look better on video calls lead
CNN  — 

Video calls have become the norm for many of us, and while nothing can quite replace being face-to-face with your colleagues, you’ll likely have much more productive meetings if you don’t look and sound like you’re in an underground bunker every time you log on.

Fortunately, there are plenty of small tweaks you can make to your work-from-home setup to make you look and sound better on calls — and none of them require you to buy a ton of expensive equipment. As a bonus, many of these tips will also help you elevate your content creation game on platforms such as Twitch, YouTube and TikTok. From mastering your lighting to making the most of your audio setup, here are some quick fixes and tips from the experts to help you look and sound more lively in front of the camera.

Find a good camera angle (and get a dedicated webcam if you can)

best webcams logitech c920

Almost all laptop webcams are awful, which often leads to video calls in which participants are captured at unflattering angles at a low, blotchy resolution. The good news is that you have some control over the first part, and can fix the second problem by investing in a webcam.

If you’re using a laptop at desk level, it’s likely staring right at your lower chin as soon as you join a meeting, which is not exactly how someone would see you if you were both in a conference room together. That’s why we recommend propping up your computer using a laptop stand such as this popular and affordable Nulaxy model that will work with just about any laptop up to 17 inches. You could also use a pile of books, if you’re old-school.

But if you truly want to look your best on video calls, we recommend springing for a stand-alone webcam. These cameras offer much better quality than what’s built into your laptop and can be mounted anywhere — including on top of your monitor or on a tripod — to help you find a clear, natural angle. The Logitech C920S is the best webcam we tested, thanks to its excellent picture quality and ease of use, but the Microsoft LifeCam HD also gets the job done if you’re on a budget.

Keep yourself well lit

look better on video calls lighting

Whether you’re using your laptop’s camera or a separate webcam, good lighting is what will really help you be seen clearly during an important meeting or broadcast. If your work area has windows, sit facing them if possible — this will allow the natural light to shine directly on you and make you look bright and true to life.

If you don’t have access to natural lighting, a cheap ring light will solve that problem in a snap. Made popular by content creators, these circular lights are compact enough to fit on most desks with ease, and many of them can even be attached to your phone for those taking video calls from their mobile device.

The Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light is the best ring light we tested, with good lighting quality and a highly adjustable tripod that can extend up to 50 inches. And if you need something more compact, the Whellen Selfie Ring Light is our favorite portable option, thanks to its multiple lighting settings and ability to fit easily into a pocket or purse.

“As long as you light yourself properly, you can make a cheap camera look so much better,” says Correy “MC Fixer” Spearman, a content creator on Twitch and YouTube. “You do not need to go and spend crazy money. Just light a camera properly and you’ll do well.”

Use a good microphone — and place it properly

look better on video calls microphone

While you can get by on a virtual meeting with a poor camera (or no camera at all), having good audio is absolutely essential. If you’re sticking with your laptop’s built-in mic, you should at least make sure you’re sitting as close as possible to your PC, and that you’re in a room that’s as quiet as possible.

But we’ve found that dedicated microphones offer a significant step up in voice quality over what’s built into your laptop, and can go a long way toward making you sound more present and professional. And you don’t have to spend a ton on one — even affordable mics like the $35 FIFINE K669B, our pick for the best budget microphone, gave us a big upgrade over our MacBook Pro mic, with loud and rich voice recordings that hold up against microphones that are twice the price. If you want richer, more professional sound, the $129 Blue Yeti is our pick for the best microphone overall and was a longtime favorite of Spearman’s.

While these microphones sound great, you’ll have to place them properly to truly get the best sound quality out of them.

“You want there to be plenty of space between you and the microphone because no one wants a microphone like this” — he gestures to a microphone covering his face — “when you’re talking,” says Spearman. “You want to let people see your face. So the gain needs to be low enough that it picks up just you, but it also needs to be farther enough away…usually around [the length of a] hand away.”

Many microphones, such as the K669B and Blue Yeti, have adjustable gain, which allows you to tweak how much sound gets picked up. You can crank up this setting to make yourself louder, but it will also lead to lots of unwanted background noise coming through. As such, keeping your gain low while placing it just close enough to your mouth will allow your voice to be recorded as cleanly and naturally as possible.

Find a quiet room — or make yours more soundproof

Finding a quiet space to take a video call or record some video will go a long way toward making you sound better. Of course, that’s easier said than done if you live on a noisy street — or if you’re working from home with children and pets causing chaos in the background. Fortunately, there are some small tweaks you can make to any room to make it a bit more soundproof.

Sound tends to bounce off of hard, bare surfaces, such as walls and windows, so anything you can do to cover your work area with soft materials will help reduce any unwanted echo.

“The more stuff that you have in the room, it will help you to decrease that audio echo,” says Danny Peña, host of long-running video game podcast “Gamertag Radio.” “You can’t pick it up from your ear, but the microphone can pick it up easily.”

In addition to keeping a carpet on the floor, Peña uses the Elgato Wave Panels, a set of hexagonal pieces of foam that you can adhere to your wall to absorb sound and make your room less of an echo chamber. A $99 Starter Set will get you six panels complete with the frames, screws and adhesives you need to hang them — though you don’t necessarily need to spring for some extra foam for a quieter work environment. For example, if you need to record some audio for a presentation or video in a pinch, the solution is already in your home.

“I will say to people that want to start recording podcasts or just do video, the closet is the perfect area to record,” says Peña. “Because everything is surrounded by clothes there, so it [decreases] the echo.”

Use headphones during calls

earfun air in-line budget earbuds

If you’re using your computer’s speakers to take a conference call, there’s a good chance your mic will pick up the whole call and create some nasty echo whenever you’re not muted. Fortunately, that’s nothing that can’t be fixed by connecting a pair of headphones or earbuds to your PC or Mac.

Don’t have any reliable headphones handy? We found the EarFun Air to be the best work-from-home earbuds for those on a budget, as they provide crisp sound and an impressive microphone for taking calls. If you want to splurge on a quality pair of over-ear cans, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are our favorite overall headphones for working from home — and deliver excellent noise cancellation to help you focus better on meetings.

On top of eliminating any unwanted noise, using a dedicated pair of earbuds or headphones will allow you to hear your colleagues better. Who knows? You might even start paying attention to those lengthy performance reports.

Keep your background clean — or have fun with it

This might sound like a no-brainer, but you never want to have a messy room behind you when taking an important video call or starting a broadcast. We recommend keeping your backdrop free of clutter (please make your bed), though there’s nothing wrong with decorations that showcase your personality.

Spearman, for example, works out of his bedroom but uses some basic Ikea shelving, a few LED lights and his collection of games and consoles to make his setup look both professional and charming.

“There’s nothing fancy here, but you can make it look as fancy as you want it to, and it’s just about putting your personality across to the best of your ability,” says Spearman.

If your work area isn’t very camera-friendly (or you just want to have some fun), you can always take advantage of virtual backgrounds. Nearly every major videoconferencing service (including Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams) has virtual background options, which allow you to replace your IRL background with a serene nature shot, a funny meme picture or anything else you decide to put behind you.

Bottom line

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There’s a good chance you already have the essentials for looking and sounding better on your daily Zoom calls. It’s all about learning how to use your gear properly — and knowing when it’s time to step up if you’re doing more serious presentations or content creation.

“Nine times out of 10, you’ve already got the equipment that you need sitting right at home,” says Spearman. “It’s just how you use that equipment and using it correctly to start this journey, especially for content creation.”

Spearman got his start making videos from his iPod Touch, and has gradually upgraded over the years to a pristine-looking setup that includes a Sony A7 III camera and an Elgato Wave:3 microphone. The London-based creator, who has made appearances on major gaming outlets such as IGN and GameStop, notes that his setup allows him to feel ready for any opportunity.

“You always join the Zoom calls or a meeting and they’re like, ‘You’re the person that looks really bad or the camera’s all a bit blurry.’ You don’t want to be that guy,” says Spearman. “I can be invited on ‘Jimmy Fallon’ tomorrow, I know that my camera is almost as good as what they use in their studio. So I’m not going to look out of place.”

Peña, who is a Podcast Hall of Fame inductee and has appeared on major networks and channels such as Telemundo, Cheddar and Kinda Funny, shares similar advice about starting simple.

“Buy whatever you can afford at first. And like I said, master your craft, man, master it. And then slowly you will upgrade,” he says. “As long as people can at least see you or hear you, that to me is more important than anything else.”