Virtual Backgrounds Online Can Be Cheesy, Professional & Fun
After I wrote the post Effective Green Screen Gear You Can Buy Inexpensively, many people asked me about where I get my virtual backgrounds for usage in Zoom so I’ve added links below.
I thought I’d toss up a few screenshots of me using a few of the backgrounds I’ve downloaded. While the first one in the upper left of the image above is a composite one I created in Photoshop from two others, all the rest were downloaded from free sites like these:
But it’s not just Zoom that offers virtual background capability. Many other virtual meeting software offerings are scrambling to offer virtual background capability since people love the feature. Here are links to a few popular offerings with direct links to their virtual background help pages:
Surprisingly Google Meet or Hangouts does not offer virtual backgrounds (yet).
Hopefully it will ship before my next scheduled webinar, but the $295 Blackmagic ATEM Mini will help me go to the next level. This device will enable me to input up to four HDMI inputs (like all of my good cameras) as well as HDMI out from my laptop, iPad or iPhone.
One of the best features of this device is that it will also enable me to input virtual backgrounds directly in to the switcher. So, for example, when I switch from my laptop presentation to my live camera feed on me, its output is as a “webcam” so will show me over the virtual background of my choice. In addition, every app that accepts a webcam will see me overlayed on a virtual background.
If you’re interested in the ATEM Mini (or the ‘Pro’ version) you might want to check out a few of these videos on YouTube.
BUT IT’S NOT JUST VIRTUAL BACKGROUNDS…
Don’t look or sound like you are using a computer, smartphone or tablet for the very first time when you’re in a meeting! Even if it is your first time, practice with someone beforehand and, at the very least, LOOK AT YOURSELF so you can come across well online.
These tips are the best ones I’ve found yet on YouTube, and thought you might enjoy it:
Good luck and stay safe.
Why I bought an iPhone 11 Pro Max Instead of a Camera
Admittedly I’m a technology snob. I’ve always purchased relatively good DSLR cameras, high end computers and devices, excellent microphones and sound editing gear, and have tried to find the sweet-spot of best quality vs. price.
When it comes to cameras, however, I’m always torn about taking a bag with the camera, two lenses, and a tripod with me to shoot photos. It’s too much bother and fuss, even though the images I can capture are outstanding!
A few years ago we went, as a family, to Italy. I wanted to enjoy the trip and knew that it would be hot and I would not want to carry a big bag with lenses, or even a single, big DSLR camera with one “walking around lens,” an 18-200mm one that would cover what I’d likely need on our trip.
Instead I purchased the best small travel camera on the market at the time (and arguably still the best travel camera as Sony just released version 7), the Sony RX100 M2. While the “reach” of this camera’s lense was not what I wanted, the photo quality was unbelievably good and I got some good photos on the trip.
So with upcoming trips in 2020 — and no desire to carry my big Nikon on any of them — I decided to purchase the Sony RX100 M7 which now does have a better lense, microphone input and other great features. I even had it in my Amazon cart with all of its accessories and the cart total was close to $2,200.
THE IPHONE 11 PRO MAX
Then I watched the Apple September 2019 keynote where the new iPhone 11 series was introduced and I made my decision: I would preorder the iPhone 11 Pro Max with 512GB of storage and NOT buy the Sony RX100M7.
Wait just a dang second Borsch … what!?!
For quite some time I’ve been watching the acceleration of computational photography and have realized we are at (or very close to) the tipping point where smartphones will supplant every kind of photo capture device except for truly high-end, professional cameras.
In fact, check out this paper and the video on this page about 3D rendering and creating a “Ken Burns effect” from *a single image* as it shows what’s possible computationally with photography.
One could argue we are already there, what with camera company sales down trending dramatically, according to a brilliant tech analyst and writer Om Malik. Om wrote this post about the down trending of camera sales and included this graph:
One of Om’s reasons for this decline is the acceleration in smartphone sales and the “good enough” quality of images shot on these devices. While I recoil at the thought of millions of muddy, not sharp, bad color photos being shot by hundreds of millions of us around the world, this is the future of photography whether we “prosumers” or “pros” want it or not.
Having heard this (possibly apocryphal) response by a professional photographer to a novice who had asked, “What’s the best camera I should buy?” and the pro’s response was, “The one you have with you” have made me realize how many times I’ve been somewhere when a great photo opportunity has presented itself.
Yes, this is a glib response to a legitimate question, but one thing is clear: If you don’t have your camera with you, you are unable to take any kind of photo and almost all of us have our smartphones with us all the time. I know I do.
So when I saw the computational photography capability of the new iPhone 11 Pro Max, I knew that I’d have to buy it and not buy the Sony RX100 M7.
By the way, I still often go out with my sole intention of taking photographs and schlep all of my gear with me. But now that I have tripods and a gimbal for my iPhone (and have had them for some time), now that I will be able to take better quality photographs I’ll use these accessories even more.
Food for thought…
Effective Green Screen Gear You Can Buy Inexpensively
A screenshot of me, in front of my green screen, layered over a background image
Wanted to show-off a bit with some new gear. I’ve been doing a bunch of tech-coaching for a guy I know and helping him with his website and, along with other client connections, I’ve increasingly been on webinars, online meetings, and Skype group calls. I was sick and tired of my crappy looking video, so I bought a green screen, some lights, and after a lot of goofing around to figure stuff out, it’s all up-and-running and working flawlessly.
For effective green screen video one needs good lighting and, most importantly, a high resolution camera. Unfortunately webcams don’t work (even though so many people insist they do), green-fringing is startling obvious when I’m superimposed over some image or video, so I invested a bunch of time in figuring out how to use my Nikon D500 DSLR as a very expensive webcam!
Here is my set up:
- Nikon D500 DSLR set in Live View with tweaked settings so it doesn’t automatically shut off after 10 minutes! With my lens, this is a $4,000 camera. If you do not have a good resolution camera, then a good mirrorless or DSLR model will set you back $1,000 – $3,000 or so.
- UPDATE: Here is a good 2020 post with some options on cameras that can be less expensive: The 6 Best Video Cameras for Green Screen (Chroma Key) in 2020
- LED Lighting kit = $300 (at Amazon) These LEDs are very flexible. They are bi-color variable with a temperature range of 2300K – 6800K so it is easy to warm up or cool down the color temperature of the light. It also has a brightness range of 10~100%. Pretty dang good for cheap lights!
- Soft boxes for those lights = $80 (at Amazon) I had to have diffusing for these lights as they were just a bit harsh when maxed out in brightness.
- Elgato Green Screen = $160 (at Amazon) Though I’d like one a bit wider, this is the most perfect product of its type I’ve seen yet.
- Blue Raspberry microphone = $220 I own this one since it also works with iPhone and iPad.
Though I already had the camera and microphone, for just under $600 I added good quality green screen video capability. (NOTE: In the photos below you’ll notice a RODE microphone on top of my Nikon D500. I only use that when recording video in to the camera’s storage, usually for remote set ups).
So if you are a vlogger, do numerous webinars or online meetings, or just want to record videos for YouTube, then this gear can help you get going!
The Time is Now to Cut-the-Cord and Choose Streaming
Want to cut the cord with cable TV and go streaming only? Let me tell you about my cutting-the-cord adventure and suggest what you might do if you are considering a move to streaming television, and though the time is now, there are some caveats to be aware of before you get the metaphorical scissors out and start snipping.
MY CORD-CUTTING ADVENTURE
When getting ready to sell our house in October of 2017 — we moved from Minnesota to southern California in mid-2018 — I had the following home theater gear:
- TiVo box as a tuner and DVR
- Sony BluRay player
- Pioneer A/V receiver
- Roku TV
- Bookshelf speakers.
In order to make our house look bigger and get rid of clutter, I boxed up everything but the AppleTV, bought a cheap Vizio sound bar (to replace the receiver and bookshelf speakers) and called Comcast to cut cable (which, by the way, we were paying over $100 per month for!) since we had an early version of DirecTV NOW and could stream local channels too. Comcast tried VERY hard to keep me, but I informed them that we’d sold the house and were moving to an area without Comcast…then it was no problem and they backed-off and let us do it.
I’d considered cutting-the-cord with cable TV starting in 2015, but the time was never quite right. But I continued to hunt around for the best deal and service, so when AT&T announced they were enabling AT&T Unlimited Plus mobile subscribers like us to get DirecTV NOW for $10/month and $5/month for HBO, we immediately signed up. Over time I’ve participated in beta releases as they tested out new features and have never looked back. The kicker though? AT&T just announced two new pricing and packages and are increasing the “grandfathered” subscriber’s price (like mine) to $20/month. Fortunately it still includes our favorite, HBO.
So today we only use our AppleTV….that’s it. The home theater gear mentioned above is still in boxes, nearly 10 months after we moved to California (and I’ll probably sell it). The AppleTV remote controls both the power/volume for the TV and the AppleTV itself, which makes my wife quite happy as we used to have five remotes to control everything in our old home theater.
Our minimalism approach to TV pleases us both and we’ll never go back.
After we cut the cord, we wanted to receive the programming we desired or found interesting, so today we also subscribe to Netflix; Hulu; AcornTV and CBS All Access. Our total out-of-pocket cost for our replacing of Comcast Cable (and we also receive more channels now than we did with Comcast) is:
- DirecTV NOW: $20 (we got the early adopter deal and it is now $50 per month for new subscribers)
- Netflix: $15
- Hulu: $12
- AcornTV: $5
- CBS: $10
- TOTAL: $62
Back in Minnesota we were paying about $120 for Comcast cable TV and $70 for internet (with 75mbps/down and 18mbps/up speeds — “mbps” stands for megabits per second) or $190 per month. (NOTE: We would, however, gain better pricing on our cable TV cost by going to the Comcast store every six months. They’d explore packages and get us a better deal on TV…so we were often paying $25-$40 less for TV than that $120 per month).
Here in California we are paying $62 per month for all our TV coming through DirecTV NOW, and those TV apps mentioned above, streamed to our AppleTV. We pay $90 for fiber internet with speeds of 300mbps/down and 30mbps/up for $152 per month (NOTE: my internet was only $54 per month, but I had to add an additional 500GBs per month since we were using close to the 1 terabyte ceiling of data per month!). I foresee being able to lower costs for those other TV apps as services become more robust and bundle them, so hopefully we won’t have to subscribe to a bunch of other TV-app-services forever.Read More
Journalism Is Now More Important Than Ever
We are living in a time when the President of the United States calls any news organization whose reporting he doesn’t like “fake news.” When news organizations struggle to remain relevant when the internet enables that news to travel around the planet in milliseconds. With all the options for news, few are willing to spend any money to support them.
This morning I donated $50 to The Guardian, a paper headquartered in London with a major U.S. presence in New York and is one I read almost every day. Their journalism is top-notch and they’ve revealed numerous important stories like the National Security Agency’s PRISM program and the Panama Papers.
My support has also been continual for my local paper, the Minneapolis StarTribune, but also to the phenomenal New York Times and The Washington Post, organizations that have continued to demand truth from the powerful, report on them when they go astray, and help keep us on track as a nation.
I absolutely believe that a free press is vital to our democracy and freedom. The founders of the United States of America knew how important freedom of the press was to democracy, so they made the very first amendment to the Constitution one that would protect it.
Without the press — and I’m including television and internet-based news too — who would hold accountable those who would seize power? The ones in power who seemingly delight in telling us untruths, make up their own facts, and lie to our faces like our current administration does?
It made me realize that I have to vote with my pocketbook. Think about the news organizations you read often and make a donation or subscribe. You don’t want to rely on some blog or, God forbid, what some government mouthpiece wants you to believe. You want the truth. We all need the truth.
Democracy will die without truth. Take a moment right now to choose one or two news organization and donate something to them.
Shooting Smartphone Video: A Great Solution is Available Now
I’ve been shooting iPhone X video with a $15 app called Filmic Pro using my Steadicam Volt (though with Filmic Pro’s stabilization feature, I can capture almost the same quality doing it handheld without the Steadicam). Sure wish I had this set up five years ago!
The video I can shoot with my iPhone X is absolutely stunning but, unfortunately, capturing good audio from any smartphone’s internal microphone alone sounds horrible. I have a cheap lavalier microphone but doing an interview — or setting it up so my wife can easily and quickly do one on her own with her iPhone X at trade shows — is simply too hard. One would need two lavalier mics and the gear needed to have two audio feeds going in to a single iPhone input. This is not something she can do nor I want to do.
There is good news though: Today I found an audio solution — JK Audio’s BlueDrive-F3 — and read a couple of reviews about it. Though it’s a butt-ugly adaptor, the buzz from a videographer buddy of mine is that “it just works”, has great battery life (6 hours) and has no Bluetooth-like latency so lips stay in sync with voice-audio.
I already own the best-selling mic in the world (Shure SM-58) which will work flawlessly with this device. Check out the video below, especially to hear the “with BlueDrive-F3” and “with just the iPhone internal microphone” so you’ll know the impact that good audio will make in your next iPhone video.
The BlueDrive-F3 is essentially the same price everywhere I looked ($236.55). If interested in this kind of a solution, watch the short video on the page to learn more.
- Filmic Pro = $14.99
- Steadicam Volt = $80
- JK Audio’s BlueDrive-F3 = $236.55
- Shure SM58 = $110
- Need your smartphone on a tripod so you can be in front of the camera and do the interview with someone? Joby makes a $20 tripod adapter (as do others) and here is the Joby at Best Buy.
Cord Cutting is Devastating Comcast. Will They Be Disrupted or Save Themselves?
A site I follow, Cord Cutters News, had this interesting article today about a Comcast Executive Vice President gave a warning to investors, “…that the company expects to report losses of 100,000 to 150,000 video subscribers in the third quarter 2017. That is a massive swing of subscribers because just one year ago in the third quarter of 2016 Comcast added 149,000 video subscribers.”
Comcast, and other cable companies, are being disrupted by all the online streaming TV offerings and especially DirecTV NOW. Since our family has an AT&T Unlimited Plan, we “cut the cord” with Comcast (plus we’re selling our home and downsizing anyway) and signed up for the DirecTV NOW basic service with HBO added. The total cost is a measly $15 per month.
We also ditched TiVO and their $20 per month DVR pricing so we’re saving well over $100 per month on TV. Yes, we have Netflix, Hulu and a subscription to AcornTV (we love British television) so our total outlay is higher but still under $50 per month.
How could we NOT cut the cord? Especially since DirecTV NOW will soon have a recording capability and a new user interface (sometime this Fall). Our kids are now adults but are classified as Millennials and they, especially, don’t care at all about having cable TV options. They want streaming, on-demand, and binge-watching options and neither of them care about sports options which cable TV companies basically force us all to pay for monthly.
WHY ISN’T COMCAST / XFINITY DOMINATING STREAMING?
Comcast could argue that they are in this space as they provide an Xfinity Stream app. The issue is that this app’s service pricing is not even close to being competitive to other offerings (e.g., SlingTV; DirecTV NOW) and its pricing is almost identical to an Xfinity cable TV subscription.
Those streaming TV “deals” come with the same old cable TV-like pricing games: You sign up for a “first 12 months” — for what appears to be a somewhat competitive price — only to have it jump by 50% after the “deal’s” first term ends. (e.g., in my home area of zip code 55347, a streaming TV app subscription for 140+ channels is $49.99 for the first 12 months but leaps to as much as $75 per month once the term ends AND you are locked in for that entire term).
On that deals page under the “Add to Cart” button, there is a Pricing & Other Info link. Clicking it reveals this text in the popup:
Offer ends 10/29/17. Restrictions apply. Not available in all areas. New residential customers only. Limited to Digital Starter service. 1-year minimum term agreement required. Early termination fee applies if all XFINITY services are cancelled during the agreement term. Equipment, installation, taxes and fees, including Broadcast TV Fee (up to $8/mo.), Regional Sports Fee (up to $6.50/mo.) and other applicable charges extra, and subject to change during and after the promo. After applicable promo, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular rates apply. Comcast’s monthly service charge for Digital Starter, ranges based on area, from $52.49 to $75.49 (subject to change). Service limited to a single outlet. May not be combined with other offers. Limited Basic Service subscription required to receive other levels of service. On Demand™ selections subject to charge indicated at time of purchase. Not all programming available in all areas. 30-Day Money-Back Guarantee applies to one month’s recurring service charge and standard installation up to $500. Call for restrictions and complete details. ©2017 Comcast. All rights reserved.
So you can see that it’s basically a cable TV subscription but through an app. You also cannot end your cable TV subscription and immediately subscribe through the app (New residential customers only). Also, there will be all sorts of associated fees and taxes — like the “Regional Sports Fee” whether or not you even care about sports — a fee that you do not have to pay with competing services.
My wife and I got sick-and-tired of having to go to the Comcast/Xfinity ‘store’ near our house every six months or otherwise our cable TV subscription would often jump-up by $60 or more. Numerous times over the last decade we’ve suddenly received a Comcast bill that was more than double our “reasonably priced deal” monthly subscription. We refuse to play Comcast’s game so we said goodbye a couple of months ago.
Comcast absolutely could own this streaming TV space but their streaming app subscription is virtually identical in cost to a cable TV subscription, so being competitive (and stopping their game-playing with pricing) means they would have to decimate their own TV business which they’re not likely to do.
Why would Comcast not cannibalize their own cable TV business?
Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, wrote a best-selling book called The Innovator’s Dilemma (which The Economist named as one of the six most important books about business ever written). Its premise is that successful, outstanding companies can do everything “right” and yet still lose their market leadership – or even fail – as new, unexpected competitors rise and take over the market (book at Amazon).
The reason Comcast will quite likely lose their leadership (or fail) is because they have so many contracts with TV providers they’d have to unwind, cable TV subscriptions they would lose to cord cutting, and top-line revenue they would have to replace, that it’s probable they will fail.
I, for one, will be happy to say goodbye to the cable TV gaming when it comes to their pricing models (and, hopefully soon, the cable TV company internet-service-provider monopoly, but that’s a topic for another post).
Colorspike is a Portable & Programmable LED Lightbar for Filmmakers and Still Photographers
There is a recently launched Kickstarter for a portable and programmable LED lightbar called colorspike that is pretty amazing. Whether you’re a filmmaker (or wannabee like me goofing around shooting 4K video with my Nikon D500) or a still photographer, this new gadget is sure to open up huge creative possibilities.
The few professional filmmakers I’ve been able to meet over the years have one saying they all agree on:
The crew doesn’t matter, everything off frame doesn’t matter, all that counts is what’s on screen…it’s the shot that counts.
Though there are a lot of variables in getting to that on-screen shot outcome, there is no question that achieving the perfect shot is heavily dependent upon lighting. Trying to get lighting effects like a flickering campfire, police/fire/ambulance lights, or various kinds of mood lighting is typically achieved with colored gels smeared on lights. Besides being a pain-in-the-butt to use, using gels is slow, tedious, and very creatively limiting.
If it’s the shot that counts, getting that shot might take multiple (and sometimes dozens!) of attempts to get lighting effects set just right to achieve the shot. Colorspike looks like it will definitely give us a virtually unlimited lighting effect and color palette to work with as we shoot video or stills.
If you pledge $299 you can get one and they expect to deliver in March 2018. Check out the colorspike Kickstarter page to learn a lot more and see screenshots of the app too.
Before you go, however, take a few minutes to watch the video below and you’ll likely begin to imagine what you might do with this clever tool:
Cutting the Cord is Hard
Have you considered cutting the cord? If so, get ready for A LOT of resistance and delays when you try to cancel your services!
My wife and I are downsizing from our large family home to a townhome or condo. We haven’t yet purchased a dwelling so we’re uncertain as to which cable provider we may end up with and, since it’s summer, it seemed like a good time to begin cancelling all the services we don’t need and do it now. Plus, it’s actually highly likely we may not renew a cable subscription anyway.
So let’s say you have decided to cut the cord. Cancelling is not a 5 minute per account adventure.
Not surprisingly, none of these TV provider subscriptions can be cancelled online. One must talk to a human who will do their best to try to talk you out of it and keep you as a customer. Be prepared to invest at least 45 minutes per cancellation and call earlier in the day rather than later.
- Cancelling Comcast escalated the call from a Philippine-based call center to a U.S.-based “Cancellation Office” where they gave me the third-degree on why I was cancelling. I was forceful that I just wanted to cancel (not put my subscription “on hold”) and they finally cancelled it.
- Cancelling TiVo was another story. Again it was a call center somewhere and the woman, Joyce, made multiple offers to keep my subscription alive. “We can put it on hold” or “We can offer you X months at a reduced rate” and I was having none of it. “I just want to cancel it” and it turned out Joyce was having “technical difficulties” so could not cancel the account. Fortunately, a few hours later, an email came through with a cancellation notification so that’s done.
Here’s is why it’s so hard to cancel. These legacy TV providers are losing subscribers like crazy and are obviously doing whatever they can to hold on to us:
Five of the largest U.S. pay-TV providers posted subscriber losses during the second quarter as younger viewers increasingly cut the cord and moved to “skinny bundles,” or cheaper packages with select channels, and Internet streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. (via Fortune)
CUTTING THE CORD
If you’re like us, or most people we know, the lion’s share of our TV watching is done through streaming boxes (we have an AppleTV and Roku) as well as subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu (commercial free), AcornTV and DirecTV Now (it’s only $10/month since we have an AT&T Unlimited Plus family plan and then we pay $5/month for HBO too).
Two things we considered strongly and are two things to ponder if you’re considering cutting the cord yourself:
1) There isn’t yet a streaming service that can become a cable replacement, one that includes all the major networks and channels one might want or need. For example, DirecTV Now does not yet have all of the Minneapolis/St. Paul local channels. They also do not have CBS at all. So they’re not an option…yet…but parent AT&T has announced big changes for this Fall.
Whether there is a service that hits the sweet-spot of what people need — at price-points we can stomach — is certainly in flux and there is A LOT of uncertainty about who will be that be-all, end-all provider. You can see a good comparison of the top five providers here.
2) Maybe we don’t need to worry about local channels anyway. I just ordered a Mohu antenna that, for $20, will get all the HD channels we need in the Twin Cities and is better quality than what we’ve watched on cable (over-the-air signals are uncompressed so look much better than compressed cable TV signals). For where we’re going to move to next we don’t yet know which antenna we’ll need, but for now this will work great.
Hope this helps if you, too, are considering cutting the cord.
Communicate Like a Pro
Regardless of your occupation, having great communicator skills are “table stakes” to be in the work game today. Especially if you host webinars, record screencasts, podcasts or videos, or even chat with a friend over Skype.
National Public Radio (NPR) has this very useful NPR Training website where you can learn the techniques NPR has honed over many, many decades.
As someone who has done all of the above for communicating with others, the subtleties and nuances of properly delivering what you want to get across is something easy to learn…but you do need to learn it. Too often I’ve attended webinars with the host taking the first five minutes to “um” and “hang on a second” as they futz around getting everything ready. Then they talk like they simply do not care about what they’re saying, you as an attendee, or that they’re bored out of their mind.
Come across as the real you. Not the “DJ” you or what you think you should sound or look like. This training will really help you communicate like a professional so check it out.