How to get the best lighting on video calls

Cover image for: How to get the best lighting on video calls

So, you want better lights for your video calls? Me too. I bought a bunch of different lights and tried things I had lying around to see which lights works best when using Camo.

Unlike finding the best mount for your iPhone, which is fairly straightforward, achieving good lighting is slightly more complicated, and involves learning a little theory. I’m no lighting expert, so I reached out to photographer Gia Goodrich, who is, to help me think through how to identify what makes a good light. That's Gia giving an overview in the video below.

A good light is generally both daylight balanced and intense.

Beyond this, the sort of features you want to look for in a light depend on the purpose of the light. For something like a video call, you might want to encorporate multiple lights. You may have heard of three-point lighting. If you look at Gia's setup in her video, her three zones of lights are (1) the light that's lighting her (the key light), (2) the light that's adding a purpley-lilac hue to her background, (the fill light), and (3) the buttery yellow light of the lamp and strip light (the back light).

This is going to be a long article. To keep it from being extra-super long, I’m going to focus on finding a good key light (the light that will shine on the subject, for video calls, that's you). As such, please excuse my darker-than-ideal background in these illustrative images. Here's some more information from Gia about fill lights.

For a good key light, we're looking for something that's Soft, Angled from above, In front and Large

I asked Gia lots of other questions, so I’ll continue to include the helpful context and explanations that she provided throughout the article. For more tips on creating a good lighting setup, Gia has an extremely helpful YouTube channel dedicated to helping confused people like me to create good lighting setups, particularly for video-call specific issues, such as preventing glare from lighting when wearing glasses.

With Gia’s comments in mind, I think I have a fairly good starting point to begin to evaluate each of these lights. Practically speaking, of course, how well a light source works is just one piece of the puzzle when looking for a light that will work well for video calls, especially if you work from home. A good light in this situation needs to meet other, more practical criteria too.

To evaluate these lights I’m going to be asking myself the following questions:

  • How well does it work as a light source? Does the colour look natural and daylight balanced? Or is it washing me out, or giving me too much warmth? Is the lighting soft or harsh? Is it intense enough?

  • Is it practical to use? Is it easy to set up and turn on and off while sitting at my desk? How do I control it? Do I need to charge it? Can it overheat? Is it loud? Is it too bright, and causing me to squint?

  • Does it work with my space? Is it too big to fit practically into a home office? Are there too many cables? Can I position the light perfectly? Can I move it easily?

  • Is it cost-effective? If it’s expensive, is it justifiably so, or are there cheaper alternatives that produce a similar effect? If it’s cheap, is it likely to last for a while, or will I need to replace it soon?

I’ll give each light a score of 5 for each section.

Products tested

Setup

Here’s where I’ll be testing the different lighting options:

As you can see in these images, there are windows behind and to the right of the desk. To the right, you can see how my feed in Camo looks with this setup and no additional lighting.

There’s a lot of light in the room itself, but the position of the two windows is far from ideal. The light behind me is causing me to appear darker than the background, and the light to the side is creating unwanted shadows on my face.

My first step, therefore, is to get rid of as much of this light as possible. Of course, I could simply work with the light, by turning my desk so that I was facing one of these windows, and that would be a good source of light today. As I’m in England, a nice day like this is something of a rarity, and definitely not to be relied upon for a good lighting setup. I also need to compare these options from the same starting point, which is tough to do with natural light, as it’s going to change throughout the day. So, let’s see what these lights can do without any help.

Softbox

Scores: Softbox
Light 5
Practicality 4
Space 1
Cost effective 4

Products Used

Softboxes are used for professional sets, and offer the best (and most flattering) light of all the options I tested because of their size. The camera inside the softbox is actually quite small, but the two layers of diffusion within the box create a large, soft light that is big enough to gently wrap around whatever’s in the foreground.

The softbox provided the best source of light
The softbox provided the best source of light

I positioned the softbox directly behind my camera, and raised the light slightly higher than the camera, then angled the light down to try to create a subtle Paramount lighting effect. Parker Walbeck outlines the five most popular portrait lighting patterns in his video here.

The light produced by the softbox is truly beautiful. It’s soft and flattering, and very bright without causing me to squint. The colour can’t be adjusted, but it appears to my (amateur) eyes to be very natural, neither too warm nor too cold. The brightness can be adjusted, and I used it at 75% brightness.

There's some assembly required, but if you're familiar with the general structure of umbrellas you'll be fine. Once it's set up, you just turn it on and off using a switch at the back of the light, and it remembers your last settings. Apparently it comes with a remote, but I never found mine. It plugs into the mains, and because it’s made to be used on professional shoots, the lighting controls are at the back, so you can’t adjust the brightness from your desk. The light has a fan to prevent overheating, but it's barely loud enough to hear, and not loud enough to get picked up on most mics.

Is it a practical option? Probably not for most of us. This is a truly enormous piece of kit. My actual desk sits flush against a wall, so, save for somehow mounting a light to the ceiling and moving back from my desk for calls, it’s not something I’ll be able to use myself. But if you have the space, and want the best lighting available to you, this is it.

The softbox I used is made up of three sections: the light, the box and the stand, which, added together, cost about $300 (£220). It’s expensive for a video conferencing light, but for those who need the best light, it’s not overpriced.

USB video lights

Scores: USB video light
Light 3
Practicality 5
Space 5
Cost effective 5

Products Used

One of these lights is bright enough to fully light me, but the harsh nature of the light emphasises shine and some shadows and imperfections
One of these lights is bright enough to fully light me, but the harsh nature of the light emphasises shine and some shadows and imperfections

The light came in a pack of two, although I’m only using one here. You can connect the light to your computer via USB cable with a small set of controls that let you turn the light on and off and adjust the brightness. It’s a simple light, but the light itself looks pretty natural, and it’s really easy to use from your desk. The stand is extendable, and can be lifted pretty high up, which is handy.

While the light comes with a softening filter, the filter is so close to the light source that it’s not softening the light as effectively as the softbox. You can see that in the image above where there is increased shine on my forehead, as well as some shadows, and the harsh light is picking up some imperfections in my skin.

Some other cons: the cable isn’t super long, and it’s a bit cheaply made.

That said, for an option that costs $45 (£32) for two lights, it’s a pretty good option. It’s bright, the colour of the light is good, it’s compact, adjustable and easy to use.

Elgato key light

Scores: Elgato key light
Light 3
Practicality 3
Space 4
Cost effective 2

Products Used

The Elgato key light gave similar results to the generic desk light, but was a little more fiddly to use
The Elgato key light gave similar results to the generic desk light, but was a little more fiddly to use

Next up, I tried the streamer favourite, the Elgato key lights. While the quality of the stand itself is much better than the generic light tested above, the quality of the light is pretty comparable. The Elgato light has the same issue as the generic light tested, which is that, while it makes an effort to soften the light, as the diffusing section is so close to the light bulbs that the light is inevitably harsher than light from a softbox.

I didn’t personally enjoy the Elgato software experience, and I hoped that for the price, it would work with HomeKit, which it doesn’t. Software issues seem to be compounded when trying to switch between the two Key Lights, which is why the larger light appears warmer in the shots, I couldn’t find a way to switch the control centre to that light instead of the smaller one (I’m sure I could have fixed this with some time spent googling and trying various things, but it seemed like a bit of a slog). From a practical perspective, the much less sophisticated generic light with controls on the cable worked better. That said, the concept of being able to adjust the light level and temperature from your monitor is a good one.

The small and large Elgato lights retail for just over $100 (£100) and just under $200 (£200) respectively. I’m not sure why the slightly larger version is almost twice the price, as it doesn't seem to perform too differently.

Other things I don’t like: the cable isn’t super long, the stand is really quite clunky and hard to move around, particularly as it’s designed to be used behind monitors.

IKEA desk light

Scores: IKEA lamp
Light 2
Practicality 2
Space 3
Cost effective 5

Products Used

What if you really don’t want to buy any more things?

If you’re willing to settle for slightly worse picture quality, you can probably get away with using something you already own.

I already had this IKEA desk lamp taking up space. It’s £17 ($26.99) to buy new. Using it as is, it provided a passable image. The bulb is a little warm, but I can use Camo to lower the saturation (I could also replace the bulb with a cooler option).

I experimented with softening the light slightly using a diffuser sock (a paper lantern would have a similar effect). The softer light is less harsh, and easier to look towards than the bare lamp, but it does cut down the amount of light, and causes the iPhone to struggle to process the image.

The final result does a passable, but not great, job. This lamp (any other similar options) would probably be pretty good if used as a supplementary option when using light from a window.

Kodak ring light

Scores: Kodak ring light
Light 2
Practicality 2
Space 2
Cost effective 1

Products Used

The Kodak light was extremely annoying to use, and the light produced was only okay
The Kodak light was extremely annoying to use, and the light produced was only okay

Ring lights seem to have somehow garnered a reputation as the perfect light to use with your phone and on video calls, to the extent that, if you walk around a city like London and look through windows (if you’re the sort of person who does that), you’re about as likely to see a ring light as a bowl of fruit.

Generally speaking, though, ring lights just practically aren’t that great. Here’s Gia explaining why:

More often than not, a ring light is the wrong option

I tried out the Kodak ring light, because it’s one of the more expensive options, and it includes a mount for your phone, so it, theoretically, cuts down on desk space.

This was definitely the worst light I tested, and that’s including a >$30 light from IKEA with a warm bulb. The light just wasn’t strong enough, and while you can switch between three pre-set light colours, even the ‘neutral’ option seemed a little too warm. You can see that the image from my Camo feed isn’t as crisp as most of the other options, as the light simply isn’t throwing enough light on the scene.

From a practical standpoint, this light is infuriating. While the phone mount means you don’t need a separate mount for your phone, the legs refuse to do anything other than splay out, taking up a large amount of desk space.

WHY?!

The stand doesn’t extend very high, which isn’t too bad when you’re using it with a laptop, but using it with a larger monitor would cut off half of the light.

Verdict

Final scores
Softbox 14
USB video lights 18
Elgato key lights 12
IKEA lamp 12
Kodak ring light 7

The USB lights seem like the best option to me, when taking into account that these lights will need to be used on video calls, turned off and on and adjusted easily from a desk, and not take up too much space.

Additional lights

Products Used

Okay, so I said I wasn't going to go into anything other than the key light, but I've got a bunch of other lights hanging around that won't work well as key lights, so here's a quick and dirty look at using other lights elsewhere to create a more interesting lighting setup for video calls.

Once you've got your key light figured out, you can more on to look at adding more layers of light.

While my scene is okay, it's a bit boring. There's also the issue that my orangish hair isn't too distinct from the orangish bricks, and there's a lot of cream colour in the shot. I used some hue play lights and a strip light to add more orange to the bricks behind me, and place a pink light almost completely behind me so it gave just a bit of pink to my left hand side. Hue lights are really easy to control and adjust from your phone, and I set up this scene in a couple of minutes.

With a bit more time, you could think a little more critically about where you might want to place lights, and why. I'm just messing around with lights here, but ideally, each layer of light you add should serve some sort of purpose, for example, you might want to create more of a distinction between yourself and the background (as Gia has done in her videos by using a contrasting colour behind her), add some visual interest to your scene, or take away further shadows from your face.

If you'd like us to look at any other lights, or if you've got any other tips to help me get a better lighting setup, let me know in the comments below (or Tweet us @reincubate)

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