Fixing overexposure in front of window for video calls?
March 21, 2022 9:11 AM   Subscribe

For a lot of reasons I want to do my video calls over looking the nature preserve behind me. I use my MacBook Pro camera with a cheap ring light, I'm always overexposed. Videos on youtube that address this like this end up turning your room into a studio with an expensive camera, NX filters and halo lighting. I don't need to look like I'm on CNN, and I'm willing to put ~$1,000 into this.

I've been specifically asked to make sure my background looks "nice and professional like a law office," (I am not a lawyer). My background has been looking nice and "professional" but I'm tired of cleaning and making sure I didn't leave out a coke out of the shot. Also making sure people don't walk behind me is annoying. If I show my backyard which is next to a natural pond, and wildlife, etc. then I don't have to worry about all that. Fake backgrounds are not an option.

Again, I don't have to be perfect but right now my face looks like I'm an anonymous informant on 20/20. I don't have a theater or lighting background so even if I wanted to spend the money like in the attached video I wouldn't know how. I've tried using a ring light and taking the shade off a lamp and putting it close to me but it didn't work. If this just simply falls into the "hard" category and not something you can kind of hack then I'll accept that. Thanks!
posted by geoff. to Computers & Internet (8 answers total)
"MBP camera" is likely a lot of the problem here -- darn things aren't configurable, and yes, they can be absolute garbage. (There used to be a haxie for configuring them better, but I'm not sure it's still out there?)

First thing I'd do is get a decent USB camera that's adjustable (I'm happy with a mid-range Logitech) and see if that fixes it. That should be $100 or less plus a bit of futzing with the configuration tool. (I often have to turn the brightness down a bit, but then it's fine.)
posted by humbug at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

The crux of the matter is that outside is very bright, and inside is very dark. Your eyes have evolved a logarithmic response to lighting intensity to handle this. Cameras have a limited dynamic range, and compensate by changing the exposure (the amount of light falling on the lens), either by varying the length of time integrated for each frame, or by adjusting a physical aperture to add/remove light. Varying exposure allows one to shift the limited dynamic range of the camera around withinin the much larger range of possible lighting conditions.

If your camera is exposing for the bright window, your face will be underexposed/very dark. If your camera is exposing for your dimly-lit face, the view out the window will be overexposed/washed out.

You must either make outside dark, or make the inside bright.

You can make the outside dark by applying neutral density filters to the window behind you. You can do this but it will be expensive and fiddly and make the view darker all the time.

You can make the inside bright by using a lot of very bright lights (maybe those corncob lights), but this will be expensive and likely end up with lights that look like they're from a film set. Also, you will be surprised how bright it needs to be.
posted by Alterscape at 9:34 AM on March 21, 2022 [10 favorites]

Yeah, I have a $30 noname webcam that is way better than a built-in camera because you can reposition it, and you can use third-party software to really fine tune the settings. That little camera, a cheap light* and a telescoping tripod/selfie stick is what I use for doing practical craft and garden type demos.

But you can start out for free by trying to position your laptop non-perpendicular to the window - so off to the left or right of your work area 15 degrees or so - and turning to face it. That's often enough to let the camera see the light on your face. You might also try making a temporary valance curtain across the top of your window and see if that cuts enough light that the camera can see your face and the grounds behind you but not as much sky.

*I accidentally discovered that the best light is another monitor! I have four monitors on my desk, for two computers, and if I throw up a photo of a sunset on the monitor nearest my face it's like having a warm diffused lightbox pointed at me.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:34 AM on March 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with others that the MBP cameras are garbage for video calls. I don't have a camera to recommend, but anything vaguely decent will be better than the built-in camera.
posted by cgg at 9:59 AM on March 21, 2022

The camera:

First, getting a "professional" look from most Macbook Pro cameras is very difficult. The cameras stink.

If you can, try something like OBS Studio which will stream directly from your phone, which is much higher quality. Get an adjustable phone stand to place it somewhere good. (I use an old "obsolete" phone and its still much better quality than my Macbook. I place it just above the laptop screen and it's effectively in exactly the same place. An additional upside is that you can adjust the camera and position of the screen separately.)

Next: Lighting:

Seconding Alterscape: The outside is lit by the sun, indoors is lit by ... whatever you have. You need to make up the difference, and the difference is huge. Most ring lights aren't going to be up to the task. If you're willing to spend, get a couple soft light panels (like these, though this is just an example. You'll probably want at least one soft box along with. Use another AskMi question to get recommendations.) Put them either side, one higher than the other, set them to "daylight/warm" color (or your camera will freak out trying to adjust for both indoor and outdoor light and you'll look like a ghoul.)
posted by Ookseer at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2022

Get a window covering that will block a large portion of the light while still letting some through. Look up "solar screens". You can still see through them very well, but the amount of light coming through is significantly reduced. That will help solve the problem caused by it being so much brighter outside behind you than on your face.
posted by metonym at 10:55 AM on March 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Using a window as a background is super tricky because of lighting, as you have discovered. If you had some drapes or curtains, closing them during meetings seems like it would be easier (if you don't end up with some weird light peaking through--you'd probably want a blackout curtain and make sure one full panel is fully behind you). I should probably assume that you've thought of other desk configurations, but in case this helps: I also previously had a background that was my house but enough of a busy area that it became a pain to make sure it was always tidy, and sometimes my kids walked through (I didn't care, but they did). I moved my desk, and now the light is behind me and to the side, but offset by the ring light clipped to my monitor. My background is a solid wall with a bookcase that mostly doesn't change.

You said no fake backgrounds, but what about a folding physical screen or room divider? You could use this in front of the window, or just go back to whatever setup you had before where the lighting is easier. You'd need to figure out the sizing, and how close behind you it would need to be in order to cover up the space, but that seems manageable.

The easiest way to have a professional background, though, is to have a wall behind you, and put a piece of art on it. I think a folding room divider would be a bit easier than tidying things up all the time. Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 12:48 PM on March 21, 2022

Hmm, I just happened to look at a video review of this camera that is doing exactly what you are talking about (and compared to another camera which gives the completely whited-out window).

So you could look at it: Youtube video comparison.

Beyond that one particular recommendation, trying various different cameras seems to make a big difference.
posted by flug at 5:36 PM on March 25, 2022

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