. Here I have the ChatLight on Level 1 light output (it’s lowest). Immediately notice how handsome I am (photo 4). The color is definitely more natural and illuminates my face nicely. However, there are some shadows on my right shoulder. The reality for perfect lighting, you’ll probably need more than 1 light (a second light just on the background would do it).


Here again is the ChatLight but this time on Level 2 (high power). Perhaps I might wish to stay on Level 1. I’m a little blown out here. Note: With the ChatLight you can swivel the light head so you won’t see the glare in my glasses. I forgot to do this and was too lazy to re-shoot the photo.


The ChatLight is easily thrown in your laptop bag and I consider this a “must purchase” for anyone doing laptop video comms. Order one now.

2x500LED -2x803-2But I wasn’t happy. I wanted better lighting. So I headed off to New York’s B&H Photo & Video store where they have every kind of photography lighting you might imagine. After realizing I didn’t want to spend $500 on 2 LED lighting panels, I went in search of cheaper.

And cheaper I went.

I read more lighting blogs (seems to be of them than WebRTC ones). What I realized is that the color of the lighting is quite important to good video (hence, why TV studios are full of lights).

Color temperature is measured in K – Kelvin. The typical soft white light at your house comes in at 2500K. This is quite warm and while it makes your home cozy, it’s horrible for video. The next step up is the lighting we have in our modern offices; these typically are in the 3500K to 4000K range. Better but not perfect, a little too yellow. What we’re trying to do is simulate the beauty of the real outdoor sun, without the glare. So think a nice blue sky day.

31MxwEnN6NL._SX342_To achieve great lighting you need a color temperature of 5500K. You can buy photography light bulbs of various sorts at this exact Kelvin temperature. These are about $13-15 for a fluorescent one. Not expensive, but you won’t find these at your local Target (Amazon has them).

But I wanted to be even cheaper and easier (my motto).

My Ace Hardware had a daytime fluorescent bulb with a temperature of 5000K for $5. What’s 500 Kelvin amongst friends? A bargain was struck, But I needed to put the bulb into something.

reflectorSo I also purchased this highly sophisticated $9 reflector fixture. These types of cheap fixtures are normally used by painters or as construction/temporary lighting.  I’m  likely to electrocute me before it’s all over with. Solid they are not. But, the fixture has a spring clamp that allows you to attach it to something.

I arrived in my studio (otherwise known as my home office) and attached the reflector fixture to a wine bottle (which looked a lot like a mini-tripod to me) and stood it up on my desk. Bada-bing you have photo 5. I am indeed getting more handsome!


But the light, while bright, is also harsh. My forehead was looking a bit too glossy. What I was missing was a diffuser. Something that would spread the light out more evenly across my face. Remaining in ‘/cheap ON’ mode I went to the kitchen, extracted a sheet of parchment paper, found a laundry clothespin and attached the paper to the reflector. It looked like this.

defused light

Behold my now diffused and illuminated beauty! Note that I appear much happier which is a by product of good lighting.


In summary, lighting is important for a nice webcam experience. For the all-in-one solution, go buy a ChatLight. If you’re crazy like me, the reflector/wine bottle, cheap bulb, and parchment paper produce near professional results. If you’re going for crazier than me (an honorable goal), buy 2 lights and use one for a side light (hurry I may have another $14 to invest in my set-up).

While, WebRTC discussions often get off into techno talk, if you and your content isn’t visually interesting, no amount of technology will convince us to utilize it. Spent a few moments on lighting.