Use your Fancy Camera on Zoom

tl;dr: A better camera, with front facing lighting will make you look much better. A fancy camera is great, but a pain to set up. The best option for most people is to attach an HD camera to your monitor, like the ones recommended by Wirecutter.


This post will summarize how to set up your fancy DSLR or Mirrorless camera with Zoom, and it will work for most video calling or web conferencing tools. It will make you look clearer and better simulate being in person, as we all transition to working from home.

I’d also suggest getting a decent audio set up. The best option for most people is a wired USB headsets with a mic that is a consistent distance from your mouth.

Please note, this guide only covers Macs and Canon cameras. It is meant to be a companion to my Youtube video below.

Fancy camera on Zoom guide

A number of other guides recommended using the Camlink and a HDMI cable, but these were sold out, and required a ‘clean’ HDMI out feed so it’s a little more fussy from a set up perspective but easier once you have it running.

Results

Here is a screenshot of my Macbook Pro Zoom feed, the feed from the built in Camera on my LG 5K monitor, and from the Canon M50 (in that order). I took these screenshots directly from Zoom, and I hope you can see the difference between the three 🙂

Hardware

The most important thing to get right is the video and audio quality when setting up your home video conferencing kit. Quality video and audio can make interacting virtually feel more natural, and may be worth the investment if you spend lots of time on video calls and plan to work in a distributed fashion for an extended period of time.

This entire set up costs under $1,000, which is still expensive but I think worth it if you’re working from home all the time.

  1. Canon EOS M50 ($400-600): This was highly recommended by a number of blogs and Youtube channels that I follow. It seems to have very good price to value ratio and costs around $450 for the camera and the lens. I bought the ‘creator kit’ from Amazon (linked above) which was $550, and includes a Rode mic as well.
  2. Dummy Battery ($25): The dummy battery just makes it more convenient for you so you don’t have to change the battery often – each battery only gives you about 2-3 hours of video, so it’s pretty essential.
  3. USB micro to USB C cable ($10): This is how you connect your camera to your computer. You could use a standard micro USB to USB cable and a USB to USB C. Try and get a fast USB 3.0 cable as you’ll get some lag otherwise.
  4. Amazon Basic Tripod ($15) : This is a very basic tripod but does the job keeping my camera well positioned behind my monitor.
  5. [Upgrade] Sigma 16mm f/1.4 ($400): I upgraded the stock lens a Sigma 16mm f/1.4 lens which I recommend. It is a prime lens (without zoom) with a large aperture (better in low light) and a low focal length (helps blur the background). I really like this lens, and it takes really nice portrait photos as well. If you use it outside though you’ll need to get ND filters (sunglasses for your lens) as otherwise too much light gets in and your photos are overexposed.

Software

NOTE: Canon just released (May 27, 2020) a beta webcam utility that makes this whole process much easier from a software side. Here is their video to set it up – it saves on all the steps below but the software is still in beta.

The following steps below still work, but the webcam utility is easier!

You need three pieces of software to make this work and they are all open source or free:

  1. Camera Live – Camera Live is an open source tool to create a live video feed from your Camera. Download the latest Alpha (13) if you are on the most recent version of Mac OS Catalina (10.15.4 at the time of writing).
  2. Camtwist: Camtwist allows you to broadcast the live video feed from Camera Live to other tools, like Zoom via a Syphon server.
  3. Zoom: Download the latest version of Zoom. They now allow you to use virtual cameras agin so you should not have any issues.

Office Set Up

I set up the camera above my laptop screen, and don’t use my large screen while on Zoom with the fancy camera. I position the camera above the laptop screen because it keeps the camera at eye level (how a real person would look at me), and allows me the see the person I’m speaking with while making eye contact with the lens.


I hope you enjoy using your new video conferencing set up!

Setting up for Distributed Work

I work at Automattic where I lead a distributed development team. I shared a few thoughts from my first few months working at a distributed company.

Working remotely is a topical issue (March 7, 2020) given the spread of the Coronavirus, and many companies asking employees to work from home.

I will share some additional thoughts on:

1) Why distributed work is going to become even more important and mainstream.
2) Tips for setting up and running your distributed team.

Why Distributed?

The availability of high quality collaboration software combined with the availability of fast, reliable internet all over the world is making distributed work easier and more common by the day, especially for technology companies.

Many amazing technology companies in the world have set themselves up as ‘distributed first’ including Invision, Gitlab, Zapier, Basecamp, Upwork, Stripe (later) and Automattic to name a few and have grown to significant scale (1000+ employees). As companies reach significant scale and become even more global (e.g. Google and Facebook), they run more and more distributed teams collaborating towards the same goal.

Distributed work has a lot of advantages for your business; you’re able to recruit globally, your teammates have more flexible hours, working environments and mobility which ultimately expands the available talent pool and improves employee retention.

You’re also able to set up systems and institutionalized knowledge for your company that do not rely on synchronous, in person interaction which are more durable over the life of your company.

Here are a few good resources about distributed work:

Running distributed teams

If you’re thinking about setting up your company to be a distributed company, then the most important thing to do is set up your company as ‘distributed first’ from first principles. Even if you do have one or many offices you need to set up your culture and systems to make all employees feel like first class citizens no matter their location. At Automattic, we have a written creed and one of the ones I really like is ‘Communication is Oxygen‘.

Practical advice

Set of common tools and norms: Decide on your norms are for the business – this does not have to be perfect in the beginning, but write something down then iterate. For example, we don’t email each other at Automattic – Slack is for synchronous discussion, P2 (our internal blogging tool) is for long form writing and roadmapping, and Zoom is for video communication (we never have audio calls). Here is a minimum set of tools you’ll need all functions:

  • G Suite: This is a no-brainer as you get email, calendar, storage, document and spreadsheet capabilities all easily shared in your organization.
  • Long form communication/collaboration: Basecamp, Notion, and Confluence are all good workplace solutions and the first two are more opinionated wheras Confluence is a bit more flexible and connects better with external tools but needs more set up and customization. Google Docs is also an alternative.
  • Chat: Slack is the most common, and works generally well. It’s not great when you have poor internet and I’ve seen folks use WhatsApp as an alternative given the speed and reliability.
  • Meetings: If you’re going to have meetings, choose a tool like Zoom that everyone uses. For recurring meetings or 1x1s, like to add a Zoom link to the calendar invite and a synced Google Doc for that meeting to it so that notes can be taken and shared more broadly if necessary.
  • Project management: There are lots of good project management tools but I like Asana the best. Trello is great for simple boards and many engineers like GitHub Issues as it’s close to the code but works less well for non-development folks. Jira is the most customizable and robust product for complex and established workflows but requires a fair bit of set up to be useful.
  • Standup: Many teams like to do asynchronous standups. I like the following questions and a tool like Geekbot is easy to use to administer in Slack:
    • How are you feeling? Colors (R/Y/G) or Thumbs (Up, Down) to give this structure.
    • What did you do yesterday?
    • What are you doing today?
    • Where are you blocked?

Async and written: Set up your systems to be “async and written first” and have clear escalation paths to notify your colleagues if something is urgent or you are blocked. Long form, written content forces you to think and communicate clearly and exposes the gaps in your own thinking. It takes more time to write, but ultimately the trade off is worth it especially at scale.

Public by default: Many companies communicate privately or in small groups by default. In reality, most communication which is not about sensitive topics (usually people/hr) should be public, especially if it about product or priorities. Defaulting to public first allows more people across the organization to learn from each other and to dive in and get more context rapidly if they require it. There is some risk of information overload or separating out what is important from what is not, but this is something that you get better at with practice.

Quality video and audio matters: I still think synchronous communication can be important, in particular 1x1s with your direct reports, managers and close peers. When you do have synchronous meetings having quality video and audio matters. Good lighting and a decent mic does matter when having video calls. I recommend a boom headset/mic combo like this Seinheiser USB Mic, over bluetooth alternatives.

Time zones are hard: Even if you set up good systems for distributed, asynchronous work, a very large spread in time zones can be hard for building a team’s culture, feelings of isolation and unblocking colleagues. If you can set up teams with reasonable time zone overlap, it’s easier.

Onboarding guide for new employees: Invest in a written onboarding guide for new employees with a checklist they can complete themselves. Ask each new employee to improve this onboarding guide for the next person.

When being in person is better

There are times where being together is superior to working distributed and asynchronously. It’s also worth trying out virtual meetups – synchronous and distributed versions as well (time zone permitting) which can be less expensive and time consuming for everyone.

New teams / new projects: For new teams working on new projects together, it can be helpful to have some time together to kick off the project, especially if it’s a substantial investment from the company. Group conversation can spark creativity and being in person helps accelerate the process of team bonding, creating alignment and hashing out the inevitable differences between vision, personality types or different working styles. It is be great to summarize this in a co-written document of priorities and team norms and roles.

Change Management: If the company or team needs a change it can be harder / slower a distributed environment. It’s more challenging to rapidly understand and improve the energy and output of teams rapidly as some of the feedback loops from in person real time communication do not exist in the same way. It requires adapting or replacing your mental models as a manger to a distributed working style (an area I where I personally need to develop).

Building human connections: When working with people, it’s simply easier to build trust and better human connections in person. Sharing a meal or a drink and laughing with them in 3D is much more engaging than a 2D Zoom call or Slack exchange.

Personal: Working from home can lead to feelings of isolation or lack of separation of work/life. I’ve personally enjoyed spending more time with existing friends and family (and being fully present) and shutting off your work notifications (closing Slack, Email etc) in pre-set windows.

Helpful resources

There are a lot of good articles and guides out there for remote work and here are a few of my favourites:

Early thoughts on distributed work

I recently joined Automattic which is a fully distributed company. We have ~900 people (in all functions) working in ~70 countries, with no central office. We are one of the largest, if not the largest fully distributed company in the world.

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the advantages and challenges of distributed work after two months – both strategically and from a practical implementation/execution perspective.

One very important principle about Automattic is we are set up to be a distributed company and all of our internal process is designed with distributed teams as the default state. This way, folks that are remote are not ‘2nd class citizens’ but are the core of the company.

Advantages

  • Work from anywhere: Our people can live and work from wherever they want, which ultimately leads to happier employees that stick around longer.
  • Work when most productive: People can work when they feel most productive and manage energy, not time (one of my fave articles) taking into account their personal constraints (e.g. family) into their schedule. Managers, however, have a bit less flexibility.
  • Custom work environment: Some folks like others around, others prefer a quiet environment, others like to move around. At Automattic, people can set up their environment to suit their unique style which is very hard to achieve in a traditional office.
  • Everything is documented: We document everything using our internal blog system (called P2) and folks can always go back and find out the ‘why’ behind decisions. This is very powerful.

Challenges

It’s worth noting that these are currently a set of initial observations for challenges, and I’m sure there are a number of good solutions to them which I’ll be actively thinking about as part of my work at Automattic. 

  • Onboarding as a new employee: Onboarding requires getting to know the right people (and building trust), learning the right systems, and developing the right judgment to know where to focus. Doing this remotely can be a struggle.
  • Building relationships: It’s easier to build bonds with people in person. Nuance is lost over Slack and Zoom and there is no substitute for time in person together. At Automattic, we have meetups to help build relationships but it increases the amount of time and ‘deliberate-ness’ required to get to know your colleagues.
  • Finding product-market fit: In the earliest stages of finding product-market fit, iteration can be slowed down because of async, documentation heavy nature of our work especially if vision is shared among different people. This is an area where I feel there are lots of areas for opportunity to improve with more frequent synchronous interactions. 
  • Changing direction: It’s much harder to get alignment and inspire towards a different strategic direction via text and video. It’s harder to recreate ‘energy’ and velocity in a distributed environment.
  • Separating signal from noise: We are a large team (900+ people) and there is a lot of content that is created daily.I’m spending about 15%+ of my day parsing through posts and comments to figure out what I should read, participate in, or make decisions on and as a new person it can be difficult to know where to focus. More experienced distributed workers have similar issues, but they are less pronounced, which shows that this is a somewhat learned skill.
  • Time zone management: It can be difficult to run teams across different time zones but there are also opportunities to increase velocity by folks working over a 24 hr period.

Joining Automattic

Sharing some personal news: I recently joined Automattic (makers of WordPress.com, Jetpack and WooCommerce) to help build better products for our customers. I’m very grateful to Kinsey and Matt for the opportunity.

Over the last few years, I’ve explored entrepreneurial projects and also invested full-time in early stage African technology companies. Throughout the exploration process, I realized that I missed building products and my motivation for investing was the desire to learn about new businesses and to support entrepreneurs in their journey.

I joined Automattic because the company was a great fit in a number of areas that I’m passionate about:

  • Empowering entrepreneurs with world-class tools: The cost of starting technology companies has come down dramatically and access to quality tools has improved dramatically. Entrepreneurs now have access to services to allow decentralized, asynchronous product development, open-sourced products they can build on top of, cheap hosting of content, and tools that allow a deep understanding of their data. These products typically have low entry costs that scale up as the businesses grow. This allows entrepreneurs all over the world to solve problems during their early stages without a lot of access to funding and without sacrificing quality. Automattic builds products to empower entrepreneurs.
  • Distributed work: I believe that talent is roughly evenly distributed, and enabling employees to work when they feel productive and choose where they want to live will allow companies both access to better talent and improve retention of talent. I’ve seen this firsthand through investing in tech companies in Africa that have distributed engineering teams with technical architects from abroad who collaborate with local engineering teams highly effectively. Automattic is fully distributed with ~900 people working in ~70 countries – check out https://distributed.blog/ (and Matt’s podcast) if you’d like to learn more about how we work.
  • Decentralization of creators: Creators all over the world are able to express themselves and find audiences that are interested in their content. They now have the tools to express their voice and discover, grow and engage their audiences. Bloggers are the new authors, YouTubers are the new tv producers and Podcasters are the new radio hosts. Automattic builds tools for creators.
  • Mobile-first internet users: There are billions of people in emerging markets who will experience the internet primarily through their mobile device, both as creators and as consumers. It’s a fundamentally different way of experiencing the internet compared to our reference points as adults in developed markets. There is a gap in high quality tools for mobile-first entrepreneurs and a significant opportunity to build these tools from first principles. Automattic is well placed to create this mobile experience.

I’m really looking forward to building products for entrepreneurs and creators all over the world at Automattic. 

Thanks for reading 🙂