You're being interviewed over Skype! So... what now?
You've been tasked with participating in a remote interview. Congratulations!
But... you're not really sure if it's going to look any good. Maybe...
- your camera looks really choppy and grainy!
- the lighting looks awful and uneven and maybe yellow!
- the audio is full of echo and there's a bunch of background noise!
- the colors are all wrong!
- your internet connection keeps cutting out!
- some combination of these!
- or some other problem I didn't even mention here!
What can you do?
In this guide, you'll learn how to...
- choose a good camera and set it up!
- compose your shot!
- set up lighting!
- get great sound!
- make sure your interview goes off without a hitch!
First, let's go over some of the fundamentals you'll want to know no matter which camera you use.
Generally speaking, you'll want your shot to be composed roughly like this.
Important things to note...
- The top of your head should be near the top of the frame. It shouldn't be too far away (lest viewers expect an anvil to fall on your head), and it shouldn't extend above our touch the frame.
- If you were to divide the frame vertically into thirds, your eyes should roughly intersect with the topmost division line.
- Since you're talking directly to the camera, center yourself in the shot (unless there's some compelling reason not to, such as a whiteboard behind you).
- When possible, the camera should be roughly the same height as your eyes.
Option 1 (easy): Using your laptop or phone's built-in camera, or a webcam you already own
If you need something quick and dirty, the camera built into your laptop may be sufficient. You may also be able to use an external webcam you already own.
The first thing to do is evaluate the quality of this camera. To do this, let's make a short recording.
On a Mac, you can open QuickTime Player, and then go to File -> New Movie Recording. Select your webcam by clicking the little triangle symbol next to the Record button, then hit Record. When you stop the recording, it'll show up as a new video file.
It's a bit more complicated on Windows, but this seems like a handy guide.
Things to look for...
- Does the image look...
- fuzzy, blurry, and/or grainy?
- sharp and crisp?
- Does the motion look...
- choppy and blurry?
- Do the colors appear...
- exaggerated and just kind of off?
- More-or-less realistic?
Note: if the entire image is uniformly too warm- or cool-looking, you may just need to adjust your white balance setting. I talk about this later on.
If it's fuzzy, choppy, blurry, grainy, and/or all the colors on your face look wrong, it might be time to make an upgrade.
That being said: if your room is dark, even the best and most expensive webcams can give very poor results. If you're not happy with what you see, try opening all the blinds or otherwise giving yourself more light.
(I go into much more detail about lighting below.)
External camera placement
The main consideration with an external camera is its placement. It's easier to position this camera wherever you want it, but it's also easy to break the illusion that the interviewer and interviewee are making eye contact. Keep it roughly in line with the center of your screen, and you should be fine.
Option 2 (still pretty easy): Buy a nice external webcam
The Logitech C920 is one of the best webcams you can get for US $50.
If you'd like to go for a model with an even sharper picture and you don't mind paying an extra $25, the Logitech C922 is your camera.
Option 3 (advanced): DSLR / Mirrorless
This section is for advanced users only! If you're unfamiliar with how to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera or you don't know what HDMI is, I'd advise going with the webcam option and skipping ahead to the "Lighting" section below!
If you're the proud owner of a mirrorless or DSLR camera, you might be able to use it as your webcam! This is likely to get you the best image possible, just as long as you're cognizant of your camera settings and focus.
First, make sure your camera can do a clean HDMI signal
For whatever reason, mirrorless cameras tend to be much better at this than DSLRs.
By default, cameras bake in a bunch of on-screen information to the HDMI signal, usually mirroring the contents of your camera's built-in display.
This is just fine if you're using an external display to monitor your camera while you're using it the regular way, but when you're using it as a webcam, that same information is gonna show up when you try to capture it.
Normally, you might be able to crop the image down to just your face, but it doesn't look like Skype supports that feature.
So, if possible, you've gotta figure out how to turn this off. This option is usually buried in the menu somewhere, if it exists at all. The option usually has a vague-sounding name, but generally seems to be something to the effect of "HDMI Info Display".
If you've looked through every menu option twice and you're pulling your hair out, you might be out of luck, and a nice webcam is likely your best option.
Now, grab yourself a capture device
Spoiler alert: these aren't cheap. If you see one that's cheap, it probably sucks or won't work with Skype. Don't say I didn't warn you!
With a handy capture device, you can transform an HDMI signal into an image you can see on your computer!
There is, however, a very important distinction between how your computer can access that image. Some devices, such as the Blackmagic Intensity series, only work with certain apps, usually the sort used by creative professionals.
To make things simple, you need a device that'll make your computer think the HDMI signal is a webcam.
My Magewell USB Capture HDMI has been bouncing around in my backpack for over two years now, and it looks fantastic and works reliably almost 100% of the time.
Once you connect your camera's HDMI output to your capture device's input, and your capture device into a USB 3.0 port on your computer, it should just show up in your list of webcams.
Lighting is almost certainly the single biggest effect you can have on the overall quality and attractiveness of your image.
And, always remember: a well-lit subject will always be taken more seriously!
This won't be your main source of light, but because it gets mixed in with all the other light sources, you'll need to consider it!
The first thing to consider is where this light is coming from.
Natural light from outside
The sun is an excellent source of light for video: it's bright, even when not hitting your face directly, and it'll bring out colors and skin tones better than just about every artificial light in existence. It's possible that you could get away with not using any lights if you've got a giant window in front of you.
It is also very unpredictable and changes constanty over the course of the day.
If you'd like to see if natural light is your friend, try previewing your webcam in Skype at several different times of the day, and preferably on a cloudy day and a sunny day.
Does the sun cast harsh shadows over everything? Does it create horrible overblown parts of your screen? Does the lighting look fine at noon and then pitch dark by 4 PM?
One possible way to rectify this is to add some sort of diffusion over your window, if it's not already available. This can be as simple as a translucent curtain, which you might already have installed! Try lowering it and seeing if it makes things softer.
If this option isn't available, and you're experiencing nothing but chaos trying to get sunlight to cooperate, you might want to close the blinds completely and use artificial light instead.
The main light source in this shot was a nearby floor-to-ceiling window. Light was mainly provided by the sky and the reflections of the sun onto nearby surfaces...
I do strongly recommend you avoid direct sunlight as your light source...
Artificial light from above
Those standard box fluorescent (or, increasingly, LED) lights on every office ceiling might feel a bit soulless, but they can make for a more-than-sufficient foundation for your lighting setup.
Other forms of ceiling light, such as small recessed cans, might make things trickier because they tend to be less bright and cast much harsher shadows because of the finer surface area of the bulb.
Can you use both?
Sure! Just make sure that the natural light and artificial light have the same color temperature.
Daylight has a very cool quality to it, compared with the warm quality of a fire, candle, or incandescent light bulb.
If you use just warm or just cool, you'll be fine; your camera will (more or less) pick it up and compensate accordingly.
But if your room is a mix of both, it might look a little unnatural. And your webcam could drift back and forth between warm and cool throughout your interview.
If you're using natural light, make sure all your other lights are cool white as well!
If you're using warm artificial light, close those blinds!
So, at this point in our adventure, we've got a solid foundation. You can see the room and your face more-or-less clearly.
But still, it looks really bland.
We gotta get that face lit!
Make sure you have enough light!
First of all, you need to have enough light in your scene. If you don't, your camera will get all choppy and grainy, as illustrated below...
The quick-and-cheap-and-dirty option is desk lamps, like what you might buy at a furniture store.
When selecting desk lamps, keep a few things in mind...
- The lampshade should be relatively large (or at least not tiny) so that the light cast onto your face is soft and forgiving.
- The lampshade should be neutral white and free of any tints or colors that would affect the light it casts.
- Make sure the lamp has space for a large bulb.
- Make sure it uses a regular medium lamp base, not some sort of special mount for proprietary bulbs.
Why those last two? Because I recommend you use photo compact fluorescent lamps such as these.
Photo CFLs generate a light that your camera will love. It's bright, is the same color as daylight, and won't flicker on camera.
Set them up on either side of your desk like so (or as close as you can get). Ideally, they'll be at least a little bit higher than your head, so that you look natural...
... and not like a villain.
If you're in it for the long-haul and you anticipate many video interviews in the future, and you don't mind keeping a small amount of video gear on your desk all (or most, but preferably all) the time, I recommend you buy some inexpensive LED lights! They match the cool daylight color well (depending on the model), they're bright (but you can dim them), and they're super cheap!
One of my favorite lights for this application (and many others) is the Yongnuo YN360.
I love this light in this situation for two main reasons...
- I can get away with using just one!
- I can dial in the color temperature exactly to match the room!
How to mount them to your desk
There are many ways to do this and, in my opinion, none of them are great. But my favorite option is to grab a few bits of grip gear (like the professionals use)!
I'll be using a super clamp and a gooseneck, much like the package for sale here. This works best, of course, if there's some part of your desk (or a nearby shelf, etc.) that you can clamp it to.
So now you've made you, the subject of the interview, look fabulous! But what should you do with what's behind you?
Keep it simple, but relevant
This is the best bit of advice I can give! You are the subject of this video, after all. The background just gives a few context clues of who you are, and then should get out of the way.
Do you have a bookshelf in the background? Medical equipment or diplomas? Perfect! Just make sure they're small enough on camera that people don't start trying to read the words printed on them.
The example below is a bit on the busy side, but I think it'd work well. Few elements in the scene are overly distracting, and it looks lived-in!
Keep it lit
You don't want to be a ghostly face in front of a field of darkness.
This is most commonly caused by face lighting that's much too bright. You don't need to turn the brightness all the way up; just bright enough that the webcam doesn't give you a grainy, choppy image.
The goal here is to strike a balance between foreground and background.
You, as the foreground and the focal point, should generally be somewhat brighter than the background. (It gets more complex than that, but that's the simplest rule of thumb.)
You should not be significantly brighter.
But what if you can't set your face lights any darker without either the background completely disappearing, or the choppiness and graininess coming back?
In this case, your room might just be too dark.
The simplest solution: buy a few floor lamps! Grab a few NOT lamps from the nearest available IKEA; they're cheap, durable, and you can even put photo CFLs inside them (which I recommend).
Laundry, clutter, a messy desk, or even more innocuous things like a novelty bobble head can pull a viewer away from the solid arguments you're making right now!
As a rule of thumb, always be the most interesting thing in the shot.
The worst bit of distraction is something moving.
It's not so bad if it's a few people walking by in the window behind you, or a plant swaying gently. But if you let your cat or your toddler anywhere close to the camera's field of view? Trust me, all eyes are now on them and this is now a video about your adorable kitty.
If you're in a shared workspace, other people can be a major distraction unless they're far in off in the distance.
Another classic gaffe is to have something appear to sprout out of the top of your head...
Now that we can see what we're doing, let's talk about the audio side. I, alongside many others, would argue that audio is the most important part of any video, especially an interview. Without sound, you're just a face!
Background noises and echo
We've all been there: you record your voice, and all you can hear is echo and a bunch of background noise. And your voice sounds so far away!
Is there a way to clean it up in software? Is there a way to do that live with Skype?
Sorta, but there's an easy first step that will make your audio much better immediately: move your microphone closer to your mouth!
I suggest trying this before you try anything else! Make a recording of your voice with a closer microphone. You may be pleased with the result.
If you're still worried about background noise that you can hear with your own ears, I'd let that recording be your guide to whether or not it's a problem for viewers on the other end.
This is a large topic unto itself, but for now, here are some pointers...
- If you get a lot of noise from outside the building (traffic, church bells, fire trucks, etc.), the easiest solution by far will be to, if possible, move to a place that's closer to the center of your house / office / building and away from the exterior walls and windows.
- If your room is still hopelessly reverberant or features a slight persistent echo in the background, you might consider applying some acoustic foam tiles to the walls, assuming your property owner won't have a fit over it.
But wait! Do you HAVE to use an external microphone? How much better will it sound than the mic built into your device (if available)?
Yes, an external mic will sound better. Observe the difference...
The Blue Yeti is a bit of a classic in this domain. If someone spends a lot of time recording their voice for a podcast or does this sort of interview often, there's a very good chance it's a Yeti.
I'm also very partial to the Samson C01U. It sounds great and is cheaper than a Yeti. This is the mic I'll be using in this demo.
Simply set it on your desk, plug it in, and keep it as close to your mouth as you can without it being a distracting element in your shot.
Another _very _underrated type of microphone, in my opinion, is a headset mic. Any sort of "gamer" headset will do just fine.
You may very well be more pleased with this option than a desk mic, even if the microphone itself is lower quality, simply because it's so close to your mouth.
It's like listening to music on headphones: the distance between the source and destination of the audio is so tiny, and the signal-to-noise ratio so high by extension, that the audio just doesn't have the chance to be affected by any outside variables!
Are you constantly beleaguered by pestering coworkers, children, spouses, or some combination thereof? Do people tend to congregate immediately outside your office and strike up a vibrant (i.e. very loud) conversation the second you begin doing test recordings?
Worry no longer! All you need is an on-air light.
It'll set you back about US $80, not including the cost of having an electrician install it.
Or, if that idea seems ridiculous, grab one of these traffic batons, write "RECORDING" on it with a silver Sharpie (optional), switch it to "flash" mode, and hang it from your outside doorknob!
Pardon the crude mockup; I seem to have misplaced my own. 😊
If your connection isn't stable, it doesn't matter how great your video looks! Nothing wrecks a live interview more than awkward freeze-frames and dropouts.
Test for stability
There are all sorts of tests you can run, but one of the simplest ways to test the stability of your connection is to do a video chat with the person who'll be interviewing you and see whether the connection remains stable for a solid five-or-so minutes.
So... what if it's not stable?
Use ethernet if possible
This is one of the easiest and most effective things you can do! Disconnect from that flaky WiFi and connect your computer straight to an ethernet jack. There is SO much less interference over a cable than there is over the air.
You might need to contact your friendly neighborhood IT folks for help with this, if that's an option.
If you have a home office, it's more-or-less as simple as running an ethernet cable from your computer to your internet router, even if you have to run the cable across the floor during each interview!
This is the sort of jack you are looking for. (They're usually clear, though.)
Leave time for prep!
The worst thing you could do at this point is assume that everything's Just Fine and now you're just waiting for the interview!
A full-scale dry run is best, ideally several days beforehand
As mentioned earlier, a practice run with your interviewee is a very good idea. You'll have a chance to develop a rapport with them, flesh out your talking points, and learn exactly what to expect. None of these are things you'll have the attention span to learn while you're live on the air!
Show up early before the interview
Ask your interviewee to give you a call about five minutes before the interview is scheduled to start. This'll give you the opportunity to make sure everything's working as intended, and if it's not, you'll have time to fix it.
This, of course, is especially important for interviews that will be broadcast or streamed live.
Allow for rescheduling in case it all goes to hell
Sometimes, everything goes horribly wrong. You catch the flu, your interviewer (or your kids or spouse or dog) catches the flu, you completely forget, some emergency comes up, one of the guests is a no-show, nothing seems to be working... just to name a few worst-case scenarios.
I recommend that at least one rain date, so to speak, always gets scheduled. And if you fall back to the rain date, schedule another one.
This level of forgiveness will greatly reduce the pressure and possibly-unrealistic expectations of needing to get it right the first time. Because we're all human*, and sometimes we don't.
*Well, except for your dog with the flu. But he's pretty darn close.
Hey, looking (and sounding) good!
By this point, you should look and sound quite amazing on camera. If you're not, there's a good chance your gut will tell you (by now!) if something's off, even if you're not quite sure what.
At a later point, I may write a guide to diagnosing common problems! But for now, if you're not sure whether you look good, invite a colleague to give their opinion!
And, perhaps most importantly of all, make sure you look good to the people interviewing you.